Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987).
Produced before the current uprising, Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (‘Urs fi al-Jalil) is the first major Palestinian fiction film to be made by an “insider,” an Israeli Palestinian. Khleifi left his hometown of Nazareth in 1970 and has since lived in exile in Belgium. His film largely transcends traditional mass-media discourse which would reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to “peace-loving Israelis” versus “violence-prone Arabs.” Wedding also goes beyond the Arab-Palestinian propagandists’ film practice dominating not only documentaries but also the few narrative films produced on the subject. Unlike Kafr Qasim, the 1973 film by the Lebanese director Borhane Alawiyye, Wedding in Galilee does not reduce the oppression of the Palestinian people to a Manichaean schema of good Palestinians versus evil Israelis. As in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), Khleifi portrays the individual members of the military as normal, even sympathetic, preferring to emphasize the oppressive policies themselves rather than the moral malignancy of the executioners.
The story revolves around the desire of Abu ‘Adil (Ali M. El Akili), the mukhtar of a Palestinian village in the Galilee, to marry off his son ‘Adil (Nazih Akleh) in a memorable wedding. The curfew imposed on the village by the Israeli military authorities forces Abu ‘Adil to ask for the governor’s permission to continue with the celebrations past nightfall. The military governor (Makram Khouri) approves only on the condition that he and his staff be invited to attend the ceremonies. Within this dramatic framework of unified time (two days), place (a Palestinian village), and action (a Palestinian wedding ceremony under Israeli rule), the filmmaker interweaves diverse related happenings: the refusal of Abu ‘Adil’s brother to attend a wedding seen as humiliating and undignified; the plan of the young nationalists, led by Ziyad (Wael Barghouti), to violently attack the Israeli soldiers; the attempt by Sumayya (the Tunisian Sonia Amar), Ziyad’s “girlfriend” and the mukhtar’s daughter, to dissuade him from the action, both out of fear for him and her own desire to free herself from the village and its strictures; the warning from the mukhtar’s nephew, Bassam (Youssef Abou Warda), to Ziyad and his men not to disrupt the festivities; the joint Palestinian-Israeli rescue of a prized Arabian mare; the comforting and caressing back to health of the Israeli woman soldier, Tali (Tali Dorat), who passes out in the heat and who is dressed by Palestinian women in their own clothes; the appearances of the village eccentrics, the father of the mukhtar (Tawfik Khleifi) and an old woman (Oum Fayez Deibes) who provide not only comic relief but also a historical-mythic dimension beyond the wedding’s circumstantiality; and, finally, the groom’s failure to consummate his marriage, leading to his attempt to knife his father as the man responsible for the undignified wedding, an attempt prevented by the bride Samia (the Armenian-French Anna Achdian) who takes her own virginity. The groom’s mother displays the stained wedding sheet to end the ceremony. The Israelis leave, taunted by the Palestinians, who pelt them with objects as they depart.
In his earlier lyrical documentary, Fertile Memory (1980), Michel Khleifi used a direct-cinema style not simply to portray 35 years of the history of Palestinian women of different generations — an old widowed factory worker from Nazareth (Israel proper) and a young, divorced novelist, Sahar Khalifeh, from Ramallah (West Bank). Interweaving the women’s own narratives of their problems within Palestinian society with those of being under Israeli control, the film refuses to separate the “internal” from the “external” problems.
Palestinian women in Khleifi’s films represent both the nurture of collective memory and the insistent, daily struggle for familial and national preservation; they provide glimpses of liberation while registering the impasses of patriarchal society. Palestinian women characters possess strong presence in Khleifi’s films, in inverse proportion to their officially acknowledged place in the society he depicts. Wedding underlines the role of the groom’s mother as the constant mediator between her husband and their restive children. It is also her daughter, Sumayya, who acts in the most provocative, subversive manner toward the Israeli soldiers, and it is the bride, Samia, who stops the groom from committing violence against his father by creatively resolving the problem of social appearances. The attention paid to women and children, and to the oedipalized attempts at revolt on the part of young men, was in some ways anticipatory on Khleifi’s part, given the role of children and women in the present uprising.
The film’s vision of national liberation entails transformation, where femininity would move from the margins to the center. Wedding proposes a concept of women’s liberation quite different from Israeli feminist discourse, which views women soldiers as liberated women but fails to see the irony of a liberation linked to military oppression. In the symbolically erotic scene where Tali has her uniform removed and is dressed in the clothes of the Palestinian women — a scene bathed in flowery smells, bright colors and sensuous movements — Tali is being seduced and initiated into a dreamy, peaceful space where Israelis no longer function as soldiers or as the executors of aggressive policies but rather as figures integrated into the gentle East. Israelis, the film suggests, have to denude themselves of their soldierly masculinity in order to live in harmony with the Arabs. Or as Sumayya puts it provocatively to the Israeli soldier at the wedding: “You will have to take off your uniform if you want to dance.”
