Issue 2/2002 - Nahost

»Survival, not comprehension«

An interview with the Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi in April 2002

Fareed Armaly

Documenta11 invited me last year to consider again my 1999 project From/To [see [i]springerin[/i] 2, 1999], which »charted out a contemporary topos: Palestine.« For me, this first version had offered many possibilities, but it had also provided a framework for considering the conversion of my earlier, more research-based, textual works into »scripts«, spatial, performative narratives. Those earlier projects focused on the importance of modeling cultural representations in terms of identity politics. My perspective is that of a first-generation American born of Palestinian and Lebanese emigrants, which means a contemporary logic that would join music journals or exhibitions on institutionalizing the orientalist discourse. The notion of 'identity' was mapped out in terms of passages along a fault line between idealist or essentialist positions (most evident when contemporary cultural institutions are imagined and then realized in society), where I remain invested in a constellation of changing correspondences whose potential is inherent to the space of the diasporic projection. As Stuart Hall notes, the possibility in diasporic passages is when 'roots are becoming routes,' not one-way passages anchored to a nostalgia.

I felt that, for the conditions of 2002 and in Documenta11, From/To should be more prominently focused on a dialog, and in particular with a participant who had supported the first 1999 project outline and the sense of 'scripting,' and so I extended my invitation to include, at a collaborative level, Ramallah-based filmmaker Rashid Masharawi (b.1962, Shati Refugee Camp). Masharawi's discourse joins filmmaking with founding cultural institutions in Ramallah - the Cinema Production Center and the Mobile Cinema for refugee camps. While his features (Curfew, Haifa) and documentaries (Live From Palestine) have received awards and critical recognition, Masharawi sees their value in reinforcing his situation, being the only Palestinian feature maker to continue to live and produce in the occupied territories in the past decades. His work portrays both his knowledge of living under Israeli occupation in refugee camps and his constant reflection on cinema narrative. The scripts offer the most economic of storylines, yet with relations plotted out in complex diagrams created by their reflections off the hard limits of actual confinement.

Along with From/To, Masharawi's work is featured in the Documenta11 cinema program with »Live From Palestine,« »Tension« and his latest feature, »A Ticket to Jerusalem,« which will have its world premiere in Kassel on June 13.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b] Your work in Ramallah joins together the issues of cinema, both documentary and features, but also production and reception, as you founded an overall cultural space, the Cinema Production Center and Mobile Cinema for refugee camps. What were your intentions?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] I considered whether I should live abroad when I had the possibility after the success of my first features, to be closer to cities where production companies could support me, and television always needs Arabic coordinators. I decided I had to remain within Palestine. But I didn't want to be in a desert. I need an environment in order to make films, to have other filmmakers around, to hear music, see exhibitions, and have a more active relation to cinema and culture. To establish this, I thought that we here must have the possibility to see and make films.

To make films, there are a few filmmakers known internationally who live abroad, so I established workshops, training, to create the ground to produce films in the future with the Cinema Production Center (CPC). The CPC is well known and active in Ramallah, a production center that has a gallery, a hall for artists to meet. I felt this can at least help keep those people who can study cinema outside and come back, so they have an address, and don't just leave and go back to those countries. They can discuss, watch, as well as try to make films. If they have no immediate possibility then they can be involved at different levels. The Mobile Cinema shows films in different refugee camps where there are no cinemas.

We began with two 16mm projectors showing in cultural and sports centers, and schools, and today we even have one 35mm projector. Once a year we hold a children's film festival from four different cities; the last time, total attendance was 90,000. So I have established those because, firstly, I want to stay there, and secondly, I love cinema and this is what keeps the desire to make films there, not because of establishing a Palestinian State and the fact that we will all need a cinema.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b]We have often discussed how formative childhood years are in terms of displacement and memory - could you describe the sense of culture in a refugee camp life which your films portray?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] Childhood is important for any person, something that perhaps may later be missed - but what can I miss from a refugee camp? The Israeli occupation? Those houses? The difference between my generation and our parents is that they missed Jaffa, real houses, real gardens. Many people from other cities use to come to Jaffa to have holidays, to shop, to go to a café; my father used to go to the cinemas. They came from this childhood, so they missed this. But in my generation, what we miss is not ours - it can just be what the UN gave us.

