Maan News Agency, May 6, 2009
“Do you know what the problem is?” Nadine, a young Palestinian woman asks an off-screen interviewer. She continues, “It’s that the Palestinian has the ability to forgive… If you, as an Israeli, killed his mother and father and his family, he [the Palestinian] has the ability to start all over again. But the Israeli doesn’t have the ability to believe that the Palestinian will forgive….”
Though many viewers might disagree, it is certain to get people talking.
The initial buzz around the independently-produced “Chronicles of a Refugee”—a six-part documentary that includes Nadine’s interview as well as those of over 300 other Palestinian refugees from almost 20 countries—was little more than a whisper. But its collective voice is growing louder. It is circulating through homes and hands in the north of Israel. Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque is planning to air it in the near future. And al-Jazeera has picked up the documentary, as well.
It is easy to understand why interest in “Chronicles of a Refugee” is reaching critical mass. Composed almost entirely of compelling personal stories, the series, which is in Arabic with English subtitles and runs over eight hours, is at once nuanced and voluminous. However, audiences shouldn’t be intimidated by its length—one can choose to view all six parts, or only one or two segments—each episode can stand alone. The film, as a whole, remains fresh and engaging throughout—thanks to a beat-laden musical score created by Ramallah Underground and Tarik “Excentrik” Kazaleh and, more importantly, due to an intense emphasis on the human.
Adam Shapiro, one of the three filmmakers behind “Chronicles of a Refugee,” points out, “It’s the first time a documentary has been made that conceives the Palestinian nation as a people and not a specific piece of land. And it’s the first work of its kind that has looked at the Palestinian nation in its entirety.”
Beginning with the events of 1948, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) in Arabic, “Chronicles of a Refugee” teases out the complexities and problems facing Palestinian refugees until, literally, today—interviews conducted in Gaza in the wake of Operation Cast Lead were added to the documentary. This suggests a narrative that is shifting and dynamic. Perla Issa, one of the filmmakers, agrees, “The narrative of Palestinians today isn’t settled yet—it’s still being created and developed. With this project, we wanted to give Palestinians a chance to add to the narrative—we didn’t want experts or historians. We need to understand how people experienced the events.” She explains that the documentary isn’t just a forum for Palestinians to give voice to their stories, it’s also a chance for their voices to be heard.
Though the series was created primarily for Palestinian audiences, Shapiro hopes that Israeli and Jewish audiences will get “a sense of the tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people.” He emphasizes that the filmmakers do not want to “minimize what Jews and Israelis have been through. This [film] isn’t intended to deny anyone else’s experience. It’s to say ‘let’s take into account as much of the experience as we can.’”
Issa states, “It would be amazing if Israelis could watch this. We are hoping for them [Israelis] to hear the alternative story of 1948 and to get a better idea of what Palestinians went through in 1948 and since then.” Issa would like to see Israeli audiences “question their own state, their own policies, their own government.” However, she acknowledges that Palestinians must do the same. “Israel is the beginning,” she says, “but everyone is guilty.”
Palestinian leadership—or a lack thereof—is one of the many issues covered in the film. Shapiro feels that the interviewees and, by extension the film’s, broaching of this topic is taboo-breaking. “In Arab countries,” he explains, “calling for an alternative to the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, is extremely provocative.” Shapiro mentions that the documentary tackles another taboo—that of Palestinians taking citizenship in host countries.
But this doesn’t mean that host countries escape the filmmakers’ scrutiny. The multitude of problems—displacement, expulsion, and various forms of discrimination—that Palestinians have faced around the world, including in the Arab countries, is also detailed. In the film, Cairo-based Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti offers the scathing criticism, “The Palestinian, in the official Arab mentality, is a security threat first of all… They [the Arab countries] love Palestine, but hate the Palestinian.”
Palestinian interviewees discuss the events that occurred at Sabra and Shatila—the subject of the widely acclaimed “Waltz with Bashir”—as well as the devastating War of the Camps that occurred in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. Refugees recount the experience of again losing their homes in a diversity of locations including Jordan, Germany, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, the West Bank, Canada, and the United States. “Palestinians can never feel safe anywhere,” Shapiro says.
The picture the viewer is left with is of a people in crisis. Shapiro agrees, “1948 was the lowest point, but today should be considered as the second lowest. Today Palestinians find that the ability to better themselves, to participate, to have a say in what’s going on in their lives is nonexistent. In that sense, things are even worse.” Despite this, Shapiro remains optimistic, “I have been encouraged by meeting younger Palestinians around the world… They’re powerful, dynamic. They will challenge standard approaches to the problems and they aren’t caught in the same logic of those who have preceded them.”
Issa has a similar point of view. “The current situation is a crisis, but I don’t think there’s no way out of it,” she says. “I don’t think the leadership is going to get us out of anything,” she adds. Issa feels that “all [of] the political parties and factions” are problematic. But she does see progress and change—and tremendous potential—on an individual level. Issa and the other filmmakers agree with the words of one of the interviewees, the prominent Palestinian academic Nur Masalha, “It’s not going to happen from the top down, you have to do it from the bottom up.”
“Chronicles of a Refugee,” is not only a reflection of this grassroots approach, it is a loudspeaker for it—intentionally so. “The hope is that people will give it away and will invite their family to watch it…” Issa comments, “The big theatres and festivals are great but it’s not where discussion happens. It happens in the home.” The documentary is intended to ignite debate about and shed light on the issues that face the Palestinian people. The filmmakers also hope it will raise awareness and create unity amongst Palestinians. “The cause is one,” Issa says.
And for each of the filmmakers, the cause is personal. Brooklyn-born Adam Shapiro, who was raised Jewish but doesn’t identify as such, is a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement– an organization he is no longer affiliated with– and is married to a Palestinian. Though Perla Issa was raised in Lebanon, three of her grandparents were from Palestine and she has done extensive work in the area of Palestinian rights. Aseel Mansour—an up-and-coming Palestinian filmmaker—was born in Iraq and was raised in Baghdad and Amman.
<em>A preview of “Chronicles of a Refugee” is available on YouTube. The series can be purchased, in its entirety, at the Palestine Online Store for 60 US dollars. Each copy that is purchased enables the filmmakers to donate a copy to five Palestinian families.</em>