"I Want to Tell You about My Life Now": The Voice of Palestinian Refugees in Frontiers of Dreams and Fears
Burwell, Catherine, Refuge
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.
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." In the U.S., American-based internet sites such as the Electronic Intifada provide analysis, photographs, and war diaries from the ground. In many different locations--in exile, in Israel, in the occupied territories and refugee camps--Palestinians are resisting their own erasure by filling silences with sound and replacing simplified icons with a plurality of images and stories.
Amongst those resisting oppression, documentary filmmaking has had a historically significant place. While documentary makers and theorists in recent years have argued over concepts of reality, authenticity, and form, the importance of the independent documentary as a tool to interrupt the flow of dominant visual norms and reimagine more radical forms of democracy remains. Fittingly, independent documentary has played an important role within Palestinian artistic communities since the start of the intifada. Both David Tresilian, reviewing the Sixth Biennale of Arab Cinema, and Viola Shafik, reviewing the Al-Jana Film Festival, note the large number of documentaries being produced by Palestinian directors. In the catalogue of the Sixth Biennale, coordinator of the Palestinian program Michket Krifa considers the reasons for this new flourishing of documentary, and suggests that "the younger generation has now moved in to occupy the field of visual creativity, due to its vital need to express the reality of Palestinian life. To correct images provided of Palestine by foreign television, these young people have decided to produce their own images of a region sometimes called the most mediatised on the planet." (7)
Palestinian-American filmmaker Mai Masri, who has in a short time built a significant body of work, must be counted among this new generation of documentary makers intent on producing their own images. Since the 1980s, Masri has directed or co-directed seven documentaries. These include Wildflowers: Women of South Lebanon, a biography of Palestinian intellectual and political leader Hanan Ashrawi, and three films focused specifically on refugee children--Children of Fire, Children of Shatila, and Frontiers of Dreams and Fears. Masri has garnered several awards for her documentaries, which have been broadcast on television stations around the world, including Channel Four, France2 and PBS. Her most recent work, Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, focuses on the friendship that develops between two Palestinian girls, both third-generation refugees. Mona Zaaroura, living in Shatila Camp in Beirut, and Manar Majed Faraj, living in Dheisheh Camp in Bethlehem, form a friendship through e-mail and letters. As the girls' friendship--and the filming of it--progress, two historic events occur. The first is the Israeli army's withdrawal from South Lebanon, which allows many of the refugees of Shatila Camp to see their homeland for the first time. The second event is the beginning of the intifada, which disrupts the girls' already chaotic existences. Although many children appear and speak in the film, and even become minor characters, the film's loose narrative structure is based on the evolution of the friendship between Mona and Manar, and the two girls provide …
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Publication information: Article title: "I Want to Tell You about My Life Now": The Voice of Palestinian Refugees in Frontiers of Dreams and Fears. Contributors: Burwell, Catherine - Author. Journal title: Refuge. Volume: 21. Issue: 2 Publication date: February 2003. Page number: 32+. © 2008 Centre for Refugee Studies. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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