This is the first of a two-part post on developments in Israeli and Palestinian films: Today a reflection on the historical and aesthetic background, tomorrow on new developments. -Jeff
“The promise of happiness” bequeathed by art and beauty (Stendhal) does not seem to have much political or social relevance in the grim perspective of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict today. For most Palestinians, happiness probably depends on getting rid of the Israeli occupation, if not of the Israelis themselves, For most Israelis, happiness may consist of being relieved of Arab threats, if not of the Arabs. Artifacts of both cultures, especially their respective cinemas, tended to reflect this irrelevance till the late 20th Century.
Recent developments in Israeli and Palestinian film share a new, unexpected theme: an outspoken yearning for high-art and beauty. In Atash (Thirst) by Tawfiq Abu Wa’el, an Arab village girl, oppressed and almost raped by her father, obsessively reads classical poetry. In Rafi Bukai’s Avanti Popolo, an Egyptian soldier captured by Israelis in the 6 Day War Sinai quotes Shylock’s monologue to save his life. In Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, a beautifully stylized fashion-model causes a military checkpoint watch-tower to collapse. In Yoav Shamir’s documentary, Checkpoint, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians in a routine search are accompanied by a beautiful Italian opera tune coming from a radio-transistor. These (and many more) works juxtapose art and beauty with bleak, everyday reality, creating an unanticipated, almost utopian vision in which art and beauty transcend reality, thus becoming critical (and self-critical) comments on their respective Israeli and Palestinian societies. They “help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible” (Jacques Rancière).
In 1899, Shaul Tshernichovski published “Facing the Statue of Apollo,” one of the most influential poems in modern Hebrew literature:
Youth-God, sublime and free, the acme of beauty…
I came to you – do you recognize me?
I am a Jew, your eternal adversary…
I bow to life and courage and beauty…
The outspoken idolatry of the . . .