Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 8, 2014

The Palestinian struggle through the prism of four new films

Filed under: Film,Palestine — louisproyect @ 10:14 pm

Reviewed in this article:

1. “Omar” – a Palestinian narrative film nominated for best foreign film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

2. “Mars at Sunrise” – an art film about the suffering and resistance of a Palestinian artist.

3. “Zaytoun” – an Israeli narrative film written by a Palestinian-American about the unlikely alliance between a captured Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy in 1982.

4. “It’s Better to Jump” – a documentary about the Palestinians living in Akka, just north of Haifa, trying to preserve their culture in the face of a cold-blooded gentrification onslaught.

Was it a coincidence that I received invitations to review these four films over the past few weeks? It is just as likely that the same forces driving the BDS movement forward explain their appearance. Despite the absence of a powerful Palestinian movement of the kind that was seen in the various intifadas of years past, there is more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than ever before. Filmmakers make such films as a way of rallying public opinion. As I have stated in the past, film is very much an expression of an informal “vanguard” that has as much power in its way as Lenin’s Iskra.

The eponymous Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young man living in the West Bank who toils by day in a low-tech bakery making pita bread and by night plots armed resistance against the occupying IDF forces that make his life and those of his brethren miserable.

In order to visit the young woman he loves, he must each time scale the monstrous wall erected by the Israelis and risk being shot at or picked up by an IDF patrol. When he is at one point, the soldiers torment him in a way that dramatizes the brutality and the racism of the occupation better than a thousand articles. They order him to stand on top of a roadside boulder in the midday heat while they make small talk nearby. When exhaustion makes it impossible to balance himself on the top of the rock any longer, they smash a rifle butt against his face.

A few days later, Omar and two comrades draw close to an IDF outpost in the dead of night armed with a sniper’s rifle and take down a guard. Before long, Omar is arrested and put in an Israel jail where he is tortured in order to provide the names of the men who were with him. He refuses to name names.

At lunch, an older man representing himself as a member of an Islamic resistance organization joins him. He warns Omar to not divulge any information about his activities since there are spies everywhere in jail who work with the Israelis. Don’t worry, Omar tells him, I will never confess.

A day later, he is brought into the office of Rami, a top Israeli intelligence officer who turns out to be the Islamic radical he had lunch with—a guise aided by his fluency in the Arabic language. Omar is also dismayed to learn that in Israeli courts, the statement that “I will never confess” is tantamount to a confession that will result in a decades-long imprisonment. Rami tells him that the only way out is to become a snitch.

“Omar” is not only filmmaking of the highest order; it is by far the most frontal assault on Israeli savagery that I have ever seen in a movie theater. The Palestinians are caught in a spider’s web that makes their fate almost inescapable. There is a sense of futility about the attempt to free the West Bank of the occupying forces but it would be impossible for a Palestinian filmmaker like Hany Abu-Assad to represent things otherwise.

Abu-Assad’s last film was the 2005 “Paradise Now” about suicide bombers that like “Omar” mixes a sense of futility with a burning desire to overcome Zionist oppression. In an interview with the Electronic Intifada, Abu-Assad articulates the contradictory feelings of artists as an expression of the general mood of the population they speak for:

The mood among the general population and Palestinian filmmakers was [the same]. What the general population went through, we went through too. You feel angry and impotent. You feel you can’t do anything against this heartless operation going on. … I always tell the same story at festivals, but the difference is that you can be at a festival and be celebrated and you are treated as very important person, but when you go back to your homeland you are treated as non-human. I could be in Rome at a festival and be celebrated and the same day I can go back and be treated as a criminal. This contrast is amazing. The mood is the same among all Palestinians under occupation — you are the same as anyone else and are not protected.

“Omar” opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Theater in New York on February 21 and is simply not to be missed. Nationwide showtimes are here: http://www.adoptfilms.com/omar

“Mars at Sunrise” opened yesterday at the Quad in New York. Like “Omar”, its protagonist is arrested and tortured by Israeli soldiers who are trying to force him into naming names and becoming an informer. Unlike “Omar”, it is not a conventional narrative film and employs many techniques that would identify it as an experimental film.

