Freedom Songs

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on “For a Free Palestine: Films by Palestinian Women”

Jumana Manna, A Magical Substance Flows into Me, 2016, DCP, color, sound, 66 minutes.

IN 1935, a German ethnomusicologist named Robert Lachmann was fired from his library job and fled from the Nazis to Jerusalem. Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, he had learned to speak fluent Arabic as a young man and had begun to study the forms and structures of Arabic song while working as an interpreter for North African POWs during World War I. He later traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, conducting extensive fieldwork on secular and liturgical music while developing a wide area of expertise ranging from medieval to modern songs and encompassing everything from Kurdish and Kabyle folklore to the sacred musical traditions of the Jewish community on the Island of Djerba. For two intense years in Jerusalem, Lachmann created an incredible radio program for the Palestine Broadcasting Service, exploring the many facets of minority music that were alive and well in the area, and recording more than a thousand samples for his archive, including the music of the Arab, Bedouin, Berber, Coptic, Samaritan, and Yemeni communities, among others.

Eighty years after Lachmann’s radio show, the artist Jumana Manna delved into that archive to create a majestic 66-minute film called A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2016). Manna grew up in Jerusalem, and her film is as much a revival of lost history as it is a contemporary love letter to the stubborn complexity and obsessive energy of a city that will not yield to a monocultural or master narrative, no matter how many wars have been waged to try and do so. Punctuated by the scratchy sounds of Lachmann’s voice and the music he recorded, Manna’s film visits modern-day practitioners of the same traditions, including an extremely beautiful Israeli singer of Jewish Moroccan origin named Neta Elkayam who sings old Arabic songs while spicing a dish that simmers on the stove of her narrow kitchen as her husband, Amit Hai, plays the banjo in a purple scarf behind her. She periodically breaks to address the camera.

“Most people say that, unfortunately, we are from the periphery,” Elkayam says. “In the periphery they don’t invest like in the center. As a creator, I say it was to my advantage. While Israeli society tried to flatten, annihilate, and erase cultures of diaspora, we could continue preserving these things there without someone telling us: ‘Stop being primitive’ or ‘stop speaking the language of the enemy.’”

Mustafa Abu Ali, Pino Adriano and Jean Chamoun, Tal Al Zaatar, 1977. Restored by Monica Maurer and Emily Jacir.

As with many artists’ films, occasions to see A Magical Substance are not so very plentiful, and especially not for free and online. This is one of the many bountiful reasons to celebrate, and to make sure you do not miss, the current program “For a Free Palestine: Films by Palestinian Women,” organized by the five-year-old feminist film journal Another Gaze and available at Manna’s contribution includes A Magical Substance as well as two previous films, Blessed Blessed Oblivion (2010), on machismo and masculinity, and A Sketch of Manners (2013), which takes an archival photograph as the point of departure for vividly reimagining a masquerade ball for the demimonde of 1940s Mandate Palestine.

The latest conflagration of violence in the region was sparked by an evictions case on one small, notably pretty street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Within two weeks, more than sixty children across Palestine had been killed and Israeli forces had targeted UNWRA schools, leveled the Gaza bureaus of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, and shot into Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during the last days of Ramadan. The massive bombardment of Gaza was the latest in a barrage of campaigns against the territory which have been almost constant since Israeli forces “disengaged” in 2005 and Hamas took control in 2007, resulting in a near-total blockade that has crippled the economy and plunged the population into poverty.

Larissa Sansour, Nation Estate, 2012, DCP, sound, video, 9 minutes.

