Second Intifada cinema and the experimental aesthetic of Palestinian film

Palestinian families attend the screening of a movie during the opening of the "Red Carpet" cinema festival in Gaza City, on May 12, 2016
6 min read
06 September, 2022
Since its inception, cinema in Palestine has been a vital medium to project the day-to-day suffering under occupation to an audience beyond the lens. In particular, the Second Intifada brought a new wave of filmmaking, with a fascinating aesthetic.

When the Second Intifada, which the Palestinians call ‘Al-Intifada Al-Aqsa’, erupted in 2000, it inspired several Palestinian filmmakers who felt the urgent need to connect with international audiences and challenge the political interpretation of the circumstances.

The distortion of the reality of the Israel-Palestine concept of nation was the main preoccupation for the population of these territories.

The level of violence that started in September 2000, after Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the Temple Mount, was extreme.

From September 29, 2000, to January 2005, 3,189 Palestinians were killed according to statistics from the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. In addition, 4,100 Palestinian homes were demolished, and some 6,000 Palestinians were arrested.

"Violence was so common and frequent that many artists and filmmakers could not help but react by making films, writing stories and speaking out, searching for any way to say we are here and we are alive"

These circumstances were covered by various media productions, seeking a plurality of views, that included documentaries, works of fiction, animations and experimental films.

Reflecting on the inhuman conditions that Palestinians lived under, filmmakers Annemarie Jacir, Dahna Abourahme and Suzy Salamy lived in the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, from 2002-2004, to shoot Until When (2004) – a poignant sometimes ironical and intimate documentary following four families struggling to survive.

In 2002, Israel initiated the construction of a wall to separate the West Bank and Israel; Palestinians call it the ‘Apartheid Wall’.

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Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (2004) is a documentary film by Palestinian director Michel Khleifi and Israeli director Eyal Seyan.

The four-hour, non-fiction film is in three parts, and it was shot during a two-month journey that the directors took in the summer of 2002, during which they revisited the path of the border outlined in Resolution 181.

In the documentary, a collection of voices sometimes reflects ignorance, racism and a great sense of vulnerability.

Soon-released documentaries, which featured a greater level of political contextualization in response to the violence, constituted a challenge for filmmakers who made experimental films inspired by an artistic impulse to resist.

“Violence was so common and frequent that many artists and filmmakers could not help but react by making films, writing stories and speaking out, searching for any way to say we are here and we are alive," award-winning Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir tells The New Arab.

Palestinian independent filmmakers – here understood as individual filmmakers who access new technologies to reduce overall costs – elaborated in the cinematic works on the notions of landscape and movement in the context of changing and overlapping geographies.

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In the short film Like Twenty Impossibles (2003), Jacir turns her camera to the West Bank landscape and the irritation triggered by the myriad of checkpoints that disrupt the circulation of the Palestinian population in the West Bank.

The plot revolves around the trip of a Palestinian film crew going to Jerusalem from Ramallah that is aborted first by reaching a closed checkpoint (actually filmed in Kalandia) and then by the Israeli army.

The crew is eventually separated. In this fictional story, the central character is an American-Palestinian director named Annemarie, who is played by Palestinian actress Reem Abu Sbaih.

As part of its legacy programme, Unpacking ArteArchive, ArteEast presented a selection of films compiled from its ArteArchive film and video collection by guest curator Kay Dickinson under the title The Second Intifada: Twenty Years On.

The collection was screened on the organization's Unpacking ArteArchive platform online, which preserves and presents over 17 years of film and video programming by ArteEast, screening curators’ selections from the ArteArchive in dialogue with contemporary voices.

The organisation is dedicated to introducing a growing global audience to the contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa.

Particularly, the films in this programme demonstrate a fresh, urgent and experimental approach to filmmaking that is in tune with the circumstances of that time.

"The mini view of the ants also reflected, for me, very much the mood that we were in being trapped in Ramallah, in our homes, in a world that was shrinking before our eyes"

The programme not only included Like Twenty Impossibles by Annemarie Jacir, but also the short film Going for a Ride? (2003) by Palestinian filmmaker Nahed Awwad. The latter also filmed the art installation Going for a Ride? by Palestinian Artist Vera Tamari. Freedom, travel and movement: This is what cars symbolise.

In April 2002, the Israeli army destroyed hundreds of privately-owned cars in the two towns of Ramallah and El-Bireh. The shells of the cars that became part of an installation were brought to life by Awwad in her short, which tried to look into the memories of those who drove the cars.

To overcome the financial difficulties that continued to impede Palestinian cinema and deal with difficulties in sourcing foundings locally, filmmakers resorted to co-productions.

Summer 2006, Palestine was a unique co-production initiated by a collective of Palestinian filmmakers. This collection of 13 short videos and art animations of less than three minutes each resulted in a crossover between film, video art, individual impression and collective voices.

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In Red, Dead and Mediterranean, Palestinian director Akram al Ashqar portrayed Palestinian children who are obsessed with a sea they know nothing about.

A World Apart Within 15 Minutes by Enas Muthaffar is set in a car on the Israeli side of the border. A woman challenges passers-by who are unable to give directions to Ramallah. Is their behaviour an act of denial?

Both Annemarie Jacir and Nahed Awwad were actively involved in the initiative.

In Sound of The Street (2006), Annemarie Jacir focuses on the view of a handful of ants moving on a surface. As symbols of industriousness, ants appear organically busy with their daily routines.

In the background, music and several voices talk about politics and gossip. When a barrier suddenly appears, it generates a disconnection between the voices and the movement of the ants.

Here, again, Jacir, who in 2007 shot the first feature film by a female Palestinian director (the celebrated Salt of This Sea), challenges the interpretation of these circumstances.

She affirms to The New Arab: “The mini view of the ants also reflected, for me, very much the mood we were in being trapped in Ramallah, in our homes, in a world that was shrinking before our eyes. It was also around the time when the Apartheid Wall was dropped on us.”

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In Not Just Any Sea (2006), Nahed Awwad recreates an intimate conversation that a girl had with her beloved while they were separated.

The perfect romantic location is a beach bathed by the sea. With only the voice of the girl audible, we see the waves caressing her feet.

The political implications of such a metaphor become clearer when, in conversation, she recalls a trip to Tulkarem where she sees the wall. It thus becomes clear that the sea is the natural border of historic Palestine.

Elisa Pierandrei is an Italian journalist and author based in Milan. She writes and researches stories across art, literature, and the visual media.

Follow her on Twitter: @ShotOfWhisky