It has a dream-like quality that utilizes the canvases of its artist lead character to create a visual and psychological canvas of Palestinian hopes and frustration. There is not a conventional plot, only a stream of vignettes that depict Palestinian experience under conditions of occupation and loss.

Jessica Habie, a Mizrahi Jew who went to NYU film school, directed the film. Her lead character is based on Palestinian artist in exile Hani Zurob who spent the late 1990s studying art at An-Najah University in Nablus as an “illegal,” constantly under threat of being discovered and deported. A visit to Zurob’s website will give you an idea of how a painter expresses the beating heart of the Palestinian people.

I also recommend a visit to the “Mars at Sunrise” website, where you will learn about the Fajr Falistine Film Collective that helped to make it possible. They describe themselves as “a group of artists who want to create experimental, absurdist and alternative narratives about the realities of life in the Middle East. We seek to find new ways to fund and share stories from the Arab world.” I would say that they have made an auspicious debut with this, their first work.

“Zaytoun” is an Israeli film that is the counterpart of Peace Now type liberalism in which Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation is based on anything except an abolition of the existing asymmetric power relationships. Not surprisingly, the film is seemingly inspired by Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” that brought together  Black and white racist prison escapees who are forced to cooperate even though they would kill each other given the chance. Chained at their wrists, they are one step ahead of the law and an even smaller step ahead of sticking a knife into each other.

In “Zaytoun”, the shotgun marriage is between Fahed, a young Palestinian boy who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, and Yoni, an Israeli pilot whose jet has been shot down in the skies over Beirut during the chaotic civil war of 1982. Fahed dreams of visiting his ancestral village in Israel and eventually decides to help lead Yoni to the Israeli border in exchange for helping him visit his family’s long-abandoned house. He wears a key to its door around his neck during the long trek there, as well as a potted olive tree that he hopes to plant in the fields surrounding his village. The relationship between the two is strained from the outset, all the more so since Fahed’s father has been killed in an Israeli bomb strike just days earlier. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of such a pairing in real-life Lebanon in 1982 was less than zero. It is just a device of director Eran Riklis to make the kind of points he has made before in films such as the 2008 “Lemon Tree” in which goodhearted Israelis come to the aid of a Palestinian woman trying to protect her modest grove against an IDF threat to cut it down.

Despite its liberal pretensions, the film is still worth watching for its ability to tell an old-fashioned dramatic tale made all the more worthwhile by a stellar performance by Abdallah El Akal, a 15-year-old actor who lives in Tel Aviv and who has been a professional actor since the age of 7. I was surprised to discover that he was a professional since he comes across as exactly the same sort of person who he plays, a street urchin scrambling to survive.

The film is also probably made more tolerable because the screenwriter Nader Rizq is Palestinian and manages to convey some of the realities of his people despite the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers.

Strand Releasing informed me that this film that premiered in New York last September would be available as a DVD on February 18th. Look for it in the usual places like Netflix and Amazon.com. You can also purchase it from the Strand website for $20.99.

Finally, there is a truly remarkable documentary titled “It’s Better to Jump” that to my knowledge is the first that focuses on the plight of Israeli Palestinians, those people who one of the interviewees refers to as the “pre-1948” Palestinians.

Co-director Mouna Stewart, who is presumably married to fellow director Patrick Stewart (not the Star Trek commander but someone far more noteworthy!), gathered together a group of Palestinians living in the old city of Akka to talk about the challenges they face from encroaching Zionist real estate magnates who are trying to buy the ancient homes of their impoverished dwellers, demolish them, and then erect huge eye-sores that will become part of an ethnically cleansed and utterly sterile and vulgar Acre—as the Israelis call it. It is nakba style gentrification.

Akka is an ancient city that was home to different cultures that co-existed peacefully. It remained sheltered from crusader type conquests because of an immense wall that faced the city’s coastline. The wall was first created at the beginning of the crusades and was built even higher under Ottoman rule.

