Michel Khleifi, The Fertile Memory (Marisa Films, 1980).

Costa-Gavras, Hanna K. (Universal Studios, 1983).

I didn’t make this film to judge, but to transmit the diversity of attitudes. And also, because I can’t forget that as children my brothers and I had to steal fruits and vegetables in order to live in our own land.

The filmmaker is Michel Khleifi, a Palestinian from Nazareth who now lives in Belgium, and his film is The Fertile Memory, a collage of experiences that begins, in fact, with the image of a bowl of fruit on the table.

The Fertile Memory is drawn primarily from the lives of two Palestinian women: Farah Hatoum, a widow living with her children and grandchildren in Nazareth, and Sahar Khalifeh, a West Bank novelist. The Arabic title of the film, Pictures from Fertile Memories (Suwar min mudhakkirat khasiba), is probably more indicative of the content, for there is really no one story here, or even two, but rather a winding thread of vignettes: Farah at work in an Israeli clothing factory, coming home on the bus, visiting the church, going back to work; Sahar in her modern apartment, then at Birzeit University, helping the rock band there rehearse; Farah with her grandson, cooking, feeding chickens, singing a lullaby to the baby while the rest of the family watches TV; the rock band again; Farah among the family portraits in the sitting room, recalling her marriage; Sahar mopping the kitchen floor (“You don’t have a maid?” the interviewer asks her. “No one can enslave anyone else without giving rise to reciprocity.”); Farah’s confrontation with her son, who wants to negotiate with the Israeli government over their land, expropriated in 1948 (“I will rise from my grave to hit you!” she tells him.); Sahar in the market in Nablus; kitchen conversation in Nazareth; Farah and her son returning to their land, now occupied by a kibbutz; Farah visiting a Muslim spiritualist to pray for the return of the land; Sahar and her daughter watching TV; Farah spinning wool; Sahar reading from one of her novels; a final, frozen image of Farah flailing wool.

As these rich scenes fill the screen, and the women talk, their lives begin to take shape before us. Farah, now in her late fifties, has been a widow since 1948, when her husband was stranded in Beirut and died there. Left to raise two children alone, with her land expropriated (“I was as poor as if I’d been born a monkey.”), she worked for many years in a local monastery before going to the Israeli factory, where she could earn more money. Now that her children are grown, she finds herself at odds with them, not only over the issue of the land but over the lifestyles they have adopted: as her son, her daughter, and her daughter-in-law sit and watch a Hollywood movie on TV, she complains about the decadence on the screen and warns about the divine wrath to come; when her daughter describes how she came to remarry after an unhappy first marriage and an intolerable life with her in-laws after the husband’s death, Farah dismisses her hardships as God’s will.

Sahar’s life did not begin so differently from that of Farah or her daughter — marriage at 18, two daughters — but after 13 troubled years and tremendous resistance, including the threat of losing her children, she managed to get a divorce. Pursuing a career as a writer, she publishes three novels and goes back to study at Birzeit University. While she obviously shares many of the preoccupations of the younger students at Birzeit, and enjoys a certain closeness with her daughters, she is separated from them by her age and her experience. At the same time, her ideas and ideals separate her from most of the society (“After my isolation, life now has a meaning, but there’s always a price to pay.”).

The contrasts between the traditional matriarch and the modern feminist are only too apparent, and these are heightened by each woman’s personality. Sahar is as confrontational as Farah is resigned: “If I had a bomb,” she reads from one of her novels, “I would blow up the world and wipe out the smell of people.” Even so, it is Farah, operating within the confines of a life defined for her by family, community, state and, above all, by religion, who is far more comfortable with the camera (and as a result is the more sympathetic of the two). Sahar, the woman struggling to create new definitions for herself, tends to freeze up when the conversation gets personal and best expresses herself when reading what she has already written.

But while these differences obviously serve to establish Khleifi’s “diversity of attitudes,” they ultimately play a much more important role in the film, by bringing out the larger circumstances that in fact unite these women — their shared status as Palestinians under Israeli rule and as women in a male society. Regardless of where the two women situate themselves, or where they have been situated, in the end the axes of their lives are the same — the land and the culture. And it is along these axes that Khleifi builds the “fertile memory.” To the many separate glimpses into the daily lives of Farah Hatoum and Sahar Khalifeh he has added images of his own, ranging from dreamlike scenes of women working in the fields or a sequence of young women singing love songs juxtaposed with old women mourning in a graveyard, to ironic shots of an uncomfortably formal wedding or eerie slow-motion footage of a West Bank demonstration.

