Palestinian Filmmaker, Israeli Passport

15 May, 2022
Direc­tor Hany Abu-Assad  (pho­to cour­tesy Ilia Melnikov/Haaretz).

 

Jordan Elgrably

 

Out of his­toric Pales­tine, stretch­ing from the Jor­dan Riv­er to the Mediter­ranean, Israel has cre­at­ed bor­ders and ruins, a ver­i­ta­ble palimpsest of a rich land, home to a diverse pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Jews. But for those whose fathers and moth­ers and grand­fa­thers and grand­moth­ers were born in the region, many going back gen­er­a­tions, whether the map calls it Israel today, or Pales­tine Area A, B or C, for most Pales­tini­ans, only the nomen­cla­ture has changed, even as Israel has imposed an increas­ing­ly dystopic real­i­ty of unequal cit­i­zen­ship, or apartheid on the ground.

Ula Tabari is a Pales­tin­ian actress, direc­tor and activist.

Cer­tain­ly Israel’s Nation State basic law, or Nation­al­i­ty Bill, passed in 2018, impos­es sec­ond class cit­i­zen­ship on its Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion. As B’Tselem has not­ed, “It estab­lish­es that dis­tin­guish­ing Jews in Israel (and through­out the world) from non-Jews is fun­da­men­tal and legit­i­mate. Based on this dis­tinc­tion, the law per­mits insti­tu­tion­al­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion in favor of Jews in set­tle­ment, hous­ing, land devel­op­ment, cit­i­zen­ship, lan­guage and culture.”

Pales­tin­ian Israeli film­mak­ers and per­form­ers ben­e­fit from Israeli nation­al­i­ty on one hand, when work­ing and trav­el­ing in the west, but on the oth­er, are crit­i­cized by Arab gov­ern­ment offi­cials for hold­ing on to their Israeli nation­al­i­ty, with­out which they could not read­i­ly return to Haifa, Nazareth, west Jerusalem — or any num­ber of small towns and vil­lages, where they go to spend time with family.

I con­nect­ed with Pales­tin­ian actress and film­mak­er Ula Tabari by phone in Paris, where she has lived for the past 24 years. A crit­ic of the Israeli estab­lish­ment, Ula made it clear that for her, there was no dif­fer­ence between the Pales­tini­ans of her home­town, Nazareth, and those in Beth­le­hem, Jenin or Ramal­lah; but when asked, she avowed that she would nev­er give up her Israeli cit­i­zen­ship. This is her pass­port to her past, and the present.

Oth­er Pales­tin­ian film­mak­ers who have cho­sen to live abroad, and are often dual nation­als, include direc­tors Michel Khleifi (Wed­ding in Galilee; Zin­deeq) in Bel­gium; Hany Abu-Assad (Par­adise Now; Omar; Huda’s Salon) in the Nether­lands; Elia Suleiman (Chron­i­cle of a Dis­ap­pear­ance; Divine Inter­ven­tion) in Paris; Sameh Zoabi (Man With­out a Cell Phone; Tel Aviv on Fire) in New York; and Scan­dar Cop­ti (Aja­mi) in Abu Dhabi, as well as the actress Hiam Abbass, who lives in Paris and direct­ed Inher­i­tance and Jerusalem, I Love You.

When I last spoke to Hany Abu-Assad, who thus-far has had one of the most suc­cess­ful direct­ing careers a Pales­tin­ian could hope for — includ­ing two Oscar nom­i­na­tions for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film — he seemed to have learned a great deal about him­self and Israel, with years of hind­sight. While he spends far more time abroad than back home in Nazareth, Abu-Assad also is not about to relin­quish his Israeli pass­port. Do Israelis claim him, the way they do Arab artists like Anton Sham­mas or Sayed Kashua — both of whom have worked in Hebrew?

If you want to know if some­body is intel­li­gent and has integri­ty, and also is a brave politi­cian, man or woman, a brave artist, you ask him for his opin­ion about Pales­tine. —Hany Abu-Assad

Direc­tor Ali Nas­sar was born in the Galilee (pho­to iMDB).

“Israel is not one per­son,” he says. “There are open-mind­ed peo­ple who are very sup­port­ive, and there are oth­er peo­ple who find the idea that a Pales­tin­ian has made a good movie threat­en­ing. These peo­ple came to the con­clu­sion the best way is just to ignore me, for the more they try to fight me, the more atten­tion I’ll get. And they’re right, it’s the best way indeed.”