After 1948, the city began to lose what would eventually amount to half of its Arab population. Those who remained, however, are committed to preserve their homes and their identity against what seems like insurmountable odds. They lack leverage because they have become so weakened economically. Under Zionist control, the city has been divested of its fishing industry through two different processes: one, the IDF’s refusal to allow fishing boats in much of the surrounding waters because they supposedly threaten military security; two, the pollution of the waters that Israeli authorities cannot care less about. As one interviewee put it, the Israelis get their seafood from fish farms (an environmental disaster) or import it.

In a declining economy, there’s little to sustain the Palestinian youth who resort to petty crime like selling drugs. One of the few things they can do is jump from the top of the walls into the Mediterranean even if it means risking serious injury. It is, however, a way for them to feel that they have transcended their dismal environment.

The film is a microcosm of the ongoing Palestinian struggle and a beautifully made film. It can be purchased from Cinema Libre, the distributor, for $19.95 and is worth every penny. Nay, it would be a bargain at twice the price.

I was also informed by Beth Portello, an executive at Cinema Libre, of two other resources of interest to those who would find such a film valuable. The first is a list of films they have published with the help of the “It’s Better to Jump” filmmakers that examine Palestine/Israel relations.

The other is Tips on Filming a Documentary in Israel. Who knows, maybe I’ll make good use of it one of these days!

January 22, 2014

Yarmouk, Jonathan Cook and the Baathist left

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

Every so often the name of a town or neighborhood in Syria becomes a symbol of left divisions over the 3-year long civil war. First there was Houla, where a massacre of local villagers opposed to the dictatorship was blamed on the rebels, fueled by bogus reporting from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Next there was Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that once again involved a massacre of rebel sympathizers—this time by sarin gas. From the low—Mint Press—to the high (or at least, one-time high)—Seymour Hersh—the effort of the Baathist left once again has been directed toward turning the victim into the criminal. The latest incident involves Yarmouk, a neighborhood of a half-million Palestinian refugees that has been reduced to the aged, the ill, and those economically incapable of moving out of range of Baathist bombs and missiles.

I was planning to write about Yarmouk at some point down the road but decided to put it on the front-burner after a storm broke out in the comments section of Mondoweiss under a couple of articles written as rebuttals to an article that appeared there in the name of the Cornell chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine. The article adopts the talking points of the Baathist left:

And fourth, we do not forget the US and Gulf role in militarizing the small bright hopeful protests which began in the spring of 2011 across Syria, snuffing out those fires of hope in a deluge of sectarianism, foreign proxies, and destruction. Nor do we forget that it was the Free Syrian Army, the brand-name for the “milder” of the Western-armed gangs which have rampaged across Syria, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other reactionary militias which went into Yarmouk a year ago. It was their decision to enter the camp in late 2012 which led to the subsequent violence and its emptying out, with its people now in global scatter, some literally drowning in the Mediterranean.

A Facebook friend has told me that Max Ajl, a graduate student in the Cornell development sociology department, wrote the statement. Since Ajl has been an ardent “anti-imperialist” for some time now, this made perfect sense. It also suggests to me why Jacobin, another enterprise he is involved with, has also published a bunch of nonsense about the Arab revolt. It is all the more puzzling in the case of Jacobin since the editorial positions are generally a lot closer to Dissent than Global Research. One imagines that Ajl has powers of persuasion that work wonders on those who are relative newcomers to Marxism.

In discussing Yarmouk, I don’t want to focus too much on refuting the particular talking points of the Baathist left, such as Syria’s right to drop barrel bombs on the neighborhood since there are “terrorists” among the civilian population—an argument recycled from the Zionist trash bin—but instead take up the broader question of whether Syrian rebels have anything in common with the Palestinians. I intend to answer an article written by Jonathan Cook that appeared on Mondoweiss and perhaps a dozen other websites titled “The false analogy of Syria and Palestine”. I didn’t bother replying to Cook when the article came out in November since I had better things to do at the time but will do so now since it is pertinent to the Yarmouk controversy.

