Interview Michel Khleifi

Film as a Political Work of Art

Palestinian director Michel Khleifi and the Israeli director Eyal Sivan traveled along the border determined by UN Resolution 181 in 1947, according to which Palestine was to be divided into two states. From this trip they created a film. Youssef Hijazi spoke with Michel Khleifi

In the summer of 2002, Palestinian director Michel Khleifi and the Israeli director Eyal Sivan traveled along the border determined by UN Resolution 181 in 1947, according to which Palestine was to be divided into two states. From this trip they created a film that will soon be shown in Berlin. Youssef Hijazi spoke with Michel Khleifi

Mr. Khleifi, you left your home town, Nazareth, when you were 20 – why?

photo: Youssef Hijazi
Michel Khlefi

​​Michel Khleifi: I emigrated for different reasons: political, human, emotional, as well as existential. I wanted another life because my development was blocked in Nazareth. As a Palestinian I had no chance of registering as a student in Israel. So I went to Brussels to study theater there, because I was convinced and still am that culture is the most important commodity for me and for every Arab. I believe that education is the essential element in our struggle and the most significant basis for change.

Palestinian cinema was developed within the PLO. The political side dominated. The director Michel Khleifi offered a different, independent cinema from the beginning. Where did you develop your viewpoint that cinema is not a political apparatus, but a cultural production?

Khleifi: I am convinced that one has access to the world only through education and knowledge. A national change is only possible if we are able to connect Palestinian experiences with human experiences worldwide. This is how I see things and this is the direction my work has gone in.

Concerning my work in film, from the beginning I took an independent route. This is the struggle in which I invested all my energy. My hope is the freedom of the individual who is capable of articulating himself and taking responsibility for his mistakes. Humans make mistakes, but ideology doesn't admit its mistakes, even when it is leading the people into an abyss. Why is our reality the way it is?

In the meantime, five generations have suffered and are still suffering. The question that poses itself is, how do we make this challenge into a civilizing one? Through education, knowledge, creativity and productivity. This is the only way we can change things.

Do you think cinema is the basis for liberation?

Khleifi: Let me calculate it mathematically – how much money have we spent so far on weapons? Billions. What would happen if this money were invested in modernizing the Arab world and in Palestinian society and in a modern education? That would be a true challenge. We need a different understanding, one that makes Palestinian self-confidence possible.

I left my country with these thoughts, and over time the idea crystallized inside me that there is no sense in propagating slogans through the cinema. It is not a collective outcry that is beautiful, but human experience which ends in a feeling and then becomes a slogan. I am primarily interested in the humanity of Palestinian and Arab experience. Really I am in love with this.

After thirty-four years of exile, I still speak Arabic very well, as you can tell. This is my language and my identity without chauvinism. My identity is not based on negation; to the contrary, it is based on integration of the opponent.

Is this why you worked together with the Israeli director Eyal Sivan?

Khleifi: This was our first collaboration, and I see the film as a political work of art. We wanted to show that not all Jews and Israelis are bad – just as not all Arabs, Muslims or Christians are bad. To the contrary, there are common projects that we can accomplish together, on the basis of mutual respect and equal rights. And this with the aim of regaining hope for a better future.

What is the significance of the scene in which an Israeli soldier and a female soldier declare their love for one another at a military checkpoint in front of the camera? This is contrasted to a young Palestinian with tears in his eyes when his mother visits him in prison after a failed suicide attack. Did you intend to represent Palestinians and Israelis as equal?

Khleifi: This does in fact show equate the humanity in both. The soldier is about eighteen years old, the same age as the boy who wanted to carry out the suicide attack. We first tried to bring both down to a human level. But at the same time, this image shows that one of them is armed at a checkpoint, he has power, while the Palestinian is in prison.

It is a film, and so the viewers must read the images, and not only listen to the words. It is my aim that the Arab does not abandon his humanity. The force of our civilization is anchored in its humanity. If humanity is the basis, then we can integrate our opponent without a problem.

There were very different reactions to the film in the press. Some criticized it because the film poisons the dialog on the Arab-Israeli conflict, while others praised it as a pioneer film that addresses the way in which two enemies live together. How do you interpret this reception?

Khleifi: The occupation is represented as a fact in the film. We turn back to the beginning, in the year 1947. This is why the film has been attacked.

On the other hand, there is no film that has shown Palestine like this. We see Palestine from the beginning of "Route 181" to the end of it. It is clear to me that Zionists will not like this humane touch in the film. That is why they have mobilized against us.