In Jaffa, they could choose the life, the way, the style, the colors of the clothes, the haircut, the food, to change schools. In the refugee camp, we chose nothing; I used to wear the clothes that the UN gave us, and study in their school, and eat the food that they gave us monthly. When I miss my mother's food, it is not her food, because my mother was able to cook, but in the camp she only had those ingredients that she got as UN assistance. We are speaking here about culture - food, school, or architecture of the houses - the camps produce a culture which is not our culture. And it is that which is seen in all the media images which someone takes to say »they are the Palestinians«. But that is not us - what you see is the political situation that put us into that culture.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b] There is a significant difference between picking up a camera and deciding to film in the mid-80s in the occupied territories, and doing the same now. How did you see this then?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] In the 1980s, if one of my friends in the neighborhood asked me what I was doing, I told them about my day job for earning money, not about making films. Because they would just say »you want to make films? We are here under military law! You are crazy to even say it«. Everyone was afraid of Israel then, and films are pictures, which means »political activity«. Filming is not allowed. For sure, if you want something you will manage, but even if I discover it could be possible in some ways, the others around are nervous about it.

Because the law was still the Israeli soldier on the street; they can take you, put you in jail, and you are not allowed to ask why. They can forget you inside. But I also discovered early the power of the moving image, and telling about our situation by art, not violence or shootings, but in this language I can tell my story - our story. In this media, it will bring us somewhere.

[b]Fareed Armaly[/b] In many discussions about diasporic or refugee identity, the desire for a sense of continuity often flattens out the significance in the differences between each generation, which is also true particularly regarding refugee camps.

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] Yes - between my generation and the one following, we have two different realities. As children we wanted space, so we used to play by running across the roofs of the neighborhood, catching glimpses into the courtyards, scenes of life within. Today they have VHS at home and can use the internet, at least at the cultural center. When I was 5, I was affected by the 1967 war. A generation that is 5 in, say,1987, is affected by the beginning of the Intifada, and now grown up; they are perhaps working in the security forces, or even guarding Arafat. In my generation, if you were caught with a picture of Arafat by the Israeli Soldiers, the house would be destroyed. I was beaten at 15 by Israeli soldiers because they asked if I knew Arafat - it is impossible for any Palestinian in the refugee camps not to know who Arafat is! So, while my generation may also be working in the PA now, we had our first experience in this idea of refugee camps, UN schools, receiving clothes. For the next generation in the Intifada, the refugee culture is different, transforming, the inhabitants now have to expand, they try to add onto their spaces, try to buy things, and do as best they can for a normal life.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b] Your feature films »Curfew« and »Haifa« show that life in the refugee camps, with strong key roles for women characters. How do you see these two films in respect of your scripting the roles?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] »Curfew« is based on the fact that I was under curfew many times in my life, and that, under curfew, women - unlike men - remain active because they can get out. The Israeli army allows women to get out every few days to buy food for the family. I was often filming »Curfew« outside during curfew by working alongside women; they served as lookouts to give me enough time to hide if they saw anyone from the army coming. My mother would help as well, often hiding the videotapes on her as she shopped, or under vegetables and fruit.