One reviewer has called The Fertile Memory a “fiction documentary.” This is probably an accurate if confounding description for the film is neither cinema verite, nor documentary, nor drama; rather, Khleifi has used all the possibilities of film as a medium of fact and fiction to integrate complex social relationships on a human scale. Not only does the film give voice to Farah Hatoum and Sahar Khalifeh, but the filmmaker himself participates with them in a dialogue of words and images. He responds, verbally and visually, to what they say, just as they are obviously responding to his particular presence and understanding. Through the intensity and integrity of this relationship, Khleifi is able to make the facts of their lives resonate as the human details of a whole society, and as a result he has created what is probably the most effective cinema study to date on the complexities of the Palestinian experience.

This much said, it must also be pointed out that The Fertile Memory was filmed almost four years ago; it premiered at the 1981 Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia, where it received first prize, and it was screened at Cannes the same year. It has never been shown commercially in the United States. To be sure, the film has lost none of its impact in the three years since its release; if anything, in the wake of Lebanon 1982, 1983, 1984, the memories are more precious, and the realities more intense. But what makes The Fertile Memory especially current is the recent release of Costa-Gavras’ latest feature, Hanna K. Only slightly more visible than Khleifi’s film (it opened in New York and Los Angeles, moved to Miami, and then seems to have disappeared), it too addresses the Palestinian issue. A striking parallel comes out from the words of the two directors themselves. In an interview with a French film critic, Khleifi explains,

I wanted to make a film on oppression and get beyond the abstract image. I wanted to ask myself how people who were victims of history became the oppressors. I myself, a Palestinian, am a victim of Zionist oppression, but I’m also an oppressor in relation to women and children, who are at the bottom of our social hierarchy. [1]

Enumerating the issues he “tried to understand and eventually to study,” Costa-Gavras raises a similar question:

How come an oppressed people like the Jewish people, who have been pogrommed and massacred through the centuries, create a country, find a home, and in so doing, come to oppress and occupy another people. [2]

Like Khleifi, Costa-Gavras extends the chain of oppression linking Israelis and Palestinians to encompass the situation of women as well. But while Khleifi immerses himself in his own Palestinian society, where the twofold oppression of nationality and gender converge on the Palestinian women he has chosen as his central figures, Costa-Gavras takes on the larger Palestinian-Israeli dynamic, and he juxtaposes the two forms of oppression by making his main character an Israeli woman. As he has described the evolution of Hanna K., it came out of two separate projects, one a film on the Middle East, the other about a woman’s life. “Little by little,” he recalls, “the two ideas started coming together and the woman’s search for her own identity paralleled the search for identity in the Middle East.” [3]

Unfortunately, this convergence of ideas does not seem to have carried over to the plot. In terms of the national issue, Hanna K. is the story of an American Jewish woman (played most unconvincingly by Jill Clayburgh) who emigrates to Israel, becomes a lawyer and gets involved with the defense of a Palestinian man named Salim Bakri (the Palestinian actor Muhammad Bakri), who is trying to reclaim his family home in the village of Kafr Rimuna, now the Russian Jewish settlement of Kafr Rimon. On the personal level, Hanna K. is also the story of this American Jewish woman who leaves her French husband, Victor Bonnet, has a brief affair with the Israeli chief prosecutor, Joshua Herzog, bears his child, and then gets involved with a Palestinian man (the same man who wants to reclaim his home — he moves into hers instead).

The film has its moments, to be sure. There are dramatic ones, like the opening scene, which begins with the tranquility of a village sunrise and ends with the violence of an Israeli roundup of suspected Palestinian commandos and the dynamiting of one of their homes. There are poignant ones, like the encounter between Hanna and Salim in the refugee camp where he spent his childhood. There are even funny ones, like Joshua’s discovery that his son David is now in the care of the “terrorist babysitter” Salim, who casually refers to the child as “little Omar.” But in a film that is almost two hours long, a few good scenes and even a wealth of good intentions are not enough.

