Palestinian Cinema and the Lived Experience of Occupation
“One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.”
– J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
The world is falling apart in Gaza. There is nothing more banal than that statement. There is also nothing truer. “Operation Protective Edge” has claimed close to 2,000 lives in its month long bombardment of Gaza.
As a prelude to this, over the summer, I caught a special screening of Hany Abu-Assad’s film,” Omar,” at the Broadway Cinematheque theater in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. Omar won the Jury Prize at Cannes (2013) and was nominated for an Oscar in the category “Best Foreign Language Film.” It is Abu-Assad’s third Palestinian feature, his first being “Rana’s Wedding” (2002), and second being “Paradise Now” (2005). He also directed an unforgettable American film, “The Courier,” in 2012.
“Omar” bristles with a manic energy interspersed with moments of delayed pleasure. Its portrayal of a normal life constructed inside the occupation is realistic and heart-wrenching. Adam Bakri’s Omar is a baker, a lover, and a freedom fighter. He maneuvers through these roles with stealth and ease, enough to make us believe that this is what everyday life is like in the West Bank. In between torture scenes and closely edited chase sequences, which are shot in narrow alleyways with elevated audio levels that effectively transport us into the moment depicted, are romantic scenes between Omar and Nadia, his school-going sweetheart and the younger sister of his friend Tareq. Some of these scenes have been shot almost head-on, making the characters speak directly to us as the audience. It is here that we begin to fall in love with the lovers, with their shy smiles, sparkling eyes, and direct gazes, and their lips pursing to form soft seductive words to one another.
We enter this world in which Omar, Tareq, Nadia, and their friends and families live: this world where in order to visit his sweetheart, Omar has to climb the separation wall and risk getting shot at by IDF soldiers. The film begins with him scaling the wall to go visit Tareq; he misses a bullet and scrambles down the other side, cutting the palms of his hands open on the rope as he slides down, then hits the ground and races off the road into the networked safety of alleys and densely packed houses, escaping detection. Once in the safety of Tareq and Nadia’s home, the men joke around.
“How did you get here?”
“I took the noon flight. The morning one was full… Over the Qalandiya wall.”
“Business or coach?”
“Coach, it was killing me!”
“Why didn’t you use the El Ram wall?”
It seems that the only way to resist and keep living is to inject humor into the occupation, to make jokes wherever possible and to laugh. But despite the constant jokes and facetious remarks passed around by the characters, there don’t seem to be many opportunities to laugh. Their world does not make sense; it is a world at war. The film powerfully and sensitively depicts the contours of their dual world, which comprises the one in which they live, and the one they hope to build, or escape to.
This is why it is so important to watch Palestinian cinema: in order to learn and to understand what everyday living and everyday rituals look and feel like under occupation. Gaza was brutally bombed in 2009 by the Israeli Operation Cast Lead, and the world watched, and people protested, and nothing changed. Now, four and a half years later, Gaza is again being blown apart by Israel, and people are protesting, and this time, the call for BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) seems more widespread — but nothing much has changed on the ground. In fact, the situation deteriorates, and on August 4, US President Barack Obama added $225 million to the annual $3.5 billion in aid to Israel.
What happens when the world is not conscious of the horrors of war and occupation? What does endless occupation really do to a people? It kills their hopes and dreams, destroys their souls, and makes them desperate, hungry, and wretched. It erodes trust within a society and everyone becomes suspect, becomes capable of betrayal and deceit. It robs people of their right to live.
What happened in those four and half long years of months and weeks and days of occupation? Each day lived by Palestinians under Israeli occupation does not make headlines, does not get written about, or talked about. It remains largely ignored and forgotten. When it gets especially bad, global media begin to notice. Only when close to 300 Palestinian children have lost their lives do we begin to pay closer attention to Gaza.
Omar deals with the issue of collaborators and the demise of trust in Palestinian society. After Omar is captured by the IDF (following a covert operation in which he and his friends manage to kill an Israeli officer), and a testimonial confession is recorded by a spy posing to be a fellow inmate, Omar faces a minimum of 90 years in jail. “Is there anything that can be done?” he asks his lawyer in jail.
“As long as the occupation continues, nothing,” she replies, shaking her head.
Summer is now almost over and Gaza once again slides into obscurity, but there are tens of thousands that remain homeless. Even before this last brutal operation, there was a housing deficit, which has only been compounded now with even more destruction. UNRWA reports from August 31 confirm that 58,071 people continue to live in 36 UN schools across the coastal enclave. It is important that we turn our immediate attention towards rehabilitation for those who have survived this onslaught of violence and terror, and yet we must not cease in our efforts to battle the occupation that makes this possible.
It is not enough that we wait for another genocide to happen. The occupation is unyielding, it does not halt, and it does not wait. It has been sixty-six years, and we are still counting. It continues to tear down Palestinian homes and people and is relentless in its cruelty. It is now, and it is every day. Films like Omar, alongside Five Broken Cameras, Divine Intervention, The Gatekeepers, and Salt of this Sea, to name a few, draw us into the heart of the occupation, and reveal it for what it is. If cinema teaches us about the world and about people, in accordance with their desires and how they see themselves, then we must begin to see Palestinian cinema.