Cook starts off by falsely accusing me of being a “diehard interventionist”, a charge that many people accept largely on the basis of my stubborn resistance to Baathist lies. In their mind, pointing out the obvious flaws in the facts and logic of a Mint Press article or Seymour Hersh’s reporting proves that I have been consulting on war plans with Samantha Powers. Since I was in the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s, when Maoists used to recycle Vishinski’s Moscow Trial accusations, such smears roll off my back like water from a duck’s.

Cook’s exercise in prolixity was prompted by an observation made in my article that was mostly about the sarin gas controversy that he totally avoided:

With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, [Cook] seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace.

Let me take up Cook’s objections to analogizing Syria with Palestine one by one.

He writes:

Gaza is not like Syria because Palestinians live under a belligerent occupation, not in a unified, if failing state run by a dictator.

Any idiot understands that Syria is a unified state that emerged out of the post-WWII decolonization upheaval, unlike Palestine that was cheated out of statehood. But I was referring to cities and not states: “those under attack in Homs or Aleppo”. Right? My point was that Bashar al-Assad was using collective punishment against civilians who were “harboring terrorists”, just as the IDF did in Gaza. How could he not understand this? Well, I suppose that this goes hand in hand with labeling me an “interventionist” in the complete absence of evidence.

Now it seems that Yarmouk has joined Homs and Aleppo as a site of what the US military referred to as destroying a town in order to save it during the Vietnam War. Last week Baathist helicopters dropped barrel bombs on Yarmouk apartment buildings. This was the result:

Here’s the result of IDF bombing in Gaza:

I’ll let you decide whether my comparison is valid.

Cook adds that “external intervention” might apply to Gaza but not to Syria:

The comparison with Gaza is also unhelpful because it is possible to be in favour of external efforts to remove the occupation in Gaza without that also requiring us to be in favour of external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.

This argument should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for speciousness if they had such an award (given the amount of times Thomas Friedman has walked off with an award, maybe they do.) Nobody on the left is in favor of “external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.” We are, however, in favor of internal efforts. Of course Hizbollah, Iran and Russia don’t count as “external efforts” to overthrow the “internal efforts” to overthrow the Baathists. In a bravura performance of sophistry, Cook makes the case for reinforcing Baathist rule:

Also to be addressed is the paradox that for the Syrian government to negotiate safely it needs to ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states; but with such strength it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels. This is a paradox that relates to the current world order. We may not like that order, but it is the only one that exists at the moment.

This dodgy statement is basically the negotiating position of the Syria-Iran-Russia alliance and we should make no mistake about it. “To ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states” is a formula for continued Baathist domination of its subject population as Cook admits (“it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels”). At least when you read someone like Pepe Escobar or Robert Fisk, you don’t have to put up with such circumlocutions.

Like most of the analysis proffered by the Baathist left, Cook’s article has the musty odor of having been written during the mass hysteria around Obama’s “red line” bluff:

Syria is caught in a power game, with the US and Saudi Arabia trying to keep Iran and its ally Syria weak on one side, and Iran desperately trying to keep its few remaining allies, among them Syria, as strong as possible in its battle against efforts by Israel and the west to undermine its sovereign integrity. Ignoring this as the main framework for understanding what is happening in Syria inevitably leads to erroneous analysis and faulty solutions.

As I pointed out in the months immediately following the Ghouta massacre, American imperialism had zero interest in “regime change” and would likely do nothing more than fire off some missiles and then resort to the status quo ante. But even I could not have predicted the turn against all the rebels that coincided with the thaw with Iran. It has been Syria and Iran that the USA wants to keep strong, rather than weak. President Rouhani has made it very clear that Iran is open to Western business, a ploy adopted by al-Assad (and Qaddafi) years ago and one that leads to mass discontent so powerful as to unleash a revolution.

