Tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Conversations at the Edge (CATE) hosted “We Began By Measuring Distance,” a series of experimental films by Palestinian women curated by Tirtza Even. Six films were screened, beginning with “Pomegranate” by Jumana Emil Abboud. It was a three minute color film of a hand pressing pomegranate seeds into the inside of an empty pomegranate held in the person’s other hand. The protagonist lodged the seeds into clearly demarcated indentations of where the seeds once belonged. Symbolizing the Palestinian Right of Return to their homeland, s/he would press hard on some of the seeds implanting them back into the pomegranate shell, fixing them back into their original home. When a seed popped out, refusing to embed itself in a particular area, s/he would pick it up and insert it in another area of its home. Unfortunately, in most cases, justice never comes about without violence along the way, without bloodshed. As the protagonist forced the seeds back into their original habitation, some of the seeds would gush their juice, reddish-purple liquid squirting all over the pomegranate. The pomegranate is commonly cultivated in Palestine and I thought it was interesting to use such a fruit as a map symbolizing the territorial nature of the colonization of Palestine, the violence in the struggle for justice, and the Right of Return, stating that Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in 1948 and 1967 should be allowed to return, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
Following “Pomegranate” was a film by Basma Alsharif entitled “We Began By Measuring Distance” (the event took its name from this film). The film begins by speaking of boredom—”the worst of all evils”—the boredom one experiences after a place has been destroyed and one doesn’t really have anything to do. Because of boredom, the characters decided to play a game of measuring. They measured the size of various objects and even measured measurements. Two people stood between two trees holding up a white sheet in some way signifying a measuring tape and a projection screen. They began to measure the distance between places:
We measured the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem: 78km
We measured the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem: 67
We measured the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem: 48
We measured the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem: 17
We measured the distance between Palestine and Israel: Rome was not built in a day.
The numbers are reminders of the prominent years for the plight of the Palestinians. 1917 is the year of the Balfour Declaration, explicitly stating the promise to create a Jewish state within Palestine. 1948 is referred to by Palestinians as al-Nakba, The Catastrophe, otherwise known to Israelis as their Independence day. Over 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed and depopulated, leaving so many Palestinians dead and three-quarters of a million Palestinians refugees. 1967 is the year of the Six-Day War in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip declaring the whole state of Palestine under Israeli rule. These years are recognizable and are very unforgettable.
The film transitions into a juxtaposition of various images and music. Jelly fish and bombs, fish and women running were among the scenes contrasting one another. Sea life was placed next to video clips of bombs and white phosphorous falling over Gaza during the Gaza Massacre in 2008-2009. Accompanying these scenes was disturbingly positive music. I didn’t know how to feel. I have seen the exact same video clips of Gaza so many times and seeing them with the very music playing was a little bit unsettling, yet playing off the desensitization that we experience when we constantly see footage day after day of a place experiencing war and occupation and embroiled in violence. It ends with a woman in a look of shock and sadness, screaming voices of agony and Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Fortune Teller.”
Another one of Basma Alsharif’s films was screened, entitled “The Story of Milk and Honey.” The film seemed to take on a first person point of view of the filmmaker and her process of working, which is to collect all types of different information and somehow find use for it all later. It was humorous and enjoyable, and it also was telling of the absurdity and length of the Occupation. She juxtaposes love, with random people on the beach, with information about images and places, and finds that the strangeness of all of this actually represents the Land of Milk and Honey: Palestine. It does.
Next was Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance” where she reads letters that her mother has sent to her while showing images of her mother’s naked body in the shower placed under arabic script. The only thing I would like to point out from this film is something Mona’s mother had said, “Being born in exile in a country that does not want you is no fun at all.” The feeling of fragmentation is embedded within such a person’s identity.
Annemarie Jacir’s “Like Twenty Impossibles”
was also screened tonight. Annemarie and her friends are trying to make a film, but they must go through a flying checkpoint in order to get to their desired location: Jerusalem. The Israeli soldiers take them out of the car, tell them to stop filming, take their IDs, tells one of them he needs to pay a large fine because he has an Israeli ID and is in the West Bank (even though he is Palestinian), and one of them is about to be arrested because of some “crime” he committed. I enjoyed this film because it was hard to tell whether the characters were acting or if the situation was real simply because the absurdity of this situation actually happens in Palestine. What made me realize that the characters are actors is when one of the Israeli soldiers asks where Annemarie lives and she says “New York,” and he laughs and says that he is from Miami. It was bad acting, and funny, and I think it was meant to be this way to overemphasize the absurd and illogical laws of “return”: Jews can “return” from all of the world to a land they or their family have never seen, and Palestinians can’t actually return to the place that they are from. After the film ends, the rolling credits include an excerpt of Tawfik Zayyad’s poem “We Shall Return”:
It is a thousand times easier for you
To pass an elephant through the needle’s eye.
To catch fried fish in the Milky Way…
A thousand times easier
Than smoldering with your oppression
The spark of an idea
Like twenty impossibles
We shall remain.
After the screening, we had a Q&A/discussion session with Basma and the question was raised about whether the fact that all the films were made by women influenced the reading of the films. Some people felt it did, some didn’t understand the relevance of such a question. For me, gender isn’t something that I think about when I look at work made from Palestine unless the central theme is gender. While many in the West have the view that all Arab countries are the same and that women’s voices are completely silent in all of them, this is not true for Palestine. While yes, some Palestinian women are looked down upon by men for being an individual and pursuing the very things they want such as music or race car driving, this is something that should be dealt with within the community. Why is this relevant to the West? The West has its own inequalities to focus on, but would rather ignore it and shift the public’s focus to another region. In the West, and more specifically the United States, it doesn’t matter if you are a Palestinian man or a Palestinian woman, your voice is silenced. Women have been a large part of the Palestinian struggle since the beginning and both men and women suffer the effects of the occupation and oppression by Israel, albeit in some different ways. The common thread throughout these films is not merely gender, but the baggage of displacement, exile, and the wait to return.