When I bring up the sub­ject of Pales­tini­ans with Israeli nation­al­i­ty, and the mat­ter of Israel’s apartheid for most Pales­tini­ans on either side of the Green Line, Abu-Assad seems a tad bored. “My hon­est opin­ion? I think Israel is passé. It’s like it’s past its expi­ra­tion date. Behind our back it’s kept in the refrigerator.

“…It’s passé. As for the inter­na­tion­al call for Pales­tin­ian rights, for jus­tice, this is big­ger than Israel. What’s hap­pen­ing in gen­er­al is that the Unit­ed States is los­ing its place in the world, and this is going to have a much big­ger impact on the world than the State of Israel…There are a lot of inter­nal prob­lems — just the idea that some­body like Trump was the pres­i­dent for four years tells you that it’s passé. So this is much big­ger news than the State of Israel…With the Unit­ed States, because it’s so big, nobody sees the down­fall [com­ing], but it’s com­ing down and this is hav­ing much more of an impact than the strug­gle between the State of Israel and Palestine…We are almost on the verge of col­lapse, all humans. Let’s say anoth­er five or ten years? It’s going to col­lapse, the envi­ron­ment. Eco­nom­i­cal­ly it’s going to col­lapse. You have an econ­o­my built on greed. Can you imag­ine? Which genius expects that this econ­o­my is sustainable?”

Although almost every one of the eight fea­ture films Abu-Assad has made deals with Pales­tini­ans and Israel, today the direc­tor insists, “Israel and Pales­tine are irrel­e­vant.” Nonethe­less, he says, “I am using Pales­tine as a metaphor for, let’s say, human experience…Palestine for me is the weath­er­vane, the com­pass, this is how I see Pales­tine now. If you want to know if some­body is intel­li­gent and has integri­ty, and also is a brave politi­cian, man or woman, a brave artist, you ask him for his opin­ion about Palestine.”


Michel Khe­li­fi’s films, includ­ing Wed­ding in Galilee, inspired Hany Abu-Assad to evolve from his career as an aero­space engi­neer in Hol­land into a film­mak­er known around the world. Khe­li­fi left Nazareth — the largest Pales­tin­ian city in Israel — in his 20s to study the­atre and cin­e­ma in Bel­gium. Khe­li­fi has always iden­ti­fied as a Pales­tin­ian, but also as a cit­i­zen of the world, and he has spent more years abroad than home in Pales­tine. “I am the sum of my many parts,” he says. His movies are crit­i­cal of Israel’s unjust poli­cies against Pales­tini­ans on both sides of the 1948 divid­ing line. At the same time, they essen­tial­ly form a cin­e­ma of lib­er­a­tion, which also takes a crit­i­cal look at Arab soci­ety while pro­mot­ing per­son­al free­dom, par­tic­u­lar­ly women’s rights.

Hiam Abbass, about whom I’ve writ­ten else­where, syn­the­sizes for many film­go­ers the essence of Pales­tine. An inter­na­tion­al film star, she is a poly­glot in Ara­bic, Hebrew, Eng­lish and French. “In my youth,” Abbass once explained, “lan­guages served as an escape route. I dreamed in Eng­lish of sto­ries with­out sol­diers and oppressed women.” Raised in a vil­lage in the Galilee by lib­er­al par­ents, Abbass remem­bers learn­ing about tol­er­ance from read­ing Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. “With­out it,” she says, “I would­n’t have known how to love or forgive.”

As an ado­les­cent dur­ing the 1973 war, Abbass con­tin­ue to ask her­self ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, as a Pales­tin­ian on the west side of the divid­ing line. She has pre­vi­ous­ly said that, “As a teenag­er, I imag­ined tak­ing up arms. But that was not my path. I kept ask­ing myself the ques­tion of belong­ing. I lived among the Israelis, I stud­ied with them, but when­ev­er a polit­i­cal prob­lem arose, I was made to feel that I had a part in it.”

In her first fea­ture film as a direc­tor, Inher­i­tance (2012), which she co-wrote, Abbass cap­tured the Israel/Palestine of her youth. “Orig­i­nal­ly I had set it in 2006, dur­ing the Israeli-Lebanese con­flict,” Abbass explained. “But in the end, I decid­ed to treat it as a col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of my child­hood.” Influ­enced by her love of Ital­ian cin­e­ma, Inher­i­tance con­tains the essence of Hiam Abbass the actress, the screen­writer, the direc­tor, the Pales­tin­ian with Israeli and French nationalities.

