Aqabat Jaber: Passing Through. Directed by Eyal Sivan. Produced and distributed by Dune Vision, 1987.
Rissala… Min Zamen al-Harb (Letter from a Time of War). Directed by Borhan Alaouie. Produced and distributed by France Media, 1986.
Zahrat al-Kindoul: Women of South Lebanon. Directed by Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri. Produced by MTC Lebanon, 1986. Distributed in the US by Camera News Inc.
Three recent documentaries, one dealing with the Palestinians and two with the war in Lebanon, were among the films screened at the Cinema du Reel, an international festival of ethnographic and sociological films, held in Paris this March.
Eyal Sivan’s Aqabat Jaber: Passing Through provides a bleak glimpse of life in the West Bank refugee camp of Aqabat Jaber. Once the largest camp in the Middle East, with a population of 65,000 people from 116 villages, it was half destroyed in the 1967 war and has been abandoned by all but some 3,000 inhabitants including a group of Negev bedouin who have been settled there.
The film came about after the director, a 23-year-old Israeli photographer now living in Paris, was sent to the camp on a fashion assignment a few years ago. As he explained after the screening at the festival, he was taking pictures of a model among the ruins when a group of children appeared from what he had been told was an abandoned site. At that point he decided to do something with the story he had stumbled into, and after completing some film courses in Paris and pulling together a production company, he went back with a crew in November.
Aqabat Jaber is beautifully done from a technical point of view, and Sivan’s intentions are unquestionably good, but the aggregate image of hopelessness the film projects is overbearing. At the festival, several people criticized the film for its misérabilisme and the failure to show any form of resistance activity, but as Sivan indicated, he presented what his 28 interviewees told him and, he added, he couldn’t show any demonstrations because there weren’t any. Among the general public at the festival, the film — and the circumstances of its making — was well received, and it went on to win the Grand Prize. (With all due political circumspection, the jury awarded the prize for documentary shorts to Egyptian director Awad Choukry’s El Kashash.)
When Aqabat Jaber was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival this June, it proved far more controversial, although foreign journalists covering the event picked up on the film and found it quite forceful. During his visit, Sivan also showed a videocassette to the residents of Aqabat Jaber, who responded very warmly to his presentation.
Another rather despairing film is Borhan Alaouie’s Rissala min zamen al-harb (Letters from a Time of War), which traces the wandering of seven Lebanese families who had been living in a Beirut suburb until it was destroyed by fighting in February 1984. Each interview is punctuated with examples of flight, death, injury, and often psychological trauma. If the film as a whole is somewhat unfocused, the individual histories are very compelling documents about the war’s toll on ordinary people.
Zahrat al-kindoul: Women of South Lebanon also deals with the war, but is markedly different in both its orientation and its form. Through a creative mix of interviews, documentary footage, and dramatic reenactments, the film looks at the situation of women in the south during the Israeli occupation, focusing on their resistance activity as the women themselves describe it. Filmmakers Jean Chammoun and Mai Masri gathered their material in some 30 villages, but chose to structure the film around the experiences, and the personality, of one particular woman who was a leader in the resistance and subsequently imprisoned by the Israelis. In this way, they are able to maintain the important and often difficult balance between collective political experience and its personal dimensions.
Zahrat al-kindoul has been shown at a number of film festivals in Europe and North Africa over the past year — it received prizes at Valencia and Carthage — and it has stimulated a good deal of interest, as well as some lively controversy over the strong religious element in the resistance movement they chose to depict. The film also made its way to the United States with Chamoun and Masri last November, when it was shown in Boston, New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.