Although Wedding, like Fertile Memory, privileges certain tales and characters over others, the camera is also independent, attentive, watching Palestinian lives simultaneously from the inside and the outside, moving between the diverse Palestinian perspectives: that of the angry groom, of his provocative sister, of their traditional and even conformist, accommodating father, of the young radicals, and that of the older, “patient” generation, and even of the Palestinian collaborators with Israel. The film moves between the father’s taking care of the “exterior” domain and the mother’s taking care of the “interior” domain — food, emotions, channeling generational and communal conflicts — and between the conspiratorial gathering of the young militants and the attempt of a husband to rape his wife.
In this way, the film manages to escape the dangerously “picturesque” portrait of the Palestinian village community constantly evoked by the colorful images and sounds. In the Palestinian community, ideological, sexual, generational and familial tensions are brought to the narrative foreground, conveyed by camera movements or by montage transitions from one locus to another, opposite one.
Although the film alludes to these differences, gaps, and oppositions within the Palestinian community, its main thrust is to reflect a common history and a common struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation, along with a strong sense of national cultural identity, and a rooted connection to the land and its past, an obvious rebuff to all the Zionist denial mechanisms. In this sense, the camera’s painstaking and affectionate scrutiny of rural collective ceremonies and rituals, of the people’s primal love of the land and its fruits, does not remain on the level of an anthropological fascination with a Middle Eastern society but rather makes a simple political point: “We are here, and we exist.” The camera’s easy fluid movement from one Palestinian character to another — even if his/her adversary — as well as the dream-like blending of diverse voices and languages — from hallucinatory talks, through interior poetic monologues, through proverbs and popular rhymes to sloganistic political speech and daily slang — suggests the multi-layered richness of the society. The film visually and audibly, then, refutes the Zionist attempt to obfuscate the Palestinian people under such categories as the “natives,” or accidental “nomads,” in a “land without people.” And while the Zionist perspective sees vegetation and fruitfulness as the product of the European-Jewish pioneers who “make the desert bloom,” Wedding associates earth, crops, trees, vegetation and abundance of food with the Palestinians.
The dispossession of land by violence, meanwhile, is associated with Israelis, in the form of the land mines placed in Palestinian fields. Following the preparations for the wedding, the collective work of the women of the village in cooking, washing the bride, parading the groom on the decorated mare, the bride’s henna ceremony of the hamsa on the wall, the singing and dancing to a point of virtual trance — the documentation of all these details contributes to the sense of permanence, pointing to a consciously stubborn refusal to disappear. And just as Jewish weddings ritualistically evoke the memory of Zion, so Palestinian weddings become catalysts for national desire, celebrations of the memories and hopes of the community. The lyrics of the song sung in front of the military governor insist that the Palestinians will never forget their motherland. (Most of these lyrics, unfortunately, were left untranslated.)
If Wedding in Galilee documents the cultural details which help reconstruct for the Western spectator the vividness of Palestinian lives, it also simultaneously confounds accuracy of time and place in order to sustain the idea of a Palestinian nation. The wedding mingles Muslim and Christian customs, thus effacing religio-cultural differences. On one level, this presentation of Palestinian identity as predominantly an issue of nationality rather than religion on the part of a Palestinian filmmaker of minority Christian descent is highly significant, especially in the Israeli context where Christian Palestinians are perceived in a “better light,” and where the official discourse systematically devalues Palestinian nationalism within Israel by speaking of the “diverse,” “non-Jewish minorities.”
Although subordination to martial law was abolished for Israeli-Palestinians in 1966 — only to be installed a year later in the newly occupied territories — Wedding in Galilee tells the story of a Palestinian village under military control in the Galilee, within Israel, in the present. (This temporality is marked by the portrait of the Israeli president, Chaim Herzog, in the military governor’s office, and by “spontaneous” song-lyric references to Peres and Kahane, as well as by the style of the army uniforms and weapons and by allusions to Lebanon.) This confounding implies that although Palestinians within pre-1967 Israel can legally take part in the Israeli “democratic processes,” they nevertheless experience a national oppression that is inseparable from that of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.
The film was shot in five different villages, three in Galilee near Nazareth and two in the West Bank, since a large part of the architectural identity of the Palestinian villages in the Galilee was lost, while the West Bank has retained much of this particular ambience. This unifies the topography, and to a certain extent even the architectural style, in order, again, to underline the national identity of one people.
The director’s strategies of conflation inevitably carry losses as well as gains. That there is a Palestinian national identity, with a clear vision of the necessary struggle for political liberation, is rendered with powerful clarity. In this sense, the film might have been called Wedding in Palestine, a title which would have matched the film’s emphasis on a single national identity, linking the destinies and dreams of the various Palestinian exiles, “insiders” and “outsiders.” The poetic license in confounding the post-1967 West Bank with pre-1967 Israel correctly conveys the idea that the whole of Palestinian experience has been in some way shaped by the disastrous encounter with Zionism. On the other hand, it elides significant differences in the representation of the Palestinian struggle. Within Israel proper, the oppression of Palestinians is relatively subtle and sophisticated, hardly taking the form of naked military power as in the West Bank. Within a Galilee Palestinian village, Israelis do not have to be visible as soldiers as they are on the West Bank.