January 17, 2014

While you were neutral about Yarmouk

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

While you were neutral about Yarmouk

on January 17, 2014

Ruined buildings in the Yarmouk refugee camp, summer 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

While you were insisting on neutrality about Yarmouk, the Syrian regime dropped barrel bombs on it. Mohammad Al Far. Husam Abo Ahmad. Mohammad Tafori. Mohammad Suhaib Al Qides. Ala’a Fri’j. These men are all dead. Mohammad Taha would later die too when he, along with a larger demonstration, approached a regime checkpoint in frustration after the carnage rained on them from above.

The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern. And that said the neutrality was often an unconvincing veil for something much more vile. Perhaps, in our naivety, we believe that when Yarmouk became visible, it would be nearly impossible to omit the clear fact that the siege was being imposed by the Syrian regime. Instead, it was the oppositional fighters in the camp who fell under the spotlight. A chorus emerged, one familiar enough to evoke a surreal sense of Déjà vu.

full: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/neutral-about-yarmouk.html

November 20, 2013

Budour Hassan: Palestine and the Syrian Revolution

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

January 31, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Filed under: Film,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

When I first began getting invitations to press screenings for Sony Picture Classics’ “The Gatekeepers”, my first reaction was to assume that it was similar to “The Law in These Parts”, the Israeli documentary that is based on interviews with the military judges responsible for creating Nuremberg type legal codes that made the Palestinians the modern equivalent of Jews under Nazi rule.. That film allowed the judges to hang themselves on their own petards as they offered self-vindicating rationales for bending the law to suit the needs of the settlers. It was all about combating “terrorism”.

I probably should have figured out that Sony was not likely to be distributing anything like that. The CEO of Sony Entertainment is one Michael Lynton who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, Sony produced “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film that is related to “The Gatekeepers” after a fashion.

But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.

The Shin Bet is Hebrew for the Israel Security Agency, founded in 1948. It is responsible for controlling the Arabs internally while the Mossad has the same kind of job externally. They are analogous to the FBI and the CIA respectively.

The men interviewed by Moreh agonize not so much about the Zionist project (who would expect them to) but about its difficulties, something they blame on both the unruly Palestinians and the Israeli ultraright. Terrorism of both the Hamas variety and Israeli ultrarightists of the sort who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin are obstacles to a “solution” of the Palestinian problem.

Moreh is content to allow these men to pontificate about their career with hardly any effort made to put them on the spot for illegal detention, torture, or murder. For example, in one interview, the matter of a handcuffed Palestinian being beaten to death in the aftermath of a bus hijacking is raised with Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. When Shalom defends this obvious criminal act, Moreh does little to follow up with additional questions about what this says about Israeli “democracy”. One can hardly escape feeling that while obviously being appalled by IDF war crimes Moreh attributes them to a state of affairs forced upon a peace-loving but besieged people.

In a very shrewd review of “Zero Dark Thirty”, Israeli film reviewer Noam Sheizaf describes the changing character of his country’s film industry in recent years in words that are just as applicable to a documentary like “The Gatekeepers” as it is to narrative films:

Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arab’s fault. And sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.

Moreh appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on January 29th to promote his film that opens tomorrow at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and at the Film Forum on February 20th.

She asks Moreh to respond to this:

In this clip, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter discusses an Israeli bombing of a home in Gaza in July 2002. The attack killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, but also 14 innocent civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter and a family of seven living next door. Dozens were also wounded. The attack occurred just as Shehadeh was reportedly preparing to sign onto a ceasefire halting attacks on Israelis not in the Occupied Territories.

This is what he said:

Well, look, I—I have to say that I a little bit feel uncomfortable in the way that you present the things here, because you portray the things as if Israel is the brutal, aggressive all the time, with the Palestinians, that they are like doves. There is reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it’s doing there. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot say—in a way, portray Israel as the aggressive and the Palestinians are the innocent bystander who are always being killed by those aggressive forces. It’s not the case at all, and I think that this is misleading the people that are watching that.

Enough said.

