The film narrates a story of one family from the Nakba – the Palestinian name for the establishment of Israel in 1948 – to the present. This is not your typical “Arab-Israeli Conflict” film. It focuses on poetics and aesthetics, the camera movement and narrative are not means to deliver a message but an end of itself. And through this subtle, gentle and poetic narrative, one learns the story of Suleiman’s family within the history of what is called “Arab Israelis” (the Palestinian citizens of Israel) community.
See the Guardian review here.
Are there a-historical works of culture?
In his interviews Elia Suleiman emphasized that he wasn’t trying to make a movie about a conflict. He aimed, he said, for a universal human story, which could be understood by people anywhere in the world. If you want to know about the conflict, he said, go to the library and read some books, the aim of this film is different.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this assertion, especially after seeing the film. It is indeed very different from the standard depictions of this topic. While being overwhelmed by its beauty, humanity, tenderness and intimacy, I was constantly aware how everything this film shows was created, dictated, and influenced by the Israeli conquest. And despite, or maybe because of aesthetic and poetic emphasis of the film, it strongly emphasized the situation of colonial oppression under which Palestinian citizens of Israel live.
I am questioning Suleiman’s assertion that this film is not about the conflict. How could it not be? All personal is political, we learned from post-modern culture critics. And the personal becomes even more political when it is shaped by the troubled history of Arab-Israeli relations. Every cultural product, and film especially, is firmly located in the cultural, historical and political context in which it was created. Culture can be examined from a different perspective, but it cannot simply be a-historical. With all do respect to Suleiman’s intention, you cannot just wish away the historical/political context and reading of your work. Even if, in some distant bright future, the Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved, and all oppression will end, this film will still maintain its strong historical roots. Yes, it will remain a gentle film about human dimensions of one family, but it will also be a film about the history of oppression. Like soviet dissident art, or protest culture of the 1960s, the work of art won’t lose its political or historical dimensions, simply because the context that produced it in a first place has changed.
Shame and sorrow
The strongest feelings that accompanied me throughout the film were shame and sorrow.
Shame – because the slightly humorous and ridiculing depictions of the Israeli army and later, the state, were perhaps the strongest indictment of the Israeli conquest I have ever seen on the screen. And their impact was much more powerful than any heart-tearing scene gushing with depictions of violence and human depravation. The power of this film is in its subtlety.
Sorrow – because the film was the most potent reminder that Israelis and Palestinians are disagreeing on the very heart of the matter: 1948. Even if we hate how the army and the administration conducted themselves in the establishment of the state and even if we wholeheartedly condemn their subsequent policies toward the Arab citizens, for us – the establishment of Israel was a good thing. For them – it was the ultimate tragedy, the break of community, culture, family, expropriation and a loss of everything that was important. Even those who made it, despite the obstacles erected before them by the apartheid, and let alone, see 1948 as an occurrence of irreparable damage, irrevocable tragedy. And even if, in that distant bright future, there will be peace, two states for two nations, and ultimate cessation of oppression and violence, 1948 will still remain the greatest tragedy. We, the Jews, will remain the thieves who chased the Palestinians out of their safe heavens; the conquerors and the oppressors.
And on that basic point – what happened in 1948? – we will forever disagree. Each side could understand how the other side sees it. Each side could admit that the other’s viewpoint is absolutely valid. Each side can develop a nuanced and sophisticated position. But none will change the essential conception of 1948. Will this essential difference spell doom on the future of these two nations on this tiny bit of land?
The conflict is inside me
After the movie ended we came up to Elia Suleiman to thank him for the film. I was excited and cleansed. Feeling a sort of moral confirmation: “Yes, I am an Israeli, and I especially came to watch that film; and thought it was wonderful and just. I am capable of seeing a critique of my nation and my country, and agreeing with it. I think more films like that should be made. Yes, I am absolutely entitled to my place among left-wing-academic-liberals.” And I address him in Hebrew. And he answers me in English. And it takes me a few more sentences until it dawns on me that it is not that he doesn’t know Hebrew. He doesn’t want to hear it or speak it!
So I was walking out of there absolutely ashamed of my thinking and myself. Why address him in Hebrew? Because in my colonial conqueror’s mindset it had never occurred to me that hearing my language, is unpleasant for him; that my language is the language of the conquest, of his family’s dispossession, of his personal dislocation and trauma. And what business do I have bringing this dreadful language into the wonderful far away setting of London, Thames south bank, Tate Modern, happy and friendly people, away from the army, the police, and the daily oppression, subtle or open, he experiences there?
I am ridden with guilt and shame, for not thinking it through. For assuming he might be pleased that an Israeli showed up at his film, and liked it. For thinking within this old colonial pattern, that he, the conquered, requires some positive affirmation from me, the conqueror upon criticizing me for the atrocities I’ve brought upon him. The very same feelings inform all expressions of patriarchal condescension and “benevolent colonialism”. I should have known better. Was I the only one whose subconscious dictated that kind of approach? Or am I sharing it with other left-wing Israeli critics who praised the film? Do we all derive a secret pleasure and affirmation of our liberalism from embracing the critique launched against us by the people whom we oppressed?