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Interview by Erik DeLuca
Mitzi El Awad, "The Underbrush Variation," drawing, 2023.
I was in the city of Ramallah last May to participate in the Palestinian American Research Center’s Faculty Development Seminar. The scene was tremendous: a statue of Nelson Mandela, his fist pointing to the sky; everywhere, Palestinian flags, kinetic with the wind. I whiffed the smoky coriander and turmeric at the shawarma place with my friend and historian Atwa. From a car stereo, Daboor rapped in Arabic over an Al Nather beat, filtered by the Doppler effect. I talked to social justice leader Ta-Nehisi Coates at Palfest in the courtyard of Sakakini. “It’s not complicated,” he told me. We nodded in agreement. All this humanity is jammed tightly into the military-occupied territory of the West Bank. Just beyond the olive trees is a 440-mile-long concrete separation wall, a topography speckled with dark, US-manufactured machine guns, held by the Israel Defense Forces; my staring into these cavernous barrel openings became a mundane activity. This oscillation—from humanity to dehumanization—works swiftly here.
As an American-German Jewish artist and musician who studies technologies of dispossession, reparations, and fraught geopolitical memory culture (specifically within the context of my family’s struggle within Nazi genocide), I spend time in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel. I think about how my grandmother, as a refugee, lived in Palestine for one year before the creation of Israel, but ultimately left; I wonder why. I find it unimaginable that, today, my life could have been in Israel—holding one of those machine guns, being asked to dehumanize. Instead, as a way to defend my Jewish family’s struggle with antisemitism and genocide, I hold tight my critique of Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians. I hold tight my Jewish family’s experience during the Holocaust as a guide where worldmaking of justice, freedom, and prosperity can be experienced by all—this includes a free Palestine. As I pick up the broken pieces of my family, I do so while learning with my Palestinian colleagues and friends, who are also picking up their broken pieces. When I can’t spend time with my Palestinian colleagues and friends directly, I watch their films.
Since 2007, the volunteer-run Boston Palestine Film Festival (BPFF) has provided New England audiences with a showcase of “the extraordinary narrative and culture of Palestinians” through film. This year’s in-person festival, intended to take place October 13–22 with screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts, MassArt, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, was postponed due to the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel, while the virtual festival proceeded as planned. I sat down with my colleague and friend Michael Maria, who has volunteered with BPFF since 2008, serving as its operations director from 2011 to 2016 and its programming director from 2017 to the present. With our brief conversation about this tense moment, we hoped to counteract the pervasive erasure of Palestinian cultural works and engagements, touching on colonial fragmentation, generational trauma, and grief within the context of Palestinian film.
Nicola Zambelli, Sarura: The Future Is an Unknown Place, 2023. Courtesy of Boston Palestine Film Festival.
Erik DeLuca: The context of Palestinian film has always existed within settler colonial erasure. The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote in Decolonising the Mind that “the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against that collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.” What are your thoughts on how BPFF exposes this kind of rupture, erasure, and afterlife through its programming? And how does BPFF refocus on Palestinian humanity?
Michael Maria: You know the old Zionist saying “a land without a people for a people without a land.” It’s part of the strategy to erase us [Palestinians], to disregard our connections to land. Our identity has been shaped, unfortunately, by the 1948 Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”). We’ve been displaced and dispossessed for about seventy-five years and we have lived under military occupation since 1967. This context is interwoven into the fabric of everyday life for Palestinians, and therefore it comes through in our filmmaking. It’s important that BPFF programs films like Heavy Metal and Resistance Climbing because they focus on human beings doing everyday activities—like athletics. These films humanize Palestinian people; they counter the strong efforts to dehumanize us through a narrow lens of violence and violent resistance to occupation. At the same time, BPFF’s virtual program this season also featured the documentary Sarura: The Future Is an Unknown Place, a story about a group of young Palestinians who struggle to maintain their community in the West Bank. Meanwhile they resist the efforts by the Israeli Army and settlers to displace them, maintaining presence in the face of forces of displacement. Then you have Bir’em, which takes place in modern-day Israel. A young Palestinian girl discovers the ruins of her grandfather’s village. She sets a goal to revisit, reclaim, and rebuild there despite Israel’s state violence.
ED: I was recently talking to author Mahmoud Muna at his family’s Educational Bookshop located within the Palestinian side of Jerusalem. He told me that the “fragmentation of Palestinians can be unified through cultural record.” Through the critical and creative act of filmmaking, audiences in Boston learn about Palestinian experiences in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and across the diaspora—all linked through an unending resilience. What are your thoughts on BPFF’s support of Palestinian unification through acts of recording culture?
