By Mari Jones
My dissertation findings will emerge from the analysis of two documentary films on women in Palestine, and will aim to discuss the political implications of film analysis as a research method. This blog post maps out the history of film use in Palestine more broadly and introduces the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière as a framework to appreciate what film can offer for Palestinian liberation.
Image 1: ‘Five Broken Cameras’, credit: https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2013/01/five-broken-cameras-brings-west-bank-human-rights-abuses-light
I’ve had a fairly avid interest in documentaries for a while, partly due to my interest in different aspects and cultures of the world, in addition to the world of stories they offer. However, on telling people my dissertation topic, they often ask, “where has your interest in Palestine come from?” As white Welsh woman I struggle to justify my specialism. But perhaps it is the interplay of both these areas that has solidified my dissertation subject. The remainder of this post will explore the relationship between documentary film, Palestinian life and the potential here for political rupture.
The struggle of Palestine to be recognised as a country is thoroughly on going, and it is since 2000- the time of the Second Intifada- that visual resources have emerged as cultural weapons for resisting the Israeli occupation. The dominant imagery of Palestine perpetuated by the media often displays the horrific warzone of Gaza, and while the visibility of such events are vital for informing the public, what this discourse lacks is a portrayal of the more everyday lives of Palestinians. However, Palestinian produced films have become integral for expressing the depth, complexity, and daily reality of Palestinian life. When the only picture of Palestinians projected in the media is one of war, harmful stereotypes may arise, such as the ‘violent Palestinian’ on one hand, or a helpless victim on the other. Showing the everyday lives of Palestinian people in film may contribute to portraying their humanity and intimate, personal relations. Such a portrayal is vital particularly for Palestinians since their history is scattered, and does not exist with a linear geography or timeline, thus their engagement with the world must be projected as multifaceted.
Film has become a particularly effective tool for expressing these relations over more traditional academic research such as textual accounts. In the context of Palestine, film strongly contributes to building and sustaining the national identity and imaginings due to their lack of a solid, defined homeland. While issues arise around social scientists making films about other cultures due to possible exploitation, Palestinians themselves making films are able to seize their visibility and can convey local stories to encourage “researchers to learn how not to see with imperial eyes” (Smith, 2015: 330). Documentaries, over written testimonies, can “mobilise ethics by presenting an…affective account of their subject matter, which makes their audience feel differently about the social relations”, for example by emphasising the humanity of the protagonists thus encouraging empathy (Richardson-Ngwenya, 2013: 339). Despite documentaries holding the ability to convey information in a factual manner, from a feminist or postcolonial approach is it the more non-rational qualities such as emotiveness that drive the potential of documentaries to challenge the viewer’s presuppositions of different cultures and communities (Richard-Ngwenya, 2013).
French philosopher Jacques Rancière is a thinker who recognised emotiveness as art’s driving quality in his body of work on the politics of aesthetics. He contends that society has shifted from a representative regime of art to an aesthetic one, this being an appreciation of art with perceptions strictly regulated in the representative regime, to an aesthetic regime where the monitoring of perception is rejected and artworks are able to express a multitude of qualities. More importantly, the aesthetic regime marks the point where politics breaks with hierarchies. This means that the regime refuses self-evident relationships and opens up the question of what is “seeable” in the first place; moreover, challenging what is and isn’t perceived in art and reassessing what we take as normal or strange. Policing perception is highly political as this operates as a means to justify “the division of the world into countries, states, territories, the division of people by age, race, class, gender…those who are denied parts in society are relegated to spaces separated from public life” (Phillips and Montes 2010: 92). Separating people and creating public and private spaces demands people to ‘move along’, further, this policing enforces a blinkered perception of the world. This certainly resonates with Palestinian norms of visibility, as not only are Palestinians made invisible under the Israeli State but also, as discussed, their humanity is suppressed to the rest of the world.
Emotive qualities in art, such as those that impact the viewer in a visceral manner, are utilised to overcome the policing of artistic perception for Rancière. He alludes to the affective properties rather than explicit events as film’s central political force, for example, scenes of visual or audio effects that connote the underlying significances of the film’s narrative over the direct actions of protagonists that represent these significances. Drawing on Rancière, Alexander (1998: 5) contends that the method for articulating a political shift in artworks should not have to “use the terms of a message as a vehicle”, stressing the power of non-verbal, subtle affective intensities for challenging mainstream political narratives. Very little contemporary literature on the geopolitics of war focuses directly on the politics of aesthetics, therefore my dissertation hopes to explore what an aesthetics based on affective and visceral perception can contribute to triggering political change. Indeed, according to Rancière, aesthetics can rupture what we understand of and how we make sense of politics (Alexander, 1998). Particularly in the case of navigating the Israeli Palestinian conflict, fore-fronting aesthetics may be interesting to address “how the affective workings of the aesthetic elements of borders…and bodies provoked embodied learnings of policing politics of space” (Phillips and Montes, 2010: 93), to understand more profoundly the repercussions of living under in the space of the Israeli Occupation. However, what a focus on aesthetics vitally offers is not only an opening up to wider sensory perception in art, but in everyday life, as this engagement “enhances her confidence by allowing her to recognise her own ability as an active agent, who perceives and interprets the common sensible world in her own way” (Dunlap, 2015: 354).
This interesting interaction between film and the politics of Palestine truly demonstrates what is to offer from employing a more experimental method of researching for gaining a deeper appreciation of what life is like for Palestinians under the Israeli Occupation. What continues to lack in textual accounts of personal life are the corporeal features of the everyday, due to their inability to be justly represented through words, and demand an apprehension through affective engagement. My dissertation will continue to adopt an affective lens and will provide an embodied analysis of two Palestinian documentaries.
Alexander, L. (2010) ‘Palestinians in Film: Representing and Being Represented in the Cinematic Struggle for National Identity’, Visual Anthropology, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 319-333 [Online]. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08949468.1998.9966737?needAccess=true.
Dunlap, R. (2015) ‘From Freedom to Equality: Rancière and the Aesthetic Experience of Equality’, Continental Philosophy Review, vol. 48, pp. 341-358 [Online]. Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs11007-015-9333-5.pdf.
Phillips, L. and Montes, C. (2018) ‘Walking Borders: Explorations of Aesthetics in Ephemeral Arts Activism for Asylum Seeker Rights’, Space and Culture, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 92-107 [Online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1206331217729509.
Richardon-Ngwenya, P. (2013) ‘Documentary Film and Ethical Foodscapes: Three Takes on Caribbean Sugar’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 339-356 [Online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474474012469760.
Smith, R. (2015) ‘Seeing the Light: Using Visual Ethnography in Family Business Settings’, Family Business Review, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 76-82 [Online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0894486513504585.