Visions of Palestine: Shorts from the 10th Boston Palestine Film Festival / by EMW Bookstore

On October 29-30, the Boston Palestine Film Festival’s 10th Season wrapped up with three striking programs of shorts.  From documentaries on Gaza, to dramas depicting refugee displacement, to sci-fi portrayals of Palestinian futurity, these shorts probe the question of Palestine from a variety of angles, affecting the viewer on multiple registers: ethical, political, intellectual, emotional, philosophical, artistic.  The films make claims to a shared humanity, inviting its New England-based audience to empathize with the Palestinian and/or refugee figure, as well as highlight irreducible difference, cautioning against universalizing identifications.  In the words of the refugee protagonist of “The Way Home” to the well-meaning yet ultimately unhelpful Swedish immigration lawyer: “You don’t know me!  You can’t know what I’ve been through!”  These shorts challenge their viewers to watch and listen with deference and respect to a diversity of Palestinian visions and voices.

Program 1: "Short Stories from Palestine"

Highlights from the first program, “Short Stories from Palestine,” include “One Day in July”—a chilling two-minute animation made in honor of four children killed as they played on Gaza Beach on July 16, 2014—as well as “I Say Dust”—a beautiful portrait of two Arab American women who find love around the contours of a spoken word poem about Palestine.  The program concluded with “Tawfiq’s Reef,” a short documentary depicting the challenges faced by Palestinian fisherman in Gaza, who are harassed, imprisoned, and even killed by Israeli Navy soldiers policing the ocean waters.  What is so striking about this footage is not only the content itself, but the very difficulty of sharing this footage with the outside world.  After the program, Anas Hamra—the Palestinian filmmaker who collaborated with Roger Hill to make this documentary—talked about the challenges of working as a filmmaker and journalist in Gaza.  Hamra has countless stories of being detained, even by his own government, and asked to erase footage from his camera.  Even holding a camera in Gaza is a potentially fatal risk in itself. Sometimes Israeli drones mistake camera tripods for weapons, and shoot.  

Then there is the problem of mobility.  In order to film in the West Bank, a Palestinian in Gaza must wait two to three months to get an Israeli permit, and even if granted permission, they cannot always bring their own camera back and forth between the occupied territories.  On the Egyptian side, officials suspect Palestinians with cameras as spies.  Even if they do succeed in completing a film, they then need to figure out how to safely travel to present their work.  Hamra didn’t know until the last minute whether or not he’d be able to attend this film festival.  Between risking ISIS crossfire at the Rafa border crossing and suffering detainment in Germany, it took Hamra three days to travel from Gaza to Boston.  Others who hope to get in and out of Gaza resort to bribing Egyptian guards $8,000-10,000 or braving the underground network of tunnels.  

Israel maintains hegemony by controlling media representations of occupied Palestine; Palestinian filmmakers resist by sharing their truths with the world.

 Still from "In The Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain" (2016)

Still from "In The Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain" (2016)

Program 2: "Far From Home: Refugee Stories"

While the second program, “Far From Home: Refugee Stories,” focused on the present-day plight of both internally displaced refugees as well as asylum seekers in Europe, the last set of closing films—Larissa Sansour’s sci-fi trilogy—projected Palestine into the future, countering fictions of a settler colonial eradication of Palestine.  Rather than present easy answers to a complicated conflict, these videos ponder and problematize visions of a future Palestinian nation-state.  As an artist who presents primarily in museum spaces, Sansour offers a thought-provoking aesthetic open to multiple interpretations, rather than a didactic and formal one.  I read these videos as cautionary tales against a politics of resistance that reproduces rather than undermines exclusionary claims to the land.

