by Biya Shadab

On Friday, 13 November, 2020, Bertha DocHouse and the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) co-presented the Palestinian documentary Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), an ideal introduction to the beautiful, meticulous works of Mai Masri, one of Palestine’s most distinguished filmmakers.

This screening marked the launch of a book on Mai Masri and her films by Victoria Brittain. The screening was followed by a Q&A and discussion between Masri, Brittain and Birkbeck’s Marina Warner.

This documentary was shot over nine months and weaves together momentous events in the lives of two groups of Palestinian children – one in Beirut’s Shatila camp and the other a camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. The centrepiece of Frontiers of Dreams and Fears is the shock withdrawal of the Israeli army over the Lebanese border in 2000 after its 22-year occupation of South Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinians converged on the border from both sides during this unique one-week window of opportunity. Mai and her friends managed the extraordinary logistical feat of getting a busload of children from both sides to the previously forbidden border area to meet each other through the barbed wire.

The film captures the children’s exuberance and excitement, as they live out “the best day of our life”. Intimate, tender scenes give a rare insight into these Palestinian teenagers’ imagination, and the pain and loss felt by older generations.

Victoria Brittain is a journalist and writer. She has spent much of her working life in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, writing for The Guardian and various French magazines. Brittain’s book Love and Resistance in the Films of Mai Masri is the first book-length study of Mai Masri, one of the world’s most well-known Arab women filmmakers and includes previously unpublished primary documents representing a wide breadth of Masri’s work.

This book covers Masri’s three decades documenting iconic moments of Palestinian and Lebanese linked history. Her films, unique for giving agency to her subjects, tell much about the untold, unseen people, namely women and children, who lived these experiences of war and occupation. Discussed during the Q&A, amongst other things were Masri’s method for gaining the trust of her subjects, all non-actors and of the lifelong relationships she cultivates with them as a result of this process. 

The power of the film and the discovery of Masri’s work has left many after thoughts in my mind. The first is an appreciation of the film programmer as an activist, with the power to shape narratives by choosing what is and isn’t screened. Along with this, a growing regard of the emotional toll of the labour of the programmer who may sort through, view and present emotionally demanding content in the course of their work, and have to process these objectively on an ongoing basis.

Secondly, it struck me that this one of the rare instances when I was watching the lives of Palestinians from their own point of view, not one mediated by the politics and prejudices of western media or one mediated by the Muslim world that empathizes with the Palestinian plight as a Muslim plight, but never really bring you close to the actual human lives that are being discussed – rather always as distant images of suffering and injustice.

The film brings home the myriad ways in which individuals may experience their relationships to the idea of a state and a homeland. As a secular feminist from Pakistan, I struggle to come to terms with the accident of my birth in a religious ideological state, but in a strange way find myself relating to the children in the film who yearn for a homeland and culture that they have only heard of, never lived. Interestingly, Pakistan and Israel were both carved out of pre-existing nations- only a year apart and both with the involvement of the British- to serve as ‘safe havens’ for people of specific religious identities. The creation of both the states have been bloody and violent, and conflict over the land and demarcations continues in both to this day. The difference is that while these children yearn for a physical homeland, I yearn for the more tolerant and pluralistic culture that was to be found in pre-partition Indian- a culture that perhaps exists now only in memories but fortunately has been documented rather extensively, even romanticised, one could say- in literary writings, photographs and documents. As the citizen of a sovereign state, who has the ability to move within and outside the state boundaries with relative ease, I know I cannot compare my situation with these children. Yet, like these children, I yearn for a cultural past that no longer exists. As an ethnic Kashmiri, from the now heavily militarised part of Kashmir under Indian control, I too can no longer visit the land of my forefathers for the foreseeable future.

Coming back to the Q&A, one of the most powerful revelations for me during the discussion was the case of the Palestinan Film Archive that went missing during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. The archive included over one hundred films, dating from pre-1948 up until the early 1980s, in addition to a vast amount of documentation of battles, bombings, sieges – as well as political and social events and interviews with political leaders, intellectuals and academics, most of whom have passed away now. The archive also contained films and documentaries about life in refugee camps and the lives of Palestinians in the diaspora.

There are a number of theories surrounding the disappearance of the archive and its possible whereabouts today. The most common one is that Israel’s military or spies intentionally destroyed the archive during the siege (Dabashi 2006).

Besides Hamid Dabashi’s Dreams of A Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (2006) and Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi’s Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory (2008) which touch upon it briefly, literature concerning the lost archive is sparse. Two recent films have been made about the lost archive: a short eight-minute experimental film essay by Sarah Wood entitled For Cultural Purposes Only (2009) which explores the effect of cinema on culture and heritage and strongly conveys the dependence of the Palestinian narrative on memory rather than a records, and Palestinian Azza El-Hassan’s Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image (2004) in which the director journeys from Jordan to Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon on a quest to try and find clues about the whereabouts of the missing archive.

As most media outlets are inaccessible to Palestinians, cultural and artistic events restricted and penalised, and artists harassed and even assassinated, cinema understood in the Palestinian context is not a luxury or leisurely pursuit or a medium for addressing philosophical questions, but a means of survival, to help make them visible, to stand against the western stereotype of Palestinians. The archive is perhaps the ultimate representation of the silenced Palestinian with no permission to narrate (Edward Said, 1984).

As Wood asks in her film, ‘What would it feel like to never see an image of the place that you came from? The word ethnocide comes to mind.

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