"I Want to Tell You about My Life Now": The Voice of Palestinian Refugees in Frontiers of Dreams and Fears

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Abstract

Many individuals and institutions--from scholar Edward Said to media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting--have noted the Western media's imbalance in presenting the struggles of the Palestinian people, particularly during the ongoing Al-Aqsa Intifada. Yet as the mainstream media continue to under-report violence against Palestinians and misrepresent the occupation of Palestinian lands, Palestinian filmmakers have begun to generate their own images, often through the genre of the documentary. This article examines one such documentary, Mai Masri's Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, a study of the daily lives of children living in Shatila and Dheisheh refugee camps. It argues that Masri's film, through its restoration of the lost voice of the refugee child and its insistence on Palestinian narrative, provides an essential alternative to the exploitative images of the institutionalized media.

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   We are near there, the tent has thirty doors.
   We are here a place between the pebbles and the shadows.
      A place for a voice.
   --Mahmud Darwish, "We Are Here Near There"

Writing in September 2001, almost one year after Ariel Sharon entered Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif and sparked the second Palestinian intifada, Edward Said suggested that "never have the media been so influential in determining the course of war as during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which, as far as the Western media are concerned, has essentially become a battle over images and ideas." (1) And as many critics have pointed out, it is a battle that the Palestinians are losing. In their survey of U.S. media coverage of the uprising, Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish highlight a number of distressing patterns, including the under-reporting of violence against Palestinians, a refusal to acknowledge Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and the demonization of Yasser Arafat. (2) Their examination of editorials over a three-month period reveals the extent of the imbalance. In the New York Times, for example, twenty-five five of thirty-three op-ed pieces devoted to the issue of Palestinian-Israeli relations strongly supported Israel's position. (3) A recent survey by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) shows just what effect such media representations have on the U.S. public: only 4 per cent of Americans surveyed knew there was an Israeli occupation, and most viewed Palestinians as "uncompromising" and "aggressive." (4) All of these trends form part of what Said sees as the overall dehumanization of Palestinians and the erasure of their stories through the mainstream media.

But voices do emerge from what Homi Bhabha has called the spaces in between, (5) between the pebbles and the shadows, the fences and the guns. For even while the intifada closes in on the people of Palestine, leaving them literally confined to their own homes, and narrows the spectrum of dominant media opinion, the range of Palestinian cultural expressions still grows and shifts. Committed, political art of the twentieth century sought, in Kyo MacLear's words, new "passages into events" and struggled with "representational cliches which condense[d] history;" (6) now, for a Palestine of the twenty-first century, such a commitment means struggling to create narratives beyond the endlessly repeating images of stone-throwing boys and flag-draped martyrs. And just such a struggle is taking place, in the work of Palestinian poets, diarists, filmmakers, curators, and artists. The Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, for example, is currently hosting a memorial exhibit that aims to give a name and face to each of the first one hundred people killed in the intifada. The Sixth Biennale of Arab Cinema in Paris in July 2002 included an extensive program of Palestinian film, and earlier, in May 2001, the Al-Jana Arab Centre for Popular Culture in Beirut hosted the Palestinian film festival "Between Two Intifadas. …