Rudolf van den Berg, Stranger at Home (1985).
It is no small compliment to say that Stranger at Home is a film you want to see more than once (and should). Over the years — 19 to be precise — Palestine documentaries have become a veritable genre, but with few exceptions, they have hardly become an art. Rudolf van den Berg’s Stranger at Home is a very different enterprise. Richly nuanced in form and thought, it is a kind of double documentary, at once a film about the exiled Palestinian painter Kamal Boullata and his visit to Jerusalem, and a film about the making of the film, about the multi-layered relationship between Boullata and van den Berg, as friends, visual artists, Palestinian and Jew.
The film takes off with a jumbo jet — not the one that is headed for Jerusalem as you might expect, but the one that is bringing van den Berg to Washington with the idea for the project. There are airport scenes, apartment scenes, bar scenes — Jerusalem doesn’t come easy for the audience either, and you start to wonder if you’re ever going to get there (a taste of exile — “When I sleep at night,” Boullata tells van den Berg, “I have dreams of being there, and I haven’t been there for 18 years.”) By the time the second plane takes off — and still it is Rudolf’s, now returning to Amsterdam — you’ve seen something of the friendship between the two men and heard something of Kamal’s life, as a Palestinian exile, a Palestinian artist, a Palestinian with a history embedded in that land (his grandfather, he explains, was Ibrahim because his parents had prayed for a child at the oak tree of the prophet Abraham in Hebron, and “if I’m destined to stay in exile throughout my life, this is the kind of story I want to tell my children.”) And you also hear Kamal’s worst fears about the venture: “That this could be taken for propaganda — my life.”
Finally they are on their way, Kamal, his wife, Lily, and Rudolf, meeting at a monastery on Cyprus and crossing to Haifa by ship: a moment of melodrama when Kamal and Lily are led away for a special search (Rudolf is the one who panics), a picturesque landing, an emotional family reunion, and Kamal is home. He shows Lily the house he grew up in, and he visits his father’s grave. Then he meets with an Israeli official and finds out that legally, he isn’t home at all, and that if he wants to return, his application will be dealt with like that of “any foreigner,” or, as Rudolf’s questioning makes clear, any non-Jewish foreigner.
The contrapuntal rhythm of exile is established: Everything is familiar and everything is changed. In the market, one man recognizes him immediately after 18 years; another, too young to have been born when Kamal left, tries to sell him a T-shirt of the “Israel Is Real” variety, and when he discovers a fellow Palestinian rather than an American tourist, offers it as a gift. (“It hurts me to see the city like this, but it isn’t your fault,” Kamal tells the puzzled vendor, then walks away cursing him under his breath.) The opening of an exhibit of his paintings is another occasion for reunion with family and friends; lunch with West Bank lawyer Jonathan Kuttab reimposes the Israeli reality that they are now all “East Jerusalem non-Jewish residents.”
The mood fades to grim. Rudolf and Kamal start arguing with each other. Rudolf as director wants to know why the Israeli crew has been “excluded” from the home of Kamal’s family; Kamal as Palestinian replies, “How does a whole nation that’s excluded feel?” Another argument at the art gallery: Rudolf objects when Kamal tells a group of journalists that what goes on in Israel is “a fascist way of dealing with the native population.” Another argument in the street: “You’re talking the way Israel talks,” Kamal finally tells his Jewish director/friend. At this point a meeting with human rights activist Israel Shahak (in a railroad station that looks like Auschwitz) comes as a kind of comic relief.
Shahak: “What are your reactions?”
Shahak: “Naturally. It is depressing.” “And,” he adds, “there are places worse than Jerusalem.”
So Kamal goes off to a worse place, Gaza, to meet with the family of an artist jailed for his political paintings (“propaganda that incites violence” according to the Israeli government official Rudolf interviews by telephone). And an even worse place: a Palestinian school surrounded by barbed wire and an observation tower because, the armed Israeli soldiers tell Rudolf, the children throw stones.
The visit ends here, asymmetrically; there is no dramatic departure, not even a return flight. Instead, Rudolf appears in Washington to talk things over, and there is an epilogue of sorts at the Columbia Gardens cemetery — the funeral of Kamal’s mother, whose failing health has been an echo throughout the film. She was resigned to being buried outside her homeland, Kamal had told Rudolf at their last meeting. “That’s part and parcel of the whole issue … of being Palestinian.”
Ultimately, the strength of Stranger at Home is its unpredictability. From the plane at the beginning to the funeral at the end, the film is a succession of unexpected images and ideas that constantly challenge preconceptions. And like Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory (now seven years old but still unequaled in its expression of Palestinian experience), it insists on the personal dimensions of a familiarly political reality; as such, it evokes as much as it informs, raises as many questions as it answers.
It is tempting, and partly true, to suggest that van den Berg was lucky with this film — lucky to have teamed up with someone as perceptive, articulate, and thoroughly engaging as Kamal Boullata, and lucky to have encountered the people and situations that they did. Anyone who has seen van den Berg’s first long documentary, The Alien’s Place (1979), or his fiction film, Bastille (1984), will recognize that Stranger at Home is a far more coherent and compelling work (and that its weakest aspects are some of the formal devices he has carried over from the earlier films — emblematic flashbacks, now evoking Kamal’s youth and the story of grandfather Ibrahim; very literal visual symbols, like the Palestinian kaffiyya and the yellow Star of David he displays in his attache case on the flight to Washington; ironic distancing, here imposed by an annoyingly 1950s narrator). But these films also make clear the extent to which Stranger at Home is an expression of van den Berg’s own preoccupations — as diaspora Jew — with identity, history and memory, the need to belong (the Dutch title of The Alien’s Place is literally “The Place of the Stranger”), as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When they are still on Cyprus, Kamal tells Rudolf that he began to feel Palestinian “only when people began pointing at me and saying ‘You are one.’” Then he goes on to say that being Palestinian means “to be a Jew on an existential level.” In the course of the visit (and the film), the luxury of existential reflection gives way to the daily experience of Israeli society, where it is the Jew who does the pointing. And Rudolf, as diaspora Jew identifying with both Palestinians and Israelis, becomes a kind of walking contradiction, a mirror of two disparate realities. As director, he could have smoothed things out on the editing table, but to his credit, this is just what he has not done, opting instead to structure his film around the rough edges, the pieces of friendship and politics that don’t fit together.
Sometime in the mid-1970s Kamal Boullata was in New York to speak at a panel on Palestinian cultural resistance under occupation. Toward the end of a program that has otherwise faded from memory, someone in the audience stood up to ask, in so many words and all seriousness, just how the art and literature and theater that the panelists had been talking about reflected the experiences of the Palestinian proletariat. It was Boullata who chose to respond. Addressing himself not to the proletariat but to Pablo Picasso, he described in his usual understated way how Picasso began experimenting with Cubism in 1906. True, he said, these paintings did not directly reflect the experience of the proletariat, but they changed the way that people have seen the world ever since, and in that sense, they were truly revolutionary.
Stranger at Home could be criticized along narrow political lines as an overly artsy documentary about an overly privileged artist. But precisely because the filmmaker — and his subject — have looked at the issues from different angles and have represented them in a different tone, a different style, a different frame of mind, Stranger at Home also promises to change the way that people see — if not the world, at least the question of Palestine.