Resisting displacement, overcoming separation in Palestinian Cinema

by Anandi Ramamurthy

Since 2016, Sarita Malik, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at Brunel University London, has been leading a team of researchers working on a large AHRC funded consortia project focused on the relationship between communities, creative production and inequality. Creative Interruptions researches how marginalised communities use the arts, media and creativity to challenge exclusion. Through research strands based in mainland UK, Northern Ireland, Palestine and India, it explores the local and global dynamics that rupture, alienate, and marginalise communities and the creative tools used to address and tackle disenfranchisement. In this article, Dr Anandi Ramamurthy from Sheffield Hallam University outlines how the Palestine strand of the Creative Interruptions project addresses the issues of cinema and marginalisation.

Creative Interruptions has sought to explore the power of culture as an agent for social change, for those who have been excluded from the creative industries and disenfranchised more widely through the enactment of law, public policy, and social practices. Film and audiovisual media have played a key role in a number of strands as strategies that have been employed by disenfranchised groups in ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’ (hooks 1991) to interrupt dominant discourses and challenge marginalisation and erasure.

In the Palestine Strand for the Creative Interruptions project, we have sought to explore the ways in which Palestinian Cinema works to challenge hegemonic narratives and representations about Palestine and offer a deeper understanding of the Palestinian experience. We have been concerned to consider the ways in which cinema has tried to address injustice and resist oppression. Palestinian cinema has been a powerful tool to both imagine futures, as well as draw attention to the realities of the present, none more so than the forced displacement and restrictions of movement felt by Palestinians both within the borders of historic Palestine and beyond.

The Palestinian Context

Palestinians make up one of the largest groups of refugees in the world. In 1948, following the creation of the state of Israel, approximately 720,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, with many still unable to return. This Nakba or Catastrophe marked the beginning of a process of displacement that continues to this day. In 2012, there were an estimated 4,950,000 registered refugees of Palestinian origin with the UNRWA. This number does not include Palestinian refugees who were internally displaced, with estimates suggesting that this includes over 1 million living within the borders of the Israeli state. It is not just refugees that suffer restrictions on movement. All Palestinians, through the identity card system are segregated into residents of specific zones. Those living in 1948 Palestine have a blue identity card; green identity cards and restrictive resident permits apply to those in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians in the refugee camps of Lebanon are stateless, while those in Jordan and Syria have no right to enter the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

In the new millennium, following the second Intifada, restrictions on movement and continued forced displacement have only increased for Palestinians with the building of what is widely called the 'Israeli Apartheid Wall' by human rights groups (what the Israeli state calls the separation barrier). The wall and its ‘associated regime’ has been declared as illegal by the UN and the subsequent siege of Gaza, home to over a million people who are hemmed in with no seaport or airport and only two crossings controlled by Israel and Egypt. A 2017 UN report concluded that the fragmentation of the Palestinian people by Israel is ‘an aspect of the control arrangements that rely on “inhuman acts” for the purpose of systematic racial domination’ (Falk and Tilley 2017).


Separation and Displacement in Palestinian Cinema


Separation and displacement so central to contemporary Palestinian experience have found expression in both drama and documentary within contemporary Palestinian Cinema, a medium that has narrated the Palestinian tragedy in dozens of creative ways while also giving expression to their resistance and resilience. There is hardly a Palestinian film that does not touch on the theme of borders, checkpoints, exile, displacement or restrictions of movement. The focus is not on international borders, but rather on the borders and restrictions of movement imposed by the Israeli state on the Palestinian people. In both fiction and documentary, Palestinian Cinema has narrated the centrality of the methodical, deliberate and calculated construction of barriers, separations and systematic displacement of Palestinians from their homes, livelihoods and families.