September 20, 2012

Tears of Gaza; In My Mother’s Arms

Filed under: Film,Iraq,middle east,Palestine — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

Two powerful documentaries from the Middle East should be put on the must-see list for New Yorkers with a passion for justice. Sharing the theme of the impact of war on children and a partnership between Arab filmmakers and Europeans of conscience, they should definitively answer the question so much in the news today: why do they hate us?

“Tears of Gaza”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village, is an unstinting, Guernica-like look at the horror visited on the Palestinian people by the Israeli Wehrmacht (called the IDF) that is focused on three children who lost their parents and other family members in the winter of 2008-2009.

While watching the television news, veteran Norwegian director/writer/actress Vibeke Løkkeberg saw a story about a boy crying over his father who was killed during an Israeli bombing. Upset over the failure of the world media to cover the ongoing brutality that reminded her of the US invasion of Iraq, she wrote a script for the film based on three orphaned children.

Teaming up with her husband and producer Terje Kristiansen, the two were prevented by both Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. As was the case with Libya before Qaddafi’s overthrow and Syria today, the international press was blocked from Gaza. Unlike Libya and Syria, which were and are ruled by “villains” (excepting of course when they were brokering deals with Western multinationals or torturing victims of the CIA on behalf of the “war on terror”), Israel’s blitzkrieg received the endorsement of American and European elites and was not likely to inspire newspapers or television networks to risk their reporters’ lives over a war against “Hamas terrorists trying to destroy Israel”.

As necessity is the mother of invention, Løkkeberg and Kristiansen ended up with footage shot by Palestinian photojournalists Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, and Saed al Sabaa who were in Gaza at the time. Editing and postproduction was done in Norway.

The film starts on a wistful note showing Palestinians at the beach and celebrating a young couple’s marriage. And then all hell breaks loose. In unrelenting detail, you see Israeli jets and helicopters destroying civilian homes and leaving dead bodies strewn everywhere as ambulances speed here and there collecting the still-living. When you see the obvious defenselessness of the Gaza slums and the aerial terror being rained down on them, you feel a rising sense of anger at the Zionist entity. If you were for the Palestinians before you saw the movie, your solidarity will increase. If you were sitting on the fence (and those sorts of people should be dragooned into seeing it), you will find reason enough to oppose Israel. And for those who know how to connect the dotted lines, there is every reason to understand why al-Assad—up to now—has been getting away with Gaza-style slaughter of his own people and why you should demonstrate on Saturday against him.

The press notes for “Tears of Gaza” includes an epigraph from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Opening at Maysles Cinema on October 8th, “In My Mother’s Arms” is focused on three war orphans just like “Tears of Gaza”. Filmed during the final days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (excluding the remaining mercenary forces of course), it tells the story of Husham Al Thabe, a young, handsome, and chain-smoking Iraqi man who runs an orphanage for 32 children in a two-story house in the Al-Sadr neighborhood, Baghdad’s poorest slum and a frequent target of senseless bombings by Sunni terrorists. Although the film, like “The Tears of Gaza”, lacks any didactic narration of the sort found in more explicitly political films, Husham’s mission speaks for a break with the sectarian strife that has marked Iraq since the early 2000s, intentionally fostered by American imperialism. The orphans are Sunni, Shia, Turkman and Kurd, a cross-section of the country’s population and obviously representing Husham’s intention to heal the nation’s wounds.

The film begins with Husham stopping his car beneath a bridge and approaching two homeless boys. Do they have families, he asks? No, they were killed. How do you survive? The answer: begging.  He invites them to come with him and they do. He provides a warm and supportive environment for all the kids, even if he is one step ahead of the landlord who seeks to evict him. Unlike the state orphanages, which are notorious for their mistreatment of children, Husham’s relies totally on private donations, mostly from humble bazaar merchants who give hundreds rather than millions of dollars.

The most poignant of the children is 7-year old Saif, a Kurd who barely remembers his mother who was killed by a terrorist bomb along with his father. When other children taunt him by calling out his mother’s name—Mujada—he attacks them in a blind rage.