The caveat? “I’m not respon­si­ble for the bur­den of rep­re­sent­ing all Pales­tini­ans,” she says. “I have only one iden­ti­ty, film and per­for­mance. In film you can explore so much more than you can with reality.”

Hiam Abbass drove home the truth that she does not see her­self as a Pales­tin­ian sym­bol when she stat­ed in an inter­view with Allociné: “…I con­sid­er myself a per­former and a human being, more than some­one who belongs to one peo­ple or another.”

 

Pales­tin­ian Israeli actress and direc­tor Hiam Abbass costarred in Denis Vil­leneu­ve’s Blade Run­ner 2049.

 

Of the few Pales­tin­ian Israeli film­mak­ers who have cho­sen to stay, we can speak of Suha Arraf (born in the Pales­tin­ian vil­lage of Melya, near the bor­der with Lebanon), screen­writer of The Syr­i­an Bride and Lemon Tree, and direc­tor of Vil­la Touma; direc­tor Ali Nas­sar (The Milky Way; In the 9th Month); direc­tor Maysa­loun Hamoud (In Between); actor Ali Suleiman; and of course, the great­est Pales­tin­ian Israeli actor of his gen­er­a­tion, Mohammed Bakri, whose doc­u­men­tary as a direc­tor, Jenin, Jenin was banned in Israel last year after a pro­tract­ed court case. Judges deter­mined the film den­i­grat­ed Israel for its role in the 2002 attack on the Jenin refugee camp.

Arraf’s film Vil­la Touma caused an uproar in Israel when it was released in 2014, because she called it “a Pales­tin­ian film” even though much of its fund­ing result­ed from Israel state insti­tu­tions. Arraf respond­ed with a sting­ing rebuke in Haaretz: “I am an Arab, a Pales­tin­ian and a cit­i­zen of the State of Israel,” she wrote in an op-ed. “The State of Israel nev­er accept­ed us as cit­i­zens with equal rights. From the day the state was estab­lished, we were marked as the ene­my and treat­ed with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in all areas of life. Why, then, am I expect­ed to rep­re­sent Israel with pride?”

When direc­tor Ali Nas­sar was asked about the issue of Israel demand­ing loy­al­ty from its Pales­tin­ian film­mak­ers who receive gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, he respond­ed: “What’s a ‘Pales­tin­ian movie’? There aren’t any movies made with Pales­tin­ian mon­ey, because there is no Pales­tin­ian film foun­da­tion. So a Pales­tin­ian movie is a Pales­tin­ian sto­ry about Pales­tin­ian cul­ture, by a Pales­tin­ian film­mak­er, regard­less of where the finan­cial sup­port comes from.”

While some Pales­tin­ian Israeli film­mak­ers con­tin­ue to work in Israel, sev­er­al no longer accept state fund­ing, and of those film­mak­ers who have decamped abroad, few are will­ing to risk tak­ing mon­ey from Israel these days.

Yet Pales­tin­ian film­mak­ers who are cit­i­zens of Israel are native Pales­tini­ans. They argue that they pay tax­es, and have a right to expect full cit­i­zen­ship with equal rights, which includes access to state fund­ing insti­tu­tions. It is a ter­ri­ble bind. As Ali Nas­sar told a Haaretz reporter, “The Israelis don’t want them and the Arabs accuse them, no mat­ter what they do. In all the fes­ti­vals I attend­ed around the world, Arabs said to me, ‘Your movie is excel­lent, but why do you take mon­ey from an Israeli foun­da­tion?’ For years I was asked this, and answered that I’m not a col­lab­o­ra­tor, that I receive sup­port from the film foun­da­tion because I pay tax­es, I’m not doing them a favor, it’s my right to receive this mon­ey. I said to them — You don’t want me to take Israeli mon­ey? So let’s start a Pales­tin­ian film foun­da­tion with mon­ey from the Arab world and make movies. But I won’t for­go Israeli mon­ey because it is my full right, it’s my money.”

So many Pales­tin­ian film­mak­ers, per­form­ers and writ­ers with Israeli pass­ports now live abroad that some in Israel con­sid­er it a “tal­ent drain.” Exact­ly what the future holds for Pales­tin­ian natives west of the divid­ing line is uncertain.