MM: BPFF is a way to bring our community together, to take pride in Palestinian heritage, to stay connected to our roots, and to keep active. Personally, BPFF gives me the opportunity to maintain my individual connection to Palestine. In general, there’s this maintenance of Palestinian identity that happens through the festival. We bring Palestinian fragments back together through film and people gather for collective acts of seeing. I think it’s too easy to lose sight of your roots and your heritage if you’re isolated, separated.
ED: Just outside of Bethlehem in the West Bank—in the Aida Camp—I recently talked to filmmaker Mohammed Al-Azza of the Lajee Centre, who guides young Palestinians to document and tell stories through filmmaking and photography.
MM: Yeah, we’ve screened his films at BPFF.
ED: Al-Azza reports on daily life in Aida under Israel’s military occupation. This of course involves photographing IDF soldiers. While doing this, Al-Azza has been shot in the face while filming and violently arrested. Meanwhile, the Knesset’s proposed legislation, entitled the “Prohibition against photographing and documenting IDF Soldiers,” threatens Al-Azza and other journalists with further censorship beyond the unprovoked violence against Palestinian journalists, photographers, and filmmakers.
MM: The situation with what’s happening in Gaza after the events of October 7 in Israel has put BPFF close to censorship. In our seventeen-season history though, I cannot think of a time when we were planning to screen a film and external forces told us that’s not possible. We’ve always had the support of our venues, our partners. This season, BPFF made its decision to postpone the live festival. We decided that was the right thing to do for us and our audience as a collective trauma is being unleashed on Gaza and as systems of Israeli oppression continue to escalate in the West Bank. Meanwhile, I am seeing many other organizations and individuals being censored; anything that can remotely be perceived as criticism of Israeli policy or anything empathetic to Palestinians by a public institution seems to be just too risky at the moment.
Timo Bruun and Edward Knowles, Heavy Metal, 2023. Courtesy of Boston Palestine Film Festival.
ED: On October 18, we—the Art Education Department at MassArt—were scheduled to screen the film Notes on Displacement by Khaled Jarrar. We are looking forward to hosting the film soon. In the meantime, I’d like to ask you a question that the film poses: “Refugees are often in the news, but what do we really know about their experiences?”
MD: I think most people see refugees as dehumanized numbers; on overcrowded, capsized boats; and as bodies washed ashore. The characters that we follow in Notes on Displacement became refugees in 1948, during the creation of Israel. These people were forced to flee to the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Recently, the camp was depopulated by the Assad regime. These people therefore became displaced refugees yet again. To think that someone can live their entire life without a sense of being rooted, without a sense of home, and to think that someone can live their entire life where home is only in a memory or a dream: this is a true tragedy. These people—refugees—are longing for rootedness in a constant state of displacement. Even though my family isn’t in Gaza, we very well could have ended up there. As a Palestinian, I empathize directly with what’s happening there. That could have been me; that could have been my family. It’s just a matter of where we were living in 1948 and where we may have been displaced to.
ED: As I follow the horrendous events unfolding in Gaza, the West Bank, and across the world right now—after the attacks on October 7—I am noticing, simultaneously, a pervasive collective learning, an immediate desire to understand Israeli state violence against Palestinians. I see part of this collective learning happening through film. Other Cinemas, for example, has six thought-provoking films streaming for fundraising until November 22. Of the six films available for viewing, I recommend a film that BPFF featured last season, Jumana Manna’s Foragers. The film shows the joy and knowledge around practices of forging for wild edible plants in Palestine/Israel.
MM: A large collection of Palestinian cinema is available for viewing at any time. Netflix has a sizable and impressive collection of Palestinian films called Palestinian Stories. Many high-quality films can be found on YouTube, and other resources include ArteEast, Palestine Films, and the Palestine Film Institute, which currently is hosting a Cinematic Dialogues series with prominent figures in Palestinian cinema, including Cherien Dabis, Michel Khleifi, and Hiam Abbass. BPFF also archives its programming. We resist the erasure of Palestinian existence and the dehumanization of our identity, and toward that end, we’ve collected a deep history that has to be preserved. This resistance, this reclamation of our humanity, happens through stories and the preservation of Palestinian narratives through film.
Erik DeLuca is an interdisciplinary artist and experimental musician. He is associate professor of art education and contemporary art practice at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Michael Maria is a Palestinian American born and raised in Massachusetts, with ancestral roots hailing from Bethlehem, Palestine.