The name of the film derives from a play that Husham mounts with the help of a theater director based in the Al-Sadr slum. “In my mother’s arms” is a kind of oratorio devoted to the vision of mother and child reunion, even if only in the realm of the imagination. It stars Saif who sings a lament about life’s cruelties. Despite the sadness of the play, Saif achieves a kind of psychological breakthrough by finding a reason to live: the chance that others can appreciate his performance.

The film is co-directed by two Iraqis: Atia and Mohammad Al-Daraji. Atia founded Iraq Al-Rafidan, a full-service film and video production company with a mission to give a voice to the Iraqi people. The Al-Daraji’s partnered with Humam Film, a UK/Dutch company established in 2006 “to seek and explore individual creativity while producing films with a social conscience and impact.” This of course is the kind of partnership between NATO countries and the Arab world that should serve as an example.

The film begins with some shocking statistics about the number of orphans the war has left. You get some sense of the depth of the problem by reading an Alternet article dated December 18, 2007:

Iraq’s anti-corruption board revealed on Saturday that there were five million Iraqi orphans as reported by official government statistics, urging the government, parliament, and NGOs to be in constant contact with Iraq’s parentless children.

That’s about 1/6th of the country. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. has just over 2 million orphans even though it is nearly ten times the size of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has demonstrated hostility toward private aid even when its own institutions are worse than useless. Alternet reported:

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the parliament’s Civil Society Organizations Committee, slammed a recent government decision that closed down all private orphanages. “Instead of helping private institutions improve their performance and remove all obstacles hindering their work, the Iraqi government decided to close them down, adding to the complexity of the situation in the state-run institutions.

This is one instance in which an exception to the drive toward privatization hastened by the invasion and occupation of Iraq works would benefit the people. Or perhaps the more important lesson to be drawn is that the clash between state-ownership and privately-owned institutions is secondary to the more important criterion, namely whether a government serves the people or the people serve the government—the struggle that virtually defined the Arab Spring that is ongoing.

June 19, 2011


Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 12:07 pm

November 16, 2010

Israelis protest “Porgy and Bess” BDS violation

Filed under: Palestine,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

October 29, 2010

Budrus; The Time that Remains

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Over the past several days I saw two radically different films about Palestinians. One is the documentary Budrus that is a stirring introduction to the new nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. The other is The Time that Remains, a fictional chronicle about a middle-class family in Nazareth over a 50 year period that is deeply problematic but worth seeing.

Budrus is a farming village of about 1500 people largely dependent on its olive tree groves that had the misfortune to be located close to the border between Israel and the West Bank, the so-called Green Line. When Israel began building its infamous wall of separation in 2004, it chose to build it not within its own borders but within Palestinian territory—and more egregiously right through the middle of Budrus. Not only would the Palestinians lose a good part of their olive groves that had sustained them for hundreds of years; their civic life would suffer as the wall cut through and surrounded the village.

The mayor of Budrus was one Ayed Morrar, a long-time activist who arrested as a student activist at the age of 19 in 1981 when it was still illegal to raise a Palestinian flag. He spent most of the first intifada organizing strikes, demonstrations, protest roadblocks and boycotts of Israeli goods. When the villagers first learned about Israel plans, the mayor convened a meeting in which he insisted that they had to choose between passive resignation and peaceful resistance. They chose the latter. This meeting, as well as other key moments in their struggle, was captured by director Julia Bacha, a Brazilian graduate of Columbia University who was inspired to make such a movie from professors in her Mideast Studies classes who challenged the ideological consensus.

She and her film crew risk Israeli repression to get you close to the action, so much so that you can practically smell the Israeli tear gas. Most of the movie depicts the cat-and-mouse game between the IDF and protestors as they fight for control over the olive groves. In one key scene, we see Morrar’s 15 year old daughter Iltezam jump into a pit that has just been dug by a bulldozer, risking the same fate as Rachel Corrie. We also see a number of Israeli peace activists who have come to the aid of Budrus, including Kobi Snitz, a member of Anarchists Against the Wall. (http://www.awalls.org/). In my review of Rachel (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/rachel/), I commended another anarchist—Jonathan Pollak—whose email reports I receive on a regular basis. As a long time critic of anarchism, I can only say that the movement puts its best foot forward through the example of Pollak and Snitz.