The first video, “A Space Exodus,” presents a Palestinian rendering of Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey, complete with a Palestinian flag and an arabesque futuristic soundtrack.  The move from “odyssey” to “exodus” first highlights the historical specificity of Palestinian displacement: while Kubrick’s protagonist can travel to space in the name of exploration (both scientific and otherwise), reminiscent of the white settler figure, Sansour’s protagonist, identified as herself, does so out of necessity: since there is no land for Palestine on Earth, she must travel to space.  Parodying Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, the film highlights the discrepancy between Armstrong’s territorial claim—the planting of an American flag on the moon’s surface—and his universalist rhetoric: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  The film instead replaces “man” with “Palestinians,” in turn positing the importance of Palestinian decolonization for not only Palestinians, but also a larger ethical vision of “mankind.”

Reminiscent of Armstrong’s famous act, Sansour plants a Palestinian flag on the moon.  Yet the video also challenges an interpretation of this territorial claim as an unproblematic victory for Palestine.  Rather than providing a sought-after sense of home and belonging, this territorial claim actually leads to untethered wandering.  In the last scene, Sansour tries to communicate back to her home base, calling twice “Jerusalem? Jerusalem?" as she drifts off into the star-studded space and is swallowed by the darkness.  The scene elicits the audience’s laughter, but it also provokes political reflection: will exclusionary territorial claims lead to Palestinian place-making, or merely a reproduction of Israel’s occupation but in reverse?

The second video, “Nation Estate,” depicts a dystopic, vertical solution to the problem of Palestinian statehood given the ever-shrinking territories attributed to occupied Palestine: a single skyscraper, with a different floor attributed to each Palestinian city and landmark—Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, the Dead Sea—amenity—Permits and Passports, Schools and Universities, Heritage Museum, Hospitals, Olive Grove, Wildlife Reserve—and well-meaning yet ineffective international NGO.  This title most explicitly parodies and challenges the vision of a “nation-state,” begging the question of what is sacrificed for a political vision that emphasizes nation-state sovereignty above all else.

The last piece in the trilogy, “In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain,” is structured as a conversation between a psychologist and a “narrative terrorist” motivated by the murder of her sister.  Taking archeology as a site of political resistance, the narrative terrorist explains (in Palestinian Arabic with English subtitles): “We are depositing facts in the ground for future archaeologists to excavate.  These facts will confirm the existence of this people we are positing.”  Using futuristic cargo planes that drop bomb shells filled with the finest porcelain, which are altered via a complex oxidation process to appear older than they really are to dating technologies, this narrative resistance group seeks to manipulate history to support future claims to their vanishing lands.  In essence, they create a nation and plant evidence to substantiate the myth.

Neither Israel nor Palestine is explicitly named in the video, though the social commentary is clear: Israel selectively interprets archeology to evidence a Jewish claim to the land and justify Palestinian dispossession.  In response, the video envisions Palestinian resistance as the subversive construction of a counter-narrative: a planting of their own archeological fictions.  By parodying Israel’s myth-making practices, the video draws attention to how colonial powers manipulate history to justify their hegemony.  Yet the video is more thought-provoking than didactic: rather than embracing this narrative terrorism as being entirely unproblematic, the video questions the ethics and efficacy of “dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools.”

Sansour’s videos beg the question: are we so caught up in a political vision of nation-state sovereignty for Palestine that we become blind to the exclusions and injustices perpetrated by a nation-state order?  Can we envision decolonization and Palestinian futurity in other political registers?  The videos provide provocations rather than easy answers, gesturing to the role of art for political resistance.  Sansour, for example, materializes the narrative terrorism envisioned in “In the Future” in her Archeology in Absentia project: she buries ten deposits of porcelain plates with the iconic keffiyeh pattern throughout Palestine/Israel, and then prints the longitude and latitude coordinates of each deposit on a disc inside ten different 20cm bronze munition replicas of Cold War Russian nuclear bombs.  These bronze sculptures are then displayed in a museum.  Sci-fi visions thus can have a material referent.

Palestinian decolonization can take many forms; these videos and art project challenge the viewer to question intellectual hegemonies that may narrow our visions of political resistance.  By envisioning alternative futures, sci-fi has the power to expand our political horizons.

-Curated by Evyn Lê Espiritu