Much of the language trotted out for justification and rationalization was dispiritingly the same as it’s been for decades, but something in the wider discourse shifted, and the outpouring of solidarity with Palestinians also signaled something new. In its broadest sense, the program at Another Gaze extends an expression of that solidarity. The space carved out for the work of women is especially crucial given how male the political leadership has always been, and how much of a boys’ club the cultural landscape can be mistaken for. The poet Mahmoud Darwish, the novelists Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi, and the filmmakers Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu Assad are all extraordinary, of course, but equally vital at this moment (and beyond) are Isabella Hammad’s terrific debut novel The Parisian, set in Mandate-era Nablus; Selma Dabbagh’s novel Out of It, about young lovers in Gaza in the midst of the second intifada; and the groundbreaking archival work on Ottoman-era Bethlehem by the arts and research center Dar Jacir, an initiative spearheaded by the artist Emily Jacir with help and support from the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir (Wajib, When I Saw You, Salt of this Sea), who is also her sister. (Dar Jacir’s building was raided and ransacked during the May campaign, and its urban farm project, initiated by Mohammed Saleh in 2019, was scorched).

The twenty-odd films assembled in “For a Free Palestine” make for a frequently ravishing and thoroughly eclectic program. It’s a chance to see four films by the always illuminating Basma Alsharif, and perhaps an instigation to seek out others, such as her mesmeric feature-length film Ouroboros (2017). Four of Larissa Sansour’s futurist sci-fi escapades, imagining Palestinian cosmonauts and proposing a single high-rise building as a viable Palestinian state, are there as well, alongside Rosalind Nashashibi’s delicately observed (and occasionally animated) Electrical Gaza (2015), Hreash House (2004), and Dahiet Al Bareed, District of the Post Office (2002). Mona Benyamin’s Moonscape (2020) pulls viewers down a surrealist rabbit hole, where colonizing outer space appears both outrageous and reasonable as a possible escape from the real constraints of everyday oppression. Just as revelatory, Layaly Badr’s The Road to Palestine (1985), commissioned by the PLO way back when and composed entirely of children’s drawings, cracks open the long, fabled, and sometimes troubled history of revolutionary struggle as conveyed through Palestinian art and film.

Layaly Badr, The Road to Palestine, 1985, 16 mm, sound, color 7 minutes.

According to Daniella Shreir, the founder of and programmer at Another Gaze, new films are being added to the open-ended lineup of “For a Free Palestine,” including three by Emily Jacir, a special focus on the documentaries of Mai Masri, and Heiny Srour’s The Hour of Liberation Has Arrived (1974), about the Dhofar uprising in Oman, where feminism, most unusually, played a central role in the radicalism of an Arab leftist movement. Srour is most famous for her experimental feature Leila and the Wolves (1984). Banned throughout the Arab world, The Hour of Liberation was her debut. She made the film while she was a PhD student in social anthropology. Maxime Rodinson was her advisor. Also coming soon in “For a Free Palestine” is Massaker (2005), a harrowing series of interviews with the perpetrators of the Sabra and Shatila massacre made by German filmmaker Monika Borgmann in collaboration with Hermann Theissen and her longtime partner, Lokman Slim, a noted publisher, dissident Shiite, and critic of Hezbollah who was assassinated just three months ago, in South Lebanon. 

Picking up on the question of language posed by the singer in Manna’s A Magical Substance, Ahlam Shibli’s Nine Days in Wahat al-Salam (2010), a Frederick Wiseman–esque endurance test, observes nine days of consciousness-raising among eight Palestinians and eight Israelis, all of them in their twenties and thirties. Sitting in a too-small room, they discuss the viability of a binational state and hash out the identities, anxieties, and dreams that more often than not divide them, starting with the question of what language to speak among them: Arabic, which only half of them know, or Hebrew, which all of them, even if begrudgingly, understand? Grueling to watch, Shibli’s film is likely to make her viewers wince and sweat. It’s hard and possibly futile work, but it makes a necessary mess of the notion, recently floated on so many social media feeds, that the situation in Israel-Palestine isn’t really complicated. It is, and therein lies our only hope.

“For Free Palestine: Films by Palestinian Women” is currently streaming for free on Another Screen. A discussion among some of the filmmakers will be live-streamed on June 7.