In terms of structure, Costa-Gavras’ straightforward narrative approach is far less coherent than Khleifi’s impressionistic collage. Where The Fertile Memory conveys the drama of everyday life, Hanna K. offers melodrama fashioned out of contrived situations. Perhaps the most implausible turn of events comes after Salim has been arrested and expelled, returns a second time, is rearrested, and asks Hanna to be his lawyer again: In order to avoid the adverse publicity of his trial, the prosecution offers a deal whereby Salim is to drop the claim to his home in exchange for a reduced sentence and citizenship in South Africa, no less, with which he can settle “legally” in Israel. Salim serves his sentence, giving Hanna time to have her baby, at which point he then goes on a hunger strike, and the ever accommodating Israeli authorities release him into her custody. The final sequence is not much better: During an unlikely dinner gathering of Hanna and her three lovers past and present, the report of a bombing in Kafr Rimon comes over the TV; Joshua accuses Salim of the crime and phones the police. One by one the men exit — Salim in flight, Joshua and Victor at Hanna’s demand — and Hanna herself exits into the shower, only to have an army of policemen surround her house in belated response to Joshua’s summons. (Yes, the end.)

The difficulty with these soap opera antics is not simply that they reduce real situations to caricature (this could, after all, be effective in its own way), but that they mask the connections between cause and effect. In contrast with The Fertile Memory, where Khleifi has woven past into present and political into personal precisely in order to show how things happen day by day and person by person, Hanna K. translates vague ideas of identity and power into a simplistic plot that tells what happened without suggesting how or why. Hanna Kaufman herself, the central character who is obviously supposed to be mediating between the Western audience and the Middle Eastern microcosm on the screen, remains an enigma by default; why she comes to Israel, why she becomes a lawyer, how she has been living in Israeli society, not to mention how she moves in and out of her romances — in short, her values and commitments — all of this is never defined. And if this residual character, shaped by the necessities of the plot, does little justice to the real-life Israeli women and men who have taken clear and committed stands alongside the Palestinians, the film as a whole, with its jumble of adventure and romance, wall-papered with local color, does even less for the Palestinians themselves.

Given the fact that Hanna K. is Costa-Gavras’ first attempt at fiction, it is always possible that the difficulties of the film reflect his unfamiliarity with the format. But it is also possible that he resorted to fiction in order to temper a difficult reality. (“One reason for a softer approach,” he told the Los Angeles Times film critic, “was that one cannot appear to be anti-Semitic.”) In either case, Hanna K. is hardly the kind of political cinema that Costa-Gavras has been associated with. In fact, it is not political cinema at all, but a Hollywood production. (“An Unmarried Woman Moves to Jerusalem” is the alternate title one reviewer suggested, alluding to the presence and persona of Jill Clayburgh.)

A number of years ago, Costa-Gavras himself observed that

A movie is like a Spanish inn — you can eat only what you bring with you. Each member of the audience sees a movie with the culture, information, and the character he has. [4]

In the case of Hanna K., the sympathetic viewer comes to the “Spanish inn” above all with a tremendous hunger for even the most basic acknowledgement of the Palestinian experience, and this much Costa-Gavras has certainly managed to provide. But however great the temptation to overlook the shortcomings of the film (and it is very tempting, given the general state of film and politics alike), the fact remains that he could have done better. To imagine the fictional Hanna Kaufman in the very real world of Farah Hatoum and Sahar Khalifeh, to juxtapose their respective personalities and problems, is to recognize immediately the limited scope of one film and the depth of the other. In the end it becomes clear that the response to oppression, the key issue that both filmmakers have sought to address, is not the search for identity that Costa-Gavras has chosen to evoke in the melodrama of Hanna K. but the struggle for freedom and dignity that Michel Khleifi has captured in the testimony of The Fertile Memory.


[1] Afrique-Asie, November 9, 1981.
[2] Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1981.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Camera Three, CBS TV, January 4, 1976, quoted in Cineaste 7/2 (1977), p. 18.

How to cite this article:

Miriam Rosen "Hanna K. and Farah H.," Middle East Report 124 (June 1984).

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