Scheduled to have its last showing yesterday at the Quad Cinema in N.Y., Budrus has been extended to play through next Thursday and possibly longer. It is not to be missed.

The Time that Remains was shown last night at the Museum of Modern Art as the opening night selection of an Arab film series titled “Mapping Subjectivity“, a program described on the MOMA website as aiming “to map the largely unknown heritage of personal, artistic, and sometimes experimental cinema from the Arab world.” Not quite my cup of tea, but I was willing to give director Elia Suleiman’s movie a try. MOMA describes it this way:

Subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee,” this humorous, heartbreaking film (the final installment in a trilogy) is set among the Israeli Arab community and shot largely in homes and places in which Suleiman’s family once lived. Inspired by his father’s diaries, letters his mother sent to family members who had fled the Israeli occupation, and the director’s own recollections, the film spans from 1948 until the present, recounting the saga of Suleiman’s family in elegantly stylized episodes. Inserting himself as a silent observer reminiscent of Buster Keaton, Suleiman trains a keen eye on the absurdities of life in Nazareth.

The movie starts off very promisingly as a dramatic recreation of events in 1948, as Elia’s father Fuad is picked up by Israeli soldiers for supplying guns to the Palestinian resistance. He is beaten into unconsciousness by men who seem exactly like the goons currently making life miserable in places like Budrus. There is a taut and suspenseful quality to these scenes reminiscent of Battle of Algiers. If only the rest of the movie had lived up to these opening scenes, then it would have been a film for the ages. Alas, it veered off in an entirely different action as it moved forward in time.

In the next chapter in the life of Fuad Suleiman, he has become a father to Elia, the character based on the film’s director. Elia goes to a school run by Israelis that awards its Palestinian children a prize for singing Israeli nationalist anthems. Like just about every scene that takes place at this point, Suleiman is determined to wring out every ounce of the ironies of life under occupation.

Despite having withdrawn from the struggle, Fuad is still hounded by the Israeli authorities. As a devotee of late-night fishing, he keeps being interrogated by Israeli cops whether he has an id and why he is fishing so far from Nazareth. Finally, he is arrested—falsely—for smuggling weapons carried by boat.

His son becomes a victim as well. During the first intifada, he learns from a Palestinian cop that he has been denounced and must leave the country. When he returns, his father has become gravely ill from heart disease and soon dies. From the very minute that Elias makes his appearance in the movie as a young boy, he never says a single word. His role in the film is to stare glumly at the camera as one irony-drenched scene unfolds after another.

One in particular illustrates the sensibility that informs the movie. A young boy enters the Suleiman house unannounced and demands that they buy his string beans. It turns out that he has come from Jenin, a village in the occupied territories. He is told by the cop alluded to above, a family friend and frequent visitor, to show his permit. He says he has none and virtually demands that the cop arrest him. Elias’s mother intercedes on behalf of the boy who continues to demand that they buy his string beans. And if they won’t buy them, then they at least should give him a cigarette. This scene, which lasts about five minutes, conveys the futility of Palestinian existence that Elias takes in with the same mournful and mute expression throughout. When there are street protests, he never joins them but stares at them blankly from his balcony.

One cannot help avoid concluding that Elias Suleiman made this movie for Western consumption, and for art houses particularly (it opens at the IFC Center on January 7th.) He studied cinema at NYU and has obviously absorbed the international minimalist style that can be seen in Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki, whose deadpan humor he imitates with mixed success.

As a contrast to the stirring Budrus, it is a dispiriting reminder that for at least some Palestinian intellectuals and artists, the experience of expulsion, dispossession and occupation is no guarantee of great or even good art.

October 25, 2010

There is no such thing as tourism in an occupied city

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Hat tip to Mondoweiss.

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