Furthermore, despite the older, traditional generation taking a non-confrontational line, the Palestinian national struggle within Israel has tended to consist not in sporadic, isolated, individual acts, but rather in massive demonstrations and strikes. The depiction of the rebels as conspirators cut off from the Palestinian community, watched over fearfully by the generally unrebellious villagers, contrasts with the image of the ongoing struggle in the Occupied Territories, where the resistance has generally been collective and often well organized. The Palestinian “actions” against Israelis in the film — a basket wrapped in cloth which makes the Israelis nervous, until they realize that it contains only a broken doll; Palestinian children jumping from a tree and scaring the Israeli military messengers; or a Palestinian woman who dares to mock, in a sexy manner, a tough-looking Israeli soldier — are portrayed as faintly ridiculous, hardly sufficient to do more than “tickle,” as it were, the fourth strongest army in the world.
Similarly, the painterly, quasi-Orientalist idealization of a pre-industrial village — emphasized by the mise-en-scène, and the lighting and the framing, and by a picturesque setting innocent of machines and even of running water — minimizes the seriousness of existence under military oppression and draws attention away from the resistance. Yet one can sympathize with Khleifi’s dilemma. The representation of national violence amidst a struggle for international recognition is, always, a delicate matter, especially since the association of the two might be taken by the colonizing power or audience as an alibi for denying legitimacy.
The narrative structure of Wedding is in itself a form of national legitimization. By focusing on a Palestinian ritual in which Israelis enforce their presence, the film subverts the Western media imagery of Palestinians intruding on Israeli routine. The central tale is Palestinian and the Israelis are merely its “visitors.” This presentation undermines a Zionist master narrative which privileges the “original” — i.e., Jewish — inhabitants of the land versus its present-day Arab “guests.” The Israeli under the Palestinian eye is above all an occupier, seen as one more foreign power coming in the wake of the Turks and British. The role of the senile father of the mukhtar in Wedding in Galilee is precisely to articulate a history of subordination. His monologues and tales about the Turks constitute a source of mockery for the children and irritation for the adults who have to cope with the here and now of Israeli domination; yet in front of the military governor, his singing in Turkish as well as his tale of oppressive Ottoman rule and even more oppressive British rule takes on an ironic dimension, especially since the same old man answers the governor’s greeting by pronouncing in Hebrew Baruch ha-Shem (“Bless God”). It is precisely the “fool,” like the fool of Shakespeare’s history plays, who is allowed to articulate before the “king” the ephemeral nature of his oppression.
In this sense, Wedding in Galilee opposes also the representation of the Israeli-Palestinian encounter in the recent liberal Israeli “Palestinian wave” of films. Although they criticize the Israeli establishment, their critical look tends to be directed more at the establishment’s victimization of the Israeli protagonists than at the oppression of the Palestinian people, in the name of whom the protagonists are presumably fighting. The role of the “positive” Palestinian characters within the narratives is a subsidiary one, a hierarchical representation which ultimately comes to project the sabra peace activist as the real martyr, caught between two violent worlds. Wedding, in contrast, not only avoids the cinematic discourse of the monadic (anti-) hero in favor of the collectivity, but also shares the dream of transcending the present impasse, and avoiding the pessimism, the sense of paranoia and claustrophobia permeating the Israeli liberal representation of the conflict.
Wedding makes a similar point to Fertile Memory, that Palestinian memory is not only alive but also capable of giving birth to new beginnings. The sequence of the Palestinian-Israeli collaborative rescue of the mare from a field mined by Israelis illustrates this vision of a dialogical future. The Israelis who control the land through violence (mines), control also the animal’s road to freedom through their knowledge of the deadly traps. Holding a map showing the location of the mines, the Israelis’ first instinct is to fire a rifle in hopes of maneuvering the mare safely in between the mines, but this succeeds only in disorienting the mare. Fearing for the life of the precious animal, the mukhtar takes over, initiating an alternative method. Patiently he coaxes it to freedom. The allegory is quite clear: instead of military strategies of mines and rifles, the path of gentleness and dialogue.
The pastoral epilogue of the film, showing the mukhtar’s child, Hasan (Eyad Anis), running in the fields and then lying down, embraced by nature, underlines this desire for harmony in a land already much stained with blood, as if closing the circle opened at the beginning of the film by the credit shot, in which the voices of Palestinian children at play dissolve into the sounds of Israeli jets. The film’s peaceful epilogue gains additional reverberations in the context of frequent media images of Palestinian children living a present-day situation which is anything but peaceful. This epilogue concerning a child of the occupation follows (in a manner reminiscent of other films depicting national struggle, such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City) the evacuation by the military oppressors, implying a wish for the future, a life free of occupation.