Women in Palestinian Cinema: From the Cinema of the Revolution to Contemporary Cinema
Updated: Jan 9
Written by Areeb Zuaiter for TOPLINE and originally published August 2019.
When taking a close look at how women developed within that cinema, they stand out as unique. Their narrative is very much affected by the unusual political circumstances. Morphing alongside the evolvement of their own cinema, their position had significantly changed both in front and behind the camera.
Cinema of the Revolution
"Each time I smelI the scent of the earth as I lie on it, I feel as if I am smelling my wife's hair after a cold bath" - "The Dupes", a 1972 adaptation by Toufic Saleh of Ghassan Kanafani's novel "Men in the Sun': Because culture mirrors its people's conditions, it is only natural that the cultural resistance has been an inseparable part of the Palestinian struggle. By the mid-60s, the evolving political situation and the instability affiliated with the cause led the Palestinian resistance groups to move from Jordan to Lebanon. By that time, and due to the relative maturity of the domain in Lebanon, those groups found a fertile platform to start producing films. In fact, documentaries were their first avenue into the big screen. Classified under a form of resistance, those documentaries were mainly focused on portraying the life of Palestinians in the refugee camps. That period of Palestinian cinema was, consequently, painted by the exilic nature of its people. And thus, the need for romanticizing the land, telling the plight, the wants, the needs and the narrative of the Nakba and its aftermath, started.
In all of its forms, the Palestinian narrative sought to form a bilateral bond between the woman and the romantic image of a hometown; narrowing down her capacity by only associating her with maternity, beauty and nature: the sky, the tree and above all the land.
The films of that phase highlighted an audiovisual strong connection between the yearned-for homeland and the desired nature of a woman. Besides the exaggerated sentimental image of the Palestinian woman, she looked alike in the various, but very limited, roles she played. Her presence was two dimensional; not to say artificial. Her dialogue was more like a monologue; a speech that kept a distance between her as a human being and the viewer. There were no narratives that would humanize her nor shape her character. All her film narratives channeled into the concept of female martyrdom that has been imposed upon her by a dominating entity, mostly affiliated with resistance and revolution, like that of the Fida'i (militant commando).
Apart from the political speech, this was clearly evident in the Palestinian painting, poem, novel, and latterly, in film. Therefore, women in the Palestinian Cinema of the Revolution, were largely identical. They only played roles that associated them with a male patriarchal figure. Their image was very much knotted with that of labor. Simply, there was a very narrow to no female identity in the Palestinian screenplay.
New Wave Palestinian Cinema
A young, audacious, Palestinian woman comes up to the Palestinian soldier asking, "Is that your girlfriend?" She gives an ill-disciplined giggle. "We take care of our soldiers," the soldier replies. "If you want to dance, you should take off the military suit." She says - "The Wedding in Galilee", by Michel Khleifi, 1987.
In New Wave Cinema, cinema that is still universally enjoyed until our day, the cinematic language started taking shape, echoed by the development of the woman characters. She started having a three-dimensional personality that is credible and likable. Women were finally liberated from the seemingly perfect frame entrapping them. They were finally represented as human beings. The depicted cliched treatment of the female in the Palestinian cinema started changing.
With "Fertile Memory'; the 1980 debut film of Michel Khleifi, recognized as the pioneer of the era, the Palestinian Cinema took a sharp turn. The film digs deep into the quotidian lives of two Palestinian women who could not be more different. They belonged to two different worlds, two different religions and two different generations. They had extremely dissimilar missions and aspirations. With this, Khleifi dismantled the woman's unified identity and took
her from the traditional carbon-copied female of the Cinema of the Revolution to the diverse female of the Palestinian New Wave Cinema. Allowing the viewers to experience the various layers of living in Palestine through the point of view of the two women was significant if not revolutionary. In Khleifi's" Wedding in Galilee"( 1986), another pivotal angle was presented,
which added to the layers of the woman's representation in cinema. Although the film conveys certain analogies in its narrative, these analogies are used to fortify the position of the woman. The impotence of the groom, for instance, has been used to convey the impotence of the independent political power in the village and the acquiescence to the military ruler. The women's presence, as a matter of fact, portrayed the sarcasm towards males' impotence and failure when dealing with military rule.
Khleife's films planted the seeds for this tangible transformation. Films by auteurs like Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu Assad, Rashid Masharwi and Mai Masri fortified the move towards a cinema away from sloganeering and from the direct immediate message. The female is seen as an entity who is resilient in her own land without being too preachy or too artificial.
Contemporary Palestinian Cinema
The contemporary Palestinian cinema still holds on to the aesthetics and natural structure commenced by the new wave. The authenticity of the woman on the Palestinian screen took an advanced level of credibility. In today's Palestinian films, the woman has taken her case into her own hands, stepped forward and told her own story. The cultural liberation movement that was initiated in the 1980s was trailed by filmmakers like Annemarie Jacir, Najwa Najjar and Suha Arraf, who joined Mai Masri in telling the female narrative. Those filmmakers have lately taken an extra step forward by telling the Palestinian male's story in their narratives; which brings the contemporary Palestinian cinema into a balanced phase of maturity. It has ultimately gotten to a point where it is able to reunite the various layers of a scattered nation whose various fragments can hardly be put together.
[TOPLINE, Issue 4, August 2019]