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Nettnin: Massad Lectures at Palestine Film Fest.

Massad Lectures at Chicago Palestine Film Festival

By Sonia Nettnin

Opening night of the 4th Annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival brought Professor Joseph Massad to the Gene Siskel Film Center where he shared his essay, “The Weapon of Culture: Cinema in the Palestinian Liberation Struggle,” forthcoming in Hamid Dabashi, editor, Palestinian Cinema, (London, Verso, 2005).

Massad teaches in the Department of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History in the Middle East & Asian Languages and Cultures Department of Columbia University. He is the author of a catalog of publications including three books, two forthcoming, along with dozens of book reviews, academic, magazine and newspaper articles. Massad’s essay gave a brief overview of Palestinian cinema to a sold-out screening of Saverio Constanzo’s “Private,” winner of the Golden Leopard at the 2004 Locarno Film Festival.

According to Massad, Palestinian cultural life resists foreign domination, and his essay examines several characteristics of Palestinian cinema. He explores the role of aesthetics in Palestinian film and their range of intended audiences over the years.

“Palestinian cinema…has been integral to Palestinian resistance,” he said.

He expressed that films such as “A Woman of Palestine” (1948) and “The Land of Peace” (1952) touched on aspects of the Palestinian Al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe; but the films that followed in the ‘60s and ‘70s are mostly Palestinian guerilla films, inspired by American Westerns. Films such as “Six O’clock Operation” (1969) and “Three Operations of Palestine” (1969) demonstrated the resistance motif. These films pervaded the Palestinian cinematic landscape. Organizations such as the Palestine Film Unit, established in 1968 by Fatah, funded this film genre.

Most of these films illustrated the Palestinian narrative, and their pedagogical scope meant to instruct their audiences on the Palestinian revolutionary struggle and/or provide revolutionary political analysis. Palestinian refugees from the camps in the West Bank and Gaza previewed screenings of these films, which depicted Palestinians as cartoons. According to Samir Farid, “animated films are costly to produce…” (“Lights, camera…retrospection,” Al-Ahram Weekly) and Massad expressed that preview audiences preferred actual children instead.

Films fell into two categories: the avant-garde or the popular. Audiences preferred films that portrayed reality versus aesthetic films.

In 1973, there were a total of twelve Palestinian films and it proved the most productive year for Palestinian filmmaking. Throughout the ‘70s, Baghdad became the cinematic, mother hub for hosting Palestinian film festivals. In 1980, however, the Iran-Iraq War put an end to it. In that year, Arab directors contributed to the creation of five films.
When the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon in 1982, they destroyed the PLO’s Palestinian cultural heritage collections, which included the Palestinian film archives. Unfortunately, there were no second copies of the films. After their obliteration, the terrain of Palestinian cinematic landscape changed scope: short and long, feature films emerged that were less didactic. Films continued with the themes of resistance, occupation, racism, and love of homeland, but they did not incite politics.

One reason for this shift was international film financial backers, directors and distributors wanted to expand their potential audiences. Massad explained that they tailored films for a “…Zionist international friendly media.” In the film world, people paid more attention to the messages communicated in films, and solidified films’ objectives.

Some of Massad’s film favorites are: “Four Songs for Palestine,” by Nada El-Yassir; “Route 181-Fragments of a Journey to Palestine-Israel,” by Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan; “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” and “Divine Intervention,” by Elia Suleiman; and “Door to the Sun,” by Yousry Nasrallah. He likes the last one, based on Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s magnum opus novel, “Door to the Sun,” because the central themes of the novel are about Al-Nakba. Since the film and the novel deal with extremely terrifying and painful images, their artistic representations of Palestinian history liberate Palestinians from the neurotic fear of dealing with a foundation of trauma. Both the film and the novel signify and symbolize the beginning for Palestinians.

“The duty of cinema is not to solve problems,” Massad said. “But to represent them.”

IT-Application of Massad’s Lecture

Although 1982 brought the destruction of the PLO’s cultural heritage collections in Tunis and Beirut, web sites such as Arab Film and Dreams of a Nation are excellent foundations for archiving documentation online for Arab contemporary films. At present, Palestine Film Fest is working on an archive - both online and physical -
that will contain contemporary Palestine-related films. It will include films in addition to the films curated for our festival.

I would like to propose a project idea that combines the work already done on these web sites, but includes scholarly research also. The application could apply to any type of information, so it is not restricted to Palestinian cinema.

Suppose an IT-team created a nexus web site which extracts information from web sites that contain similar information. The web sites Arab Film and Dreams of a Nation contain information about Arab films and directors. Suppose they fed their information into a separate web site that served as an online archives for Arab cinema for use by academics, filmmakers, film distributors, journalists, students, and the general public. Information from the web sites would be dumped for an information bash. The bash results would expose inconsistencies and anomalies. For example, one web site says a film is 52 minutes in length and another web site says the same film is 53 minutes. The system spits out that information as output for further review.

Another feature within the web site’s design would be for researchers in the field. If they choose to share their information, an interface can be created that gives them input access. They would need permission from the administrator and the web site would have a firewall from hackers. I spoke with an IT-person who developed the general specs for the theoretical, online archival system:

Information from other websites can be extracted and retrieved for storage. The sites would agree on a platform to share the data between them. One technology to do that is called (SOAP); the programming can be achieved by C#, and XML or even using Java or C++.

The security would be similar to any other website. The programmer designs the system so that it retrieves the data. However, the data has to be on different machines than the host web site. Maintaining machines in separate locations is for prevention purposes: if a hacker hacks the online, archival website, they do not destroy the original data. Another security prevention can be created by using an application called web crawler. The application points to the websites from which to extract the information, then it stores all of the desired web pages stored locally. A developer writes a Perl program to search all the files based on the names of the films and extracts the information into a standard format, which can be stored in a database. Once the data is captured, records are compared for each file to identify discrepancies.

Hence, the system is set up so that there is always a back-up, “a second set” of information. Once the system has a substantial foundation of information, people would use it as an online library. Contact information can be retrieved, in case people want to interview the source or subject matter experts (SMEs). Organizations such as film production companies would have to be willing to fund such a project.

This information applies to all kinds of information. NGOs can create a nexus web site; and perhaps they have already created it. A virtual Palestine museum might be able to use such an application.

Through art and artistic expression, such as film, the possibilities are endless.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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