The experience of apartheid restrictions of movement led Gertz and Khleifi to describe Palestinian cinema in the early 2000s as a genre of ‘roadblock movies’, with journeys through both time and space ruptured and often compressed. (Gertz and Khleifi 2008) The feeling of compression finds particularly strong expression in Masharawi’s Laila’s Birthday (2008), where at every turn, Abu Laila, played by Mohammad Bakri experiences disruptions in his attempts to drive his taxi and simply return home on time with a birthday cake for his daughter. It is not just through the narrative that disruptions and a feeling of compression occur. Restrictions on movement also affect Abu Laila psychologically as he tries to ignore the brutality of occupation by refusing to take his passengers to the checkpoint. The compression builds with repeated obstacles to his journey. The camera itself is restricted in its focus, often centred on the cramped space of Abu Laila’s taxi, unable to pan across any open landscapes. The psychological and physical compressions eventually erupt towards the end of the film as Abu Laila literally explodes in anger at the chaos caused by the Israeli occupation, when he is persuaded to go to the checkpoint with a passenger.


While a film such as Laila’s Birthday acts to dramatise with tenderness and wry humour the reality of daily existence under occupation in the West Bank capital of Ramallah, other films paint images of defiance through imaginative challenges and resistances which undermine the occupation’s attempts to control freedom of movement. In Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) a balloon with the image of a smiling Arafat floats across the checkpoint, uncontainable by military manoeuvres and in Sulieman’s The Time that Remains (2009), we see the filmmaker literally pole vault over the wall in a surreal enactment of defiance. While Suleiman presents the scaling of the wall as a act of symbolic defiance, other filmmakers such Khaled Jarrar in Infiltrators (2013) or Hany Abu-Assad in Omar (2013), represent the wall as part of everyday life, manoeuvred over or around, in order to manage the most ordinary aspects of daily life – visiting family or lovers, going to work or school. These narratives, capture moments of everyday defiance, sometimes tinged with humour such as the sight of a slightly overweight middle aged man clambering over the barrier in Infiltrators. At other times it is employed to mark the protagonists’ ability to overcome obstacles as in Omar where the protagonist scales the wall repeatedly in an image of masculine prowess until circumstances change and life becomes increasingly uncertain. In these gestures we are given glimpses of ‘Sumud’, resilience to the occupation. In Abu-Assad’s Rana’s Wedding (2002), resistance to these barriers culminates in the wedding taking place at the checkpoint to ensure that it goes ahead on time.


While cinematic imagination may poke fun at checkpoints or the wall to deride its power, it should not let us underestimate one of the most overriding uses of film in the Palestinian context – the ability to give testament - to expose the injustices of occupation, the devastating impact of blockades and restrictions on daily life. In Palestinian documentaries, numerous styles and strategies are employed, from Mohammad Alatar’s expository styled Broken released in 2018 to expose the illegality of the wall to Nahed Awad’s Gaza Calling, a tender film in the observational mode that offers insight into the restrictions on movement between the West Bank and Gaza, leading to forced family separations sometimes lasting decades which shatter young dreams and hopes. Gaza Calling was one of the documentaries that Creative Interruptions screened in the programme Love and Desire in Palestine to audiences in four UK cities. We sought to consider the meaning of love in the context of occupation and displacement. One of the most powerful aspects of Gaza Calling is the juxtaposition of the expressions of familial love and the pain of separation with the weight of the unending machine of bureaucracy that we witness through the endless stamping and movement of forms and envelopes on an industrial scale. Influenced by the visualisation of totalitarian bureaucracy in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with the use of a similar musical score, the pain of separation through what Nahed Awad describes as the ‘psychological torture’ of these administrative processes is made all the more intense. In other documentaries such as Mai Masri’s Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), the devastating legacy of displacement and separation is witnessed in the extraordinary scenes of families who are able to meet briefly through the barbed wire barrier between Lebanon and Israel after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon in 2000. An old woman no longer able to walk is carried in a chair to meet her loved ones; grandmothers touch their grandchildren for the first time and framed photos are displayed as tokens of memories.