The film has more than just a humane side. From a political point of view, don't you also turn the tables?

Khleifi: We have brought memories to the surface, but of course we cannot simply wipe away existing realities. We have to be honest about things in order to work out the contradictions. Early on in the film, we show that there are no Palestinians left in the south. Why not?

In the first scene two boys from Ailaboun tell about the massacre of their village in 1948. The barber from Lod also tells about a massacre that has never been mentioned anywhere before. The facts come to the surface and expose the Zionist lie that says that we wanted to throw the Jews in the sea.

For the first time since 1948 we see and hear Israelis who took part in the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians and who tell about it in front of the camera. Facts that were never shown in this form before. I will say it quite openly, I harbor no hatred. My struggle is a political one, and we have many contradictions in the Arabic world. In principle, the idea of negating the other is a Zionist idea and does not originate in the Arabic world.

We cannot allow this idea to take up space within us, otherwise we will succumb to a mirroring in which we no longer look like ourselves but instead become a mirror image of our enemy. That would be the real tragedy. This film is an attempt to avert this danger.

A part of the reality in Israel that you show is that some Palestinians served in the Israeli army. How did audiences in Arabic countries react to this?

Khleifi: The film has not been shown there, but this fact is generally known anyway. And aren't there a few Arabic companies and countries that work together with Israel?

Let us return to the structure of the historical conflict – things are getting conflated. If we think back to the Middle Ages, we remember that the crusaders in this period solved the problems of the Arabic emirs. If a civilizing plan is missing, then whoever has a plan gets to make the decisions. And today we have no plan. Our plan is romantic and is based on a wish to return.

Is it thinkable that this kind of a wish can be changed in order to make a return in fact possible and thereby to create a new reality? Maybe there was an answer in the 1970s, today we have lost everything. Basically, the most important thing would be that individual Arabs and Palestinians are respected, so that they can freely exist.

In the film, when you leave a place in the car you film it through the rear-view mirror, so that the audience can see those who are left behind. After setting off each time, the camera energetically pans to a new destination. Is this cinematic technique an attempt to express that the past is left behind and the solution lies ahead? The film ends at the border to Lebanon. A dead-end?

Khleifi: That is reality. In our societies and in our relationship to ourselves, we fear the truth. You can hardly find one of us who keeps a diary. Even those who decide on our fate and who have the power to make the decisions that influence our lives – they have never written things down.

The film addresses several political themes. Shortly before the final scene at the Lebanese border there is another scene in which we speak to a mother who lost her son during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. She is Tunisian and her husband is Moroccan. She tells us that they had a good life before in Tunisia and Morocco, and that she ultimately views herself as an Arab. These people are on our side. We don't want to expel them because they are Jews. Then we would be racists.

How do you react to the criticism of some intellectuals?

Khleifi: That's a part of it, too. Palestinian cultural production is also target practice for the Israeli army. Concerning the cinema, during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon they destroyed the Palestinian film institute and its archive. Our film has been attacked by intellectuals such as Bernard Henry Levy. We are in a combat situation that has been familiar to me since I was a barefoot child in Nazareth.

The difference being that I was the son of a poor working family then, and today I teach in New York, Paris and Brussels. I draw my energy from the belief that I am representing a just cause and my cinematic work is the expression of this. This is how I got where I am today. We must free ourselves in order to carry our responsibility in the face of reality.

We cannot equate the victims with the perpetrators, which we also do not do in the film. But the victim does have a responsibility when the perpetrator does not stop martyring. Israel will keep whipping and not let go of anything, as long as the Arab people persist in their inertia. But when the victim takes responsibility into his own hands, he may recognize some of his own mistakes, weaknesses and paralysis. Then things begin to change. Isn't it incredible and shameful, that we have experienced one defeat after another for generations?

The scene in which the barber tells about the massacre in Lod and about the burning of over 300 Palestinian bodies at the order of an Israeli commander is followed by a scene in which railroad tracks are shown – which is a symbol of the transport of Jews into the gas chambers of the Third Reich. Was this intentional?

Khleifi: A few Zionists in Paris wanted to agitate against the film and concentrated on this purported connection, in order to detract attention from the rest of the film. The scene is only a few seconds long, and the whole film lasts over four hours.

This is our history in Palestine. We have the right to film this history and we won't let that be taken away from us. We met this barber by chance. We did not carry out a casting session with all the barbers in the country. The film is about the colonization of Palestine. Some people do not want this truth and this reality to be recognized.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

© 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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