By N.A. Mansour
Common self-care wisdom dictates that the prescribed solution to emotional pain is to binge content. So our global response to the pandemic is increasingly to click on YouTube. It’s not bad advice on any number of fronts and if we’re talking quality, I don’t believe that any food deserves to be called junk food. My brain is counting down the days until new content on the standard television and film streaming platforms peters out, so thank God for Youtube and its creative loopholes to content creation. My fears are also quieted by film institutes who have answered this new call for content, highlighting films available to stream for free or for a small fee for a limited time. Reel Palestine and the Palestine Film Institute (PFI) create that content farm for Palestinian film. I often scroll through their listings, looking for movies I have missed on the film screening circuit over the last few years. I’ve tried unlearning the healthy food, junk food binary. But there is a tiny part of me that is scrolling through because I want a film that my brain was once taught to deem ‘healthy’ –artistic– balancing my affection for the well-crafted Youtube I consume during 20-minute work-breaks.
I wonder who else is tuning in to these new streaming opportunities. Palestinian film has a consistent arthouse quality to it, well represented by the offerings on Reel Palestine and the Palestine Film Institute (PFI). Audience is a big part of this whole phenomenon. It puts a damper on how accessible these streaming films might be. After all, Palestinian film, rooted in a style borrowed from film circuits of Europe and North America was made for a Palestinian like me. I know these film institutes exist, I’ve been exposed to them, I seek them out, and repetition breeds familiarity breeds love. But others in Palestinian communities might not know they even exist. These films –like The Time that Remains, Paradise Lost, and Palestine Stereo – exist in a closed world of film circuits and independent theaters in North America and Europe; I wonder, too, if film-makers are in dialogue with Palestinian communities as they craft films. It’s also a question of funding. Since there is no fully Palestinian film production outfit, Palestinian artists need to look elsewhere in order to fund their art, crafting films to meet the expectations of foreign producers. Hany Abu Assad’s Omar (2013) was the first film to be fully Palestinian-funded. However, by then, it was reflexive to borrow from European-language film. So Palestinian film appeals to the global indie film crowd and in particular, its Palestinian subgroup, who will dutifully go to film screenings at their local independent theater where they exist in North America, Western Europe, and some major cities in the Arabophone world.
I scroll through ReelPalestine and a short film called Maqloubeh, by Nicolas Damuni, catches my eye. I like that it’s 8 minutes long and streaming for free on YouTube, enough to justify taking a streaming break. Plus Maqloubeh does not have the laurels that say it’s been on the film circuit, like most Palestinian films on the page do. It goes beyond being a devotee of the film circuit: Palestinian films, as the industry has grown, have acquired a core set of common themes and textures. So I’m curious if Maqloubeh exists outside of this ethos.
I clicked through – with a brief nod of gratitude that I have a Wifi connection strong enough to stream videos on Youtube – and I braced myself for what I expect of Palestinian arthouse film at large: to be explicit about the condition Palestinians live under. Ihtilal, ‘the occupation’ is often deployed as a narrative device to remind us that Palestine is not yet free, in case you had forgotten. It’s another symptom of catering to arthouse audiences who might not necessarily be resident to Palestine. The occupation becomes, not only the setting but a main character, taking up air on-screen Palestinians could be breathing with its overstated exposition; even in our own language. But Maqloubeh veers in another direction. It is the story of four roommates making maqloubeh, the classic rice, meat and vegetable dish, named such because it is turned upside before serving. The setting is Palestine –this is confirmed by the end of the film– but these are not the Palestinians you see in Paradise Lost or Omar, films that often restrict the Palestinian man to either the role of freedom fighter or the hotheads, perpetually frustrated with the occupation and called to action. It’s a stereotype that is not representative of Palestinian sumud, steadfastness, and is dangerous: representing the Palestinian man who is prone to violence, even if the portrayal is sympathetic, just reinforces old stereotypes. What Maqloubeh delivers is a spectrum of masculinity. These men are ordinary college-aged men, filmed by someone who knows what it is to live without family for the first time; the bulk of the film focuses on their attempt to share food with one another by cooking a complex dish together for the first time. There are the little attempts at making a home, like utensils, staged besides cigarette dishes that remind me of other men I know. Home-making is part of being a Palestinian man. Despite these four men’s bickering over what Maqloubeh is and isn’t, they produce a beautiful dish. This dimension of who they are is complemented by the film’s ending, to which each man has a different response; the Palestinian man does not simply have this element of domesticity, but can be calm, can be angry, and can be frustrated. I decide I like it. Here are many of the men I grew up knowing: many sweet, funny, and sarcastic. In Maqloubeh, Ihtilal does not choke them the way it does other men in Palestinian films.
I continue to feel my way through the film, looking for the absurd, another common theme running through Palestinian film It’s this line between acknowledging that the occupation –someone else’s personal whims and cruelty– forces you to contort into shapes you did not know you yourself could bend into. There’s also pride here in that ability to go undefeated, even when you’re bent so far back your own body is not recognizable. Maqloubeh, in all of its eight minutes, shows the degree to which Palestinians don’t bat an eye at the absurd, rendering the concept null in much Palestinian film; it is geared at convincing non-Palestinians how inhuman the Palestinian reality is. In Maqloubeh, the neighbors of our four protagonists are not surprised how this short dramedy ends. It’s another reason why I’m not sure if this, as much as I see our experiences reflected in it, don’t know if I can say this was really made for Palestinians living in Palestine. These beats are primary to the Palestinian experience, emptied of suspense for those of us who can predict that the absurd will descend upon us. Is something a theme if you live it every day? Absurdity doesn’t shock us, nor do we laud our own ability to get through it. Even the idea of multivalent masculinity is not new to us. Proving humanity is not something we have to do to one another nor am I convinced we should have to perform it for the world in order to justify surviving. But that’s where we’re at. That’s how film manifests as resistance: right now, Palestinian film is about representing Palestine. Denying that reality because of the ‘should’s of social justice theory is futile.
I genuinely loved Maqloubeh. It is delicate and it reminds me of home. But I don’t think I’ll show it to my family and loved ones, just like I won’t recommend they watch many other Palestinian films. While Maqloubeh is this exception to much of the rule, I genuinely don’t know if this is what Palestinians want out of their films. The film is not a distraction from the occupation and the intergenerational trauma that zig-zags across Palestinian communities, mutating to form global webs of depression and anxiety. Especially when COVID-19 has just given the occupation more tools to play with. It’s getting worse as COVID testing kits are seized from entry to the West Bank and as Gaza suffers from a COVID-19 outbreak while the world is occupied with its own problems. But then again, there is something to the fact that many Palestinians, living in Palestine or outside of it as refugees, aren’t the audience film institutes are looking for when they advertise that the films are streaming. It’s the funding here that makes the difference. So in the end, the irony is that as the occupation sucks the air out of the films we make, the films we have to make to represent Palestinians to the world, but not necessarily for our own people.
N.A. Mansour is a historian and a PhD candidate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, where she is writing a dissertation on the transition between manuscript and print in Arabic-language contexts. She produces podcasts for different venues and co-edits Hazine.info.