The restrictions on freedom of movement and forced displacement are realities that are not just exposed in Palestinian cinema, but impact on the actual making of Palestinian cinema. Awad, born in Beit Sahour outside Bethlehem, and holding a Green West Bank ID card was not allowed to travel to Gaza to film scenes there. Instead she had to employ a separate crew and communicate with them electronically and through the telephone in order to direct the parts of the film made in Gaza. The reality of occupation also meant that the footage had to be brought through Consular support to the West Bank in order for her to complete editing and post-production. Risk is a significant aspect in the making of Palestinian documentaries, a reality that is hit home in the opening of Jarrar’s Infiltrators as we watch dozens of men waiting to cross into Jerusalem and Israel in order to work. The opening scenes, the grainy images produced in poor light of men crouching and hiding, waiting for the moment they can run to a van that will transport them to work, are reminiscent of the investigative news reports of refugees attempting to cross international borders. The camera shakes and hides behind clumps of earth, making us aware of the cameraman’s own vulnerability as he films the men, labelled ‘infiltrators’, although they are in the land of their origin. These circumstances of production make the investigation of the creativity of Palestinian Cinema and its engagement and resistance to the restrictions imposed by freedom of movement, a process that demands an understanding of the contexts of production and exhibition, which the research is exploring.


One imaginative and creative use of cinema to challenge the restrictions of the apartheid wall that has devastated communities economically and socially is Leila Sansour’s Open Bethlehem. It provides a concrete way of examining the use of cinematic creativity to not just create narratives that expose the realities and injustices of occupation, but to employ cinema as an integrated part of a wider campaign, which challenges the barriers and restrictions of movement imposed by the occupation. Released in 2014 the film narrates the encircling of the wall around Bethlehem, isolating it from surrounding villages and restricting travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Like Sansour’s previous film Jeremy Hardy v the Israeli Army Sansour focuses on people’s resistance. In Open Bethlehem, she does not simply document the building of the wall and the devastating consequences for local residents, with one family literally encircled by its presence on three sides, but also narrates the attempts by a group of local people including the filmmaker to resist the damage to Bethlehem’s economic development by developing a strategy to ‘Open Bethlehem’ through the promotion of tourism in a city with an iconic status internationally that in ordinary circumstances would be able to employ its historic significance to develop its economy.

Employing a performative mode, Sansour’s Open Bethlehem is a deeply personal film that draws us into her own relationship with her home town. Using home videos of her late father, the founder of the Bethlehem University and narrating her own romantic image of that ‘little town of Bethlehem’ that she had created for herself as a child. We watch Sansour open up and re-establish the family home to which she now returns to as an adult in order to document through film the dramatic changes taking place a result of the building of the wall and her work with the Bethlehem civic authorities to establish a PR campaign to ‘Open Bethlehem’. Since its release, the film has acted as a tool within a wider campaign that ‘works to promote global engagement with Bethlehem boosting international interest and awareness’. In a challenge to the statelessness of Palestinians who continue to have no official passports, but only travel documents, Sansour and the Open Bethlehem team created Bethlehem Passports, issued to Bethlehem ambassadors in a symbolic act of resistance to their own statelessness.


What Creative Interruptions research on Palestinian film narratives has highlighted is firstly that we need to widen our understanding of the discourses around freedom of movement to one that is relevant not only to the crossing of international borders but also of internal borders. Palestinian Cinema offers narratives that demand that we recognise colonialism and occupation as central issues in restricting freedom of movement. There are multiple expressions of creativity by Palestinian filmmakers, yet the restricted circulation of this cinema internationally, which we have investigated through action research, continues to perpetuate the marginalisation of the Palestinian experience.

About the Author:

Anandi Ramamurthy is Reader in Post/Colonial Cultures at Sheffield Hallam University. She is a CI for Creative Interruptions in which she has led a strand on Palestinian Cinema.




Gertz and Khleifi 2009 Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory, Edinburgh University Press
hooks, b 1991 Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics Boston, South End Press
Falk R & Tilly V, 2017 Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, United Nations