But I just don't have this feeling of a split between men and women in Palestinian society. My family was never based on that macho, heroic model for the men. I do think that the young men in our society have more freedom than the women. So I addressed this in »Haifa« through the girl-character, who for sure did not exist in real life then. I was trying through her character to suggest to the audience the possibility to choose their own lives, to continue their studies, to marry someone they love and refuse arranged marriages, to try and give a strong example to girls of her age to be envious and try to emulate her, to be like her. In »Haifa«, as well, I reversed the expectations - this girl was related to the main family, and I was using her boyfriend to tell her story, not the other way around.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b] In »Haifa«, like your other films, the story is told through relations that over the course of the film may shift our expectations as to who is the main character. That young-girl character and her story are rendered into the focus while the title character Haifa serves more as the reason for the events to be connected. How was the character of »Haifa« developed?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] Haifa, the character of that film, is very clearly one I created. It isn't common to find a refugee from Haifa in refugee camps in Palestine - they are refugees in other places in the world, in Beirut and so on. Not in Gaza, West Bank, or Jericho, where the film's camp existed. Haifa was a combination, facing what was happening now, carrying the past, looking to the future. I tried to make him a memory, driving nowhere all the time. That film was related to the peace process and myself as a refugee from Jaffa, which can be read as Haifa, only set in this camp in Gaza. After this peace process agreement, it was the first time I felt I lost Jaffa. Even if I stay all my life in the camp, I am standing on Jaffa ground in the camp because I'm a refugee with a problem, and we are working to solve this problem. We haven't yet, but the problem still exists. But if we did not solve the problem, and suddenly the problem does not exist anymore, than how could we solve it? So when they do this peace process I feel like someone takes the ground - which is Jaffa - out from under my feet in the camp. I'm still in the air, nowhere in the camp, and this connection between me and Jaffa - they cut it. It's clear, any further agreement, they will not talk about Jaffa now, so it is clear that refugees will stay refugees, they will not move anywhere. They will change the title, not of the house, family or neighborhood, only it is not the Israeli Occupation, but the Palestinian Authority, or state in the future. It's not Jaffa.

So this was also the dilemma of the character Haifa, trying to understand this peace process that really nobody can understand. And I was just trying to survive this peace process, not to understand. When you don't understand, you have many problems and should also survive.

[b]Fareed Armaly:[/b] With »A Ticket to Jerusalem,« the plot's focus is on an act of moving a large cinema projector from a refugee camp to Jerusalem, for a projection to occur. But one can not help noticing so much that is going on in the setting, the actual circumstances all around, the many checkpoints, bypass roads, tanks passing by, Israeli soldiers unscripted, speaking to the character, the sidewalk in Jerusalem, all are intertwined in equal part to the actors. As you describe Haifa, there is a sense here that the 'main' character may not be the projectionist, but the chronicle of the film projector as agency which allows different vantage points, fiction and real, drawn from your life, to intersect and come into presence slowly unfolding over time. So it seems your newest feature is a contemporary pilgrimage?

[b]Rashid Masharawi:[/b] This new feature, »A Ticket to Jerusalem«, is a fiction in which I have personally many things to say about refugees abroad and here, about settlements, about cinema in Palestine. It can be seen like the difference between my other two full-length features, »Curfew« and »Haifa«. »Curfew« is a documentary situation which I made a feature film out of; I copied a section of life to film and was trying to make it as precise as that piece of life is to me, so it has the dialog of that moment. In »Haifa« I have many things to say, so I wrote the dialog as what I want them to say. Now, for »A Ticket to Jerusalem«, this reality that we are facing today in Palestine is much stronger than any fiction. We exist in the media everywhere, so audiences already have an image of us. I can not come with something now which is supposed to be also of now, and be out of contact with the reality that visibly exists on all the televisions in the world, every day. I chose to make a story which is happening in Palestine, and now, during the second Intifada. The way of moving with the camera in a real location was deliberate to that scenario, and allows me to make the story I want to tell much stronger by the way it joins with this actuality. With this film, I picked up all the elements of its fiction from the documentary form. The film refers to what I know - in the CPC, we do run the mobile cinema, we have difficulties getting around, the Israeli tanks are next to our office, I have difficulties travelling anywhere outside of Ramallah. I consider what interests me personally, dealing with cinema, the political situation now, dealing with Jerusalem, and through cinema touch some of these subjects. It is evident I am speaking about the Palestinian refugees, and the settlements, Jerusalem and the Israeli occupation during the making of this film now, and in a very complicated situation I try to connect those things in what appears as a simple story.

Only when you are not really a refugee are you secure in your own place. Even if I change address to Ramallah I still feel I am a refugee. Also, many of the conditions continue - the films are relevant still. Now there is a curfew again in Palestine, they announce it in over the p.-a. just like in the film. What I have been trying to do is make cinema out of the Palestinian situation. I have something like fifteen films, between features and shorts, documentaries, and together I feel they can offer a mirror and document of Palestinian life in the last twenty years, at well as trying to make cinema.