Interview with Azza El-Hassan > Documentarist - Ramalla
Nicolas Siepen

Documentary film is a fixed quantity not only in the film industry but also in the international art scene. It is striking that, in non-Western contexts, this medium is very often used particularly when artistic and/or politically activist endeavours from so-called »crisis regions« are involved. At the global level, the artistic and political value of such documentaries is mostly reduced to a sort of reality transfer. However, within the situation in which the films have been made, the reception is often much more highly charged and controversial. To do justice to these contextual tensions, it is necessary to reject the presumption that formal aspects in documentary films take a back seat to the chosen subject, and concentrate instead on their interconnections in the works themselves. Perhaps it is here in particular that one can learn something about the specificity of realities that are distorted or covered up by the permanent rush of global streams of information. I spoke with Azza El-Hassan about these interconnections with particular reference to three of her films: »News Time« (2001), »3 cm Less« (2002) and her latest work, »Kings & Extras«, finished this year, in which she goes in search of the lost »PLO Media Unit«. Her films have been shown both on television (Arte, BBC, WDR) and at international film festivals.

Nicolas Siepen: I should like to talk with you first of all about the form your work takes. Your films mostly look at different aspects of the reality facing Palestinians. Even though you take up a clear political position, your approach to the complexity and force of the situation is subjective, almost intimate. I see a tension between this cautious approach to a local conflict – one with international consequences – and an international medium, documentary film, that always has to have a concrete locality.

Azza El-Hassan: Interesting that you think that there is a problem in the fact that a local subject is discussed using an international medium. To start with: although geographically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might seem to be a »local« conflict, it is still a global matter. The globalization of the issue can be felt most in the level of interest the conflict holds for the art scene, for example. War, which is the direct effect of the conflict, is a global matter. Don’t you think so? Anyhow, I never think when I am filming and putting a documentary together that I am dealing with a global or local issue. I am dealing with a vibrant matter which I strongly feel the need to talk about.

Siepen: Can you say anything about your general interest in a relatively »old medium« like documentary film? Your political interest as a Palestinian seems also to be to use films to bring aspects of Palestinian reality to the attention of an international public. At the same time, you find it important that your films do not alienate themselves from the local realities and people that provide you with your material and that they also work »inwards«. Do you think that a differentiation between inside and outside makes any sense at all here?

El-Hassan: I do not see the connection in this way. Probably if I was not a Palestinian, documentary filmmaking would still interest me. I love the element of experimentation which the documentary opens up. I’ve done films that didn’t have anything to do with the Palestinian issue and I am planning to do more. I do not consider myself to be a supporter of the Palestinian cause; I deal with my cause, my story and my conflict. I feel that there is a lot that I wish to deal with regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - using the documentary as a medium. But allow me to take the question further and to try and look at Palestinian documentary filmmaking in a more historical context. With regard to filmmaking, Palestinians have mainly been interested in the genre of documentary film. This is mainly because they see documentary filmmaking in its traditional form of recording and documenting what is happening to them. This is chiefly because, in terms of identity and daily existence, Palestinians felt that post-1948 they were being subjected to a suppression of their historical narrative (mainly the argument of the Zionists that Palestine was an empty land before they arrived there, while the Palestinians tried to assert that this land was not empty and that they lived in it as a nation). They were and are also living in a problematic present (occupation, expulsion, refugee states, etc). In order to deal with this suppressed narrative and problematic present, a strong desire to tell and inform became evident in all cultural productions, whether poetry or filmmaking. The main slogan became, »We have to tell the world the truth.« I think there was a strong belief that the world did not know, and that if it were to know, things would change. I believe that this played a big role in the evolvement of °?propaganda documentary films. My latest film, »Kings & Extras«, was a journey of quest for these lost films. However, I believe that, although documentary film still remains a vibrant medium in Palestinian culture, the way it is used has changed drastically in recent decades. To start with, Palestinians no longer feel that the world »does not know and needs to be informed«. I think I can safely argue that in Europe at least there is knowledge of what has happened to Palestinians and what is happening today. This allowed the evolvement of a more personal approach to documentary filmmaking, which I believe that I belong to.

Siepen: In your latest film, »Kings & Extras«, there is a self-referential fusion of form and content. You make a film about your search for the »PLO Media Archive« in Lebanon, which was stolen or destroyed during the 1982 war, and connect this historical background with reflections on the necessity for developing and archiving collective narratives.

El-Hassan: I think I have already answered this question, and I should like to emphasize this connection once more, because I was trying to read my own work in that regard. Still, it is interesting that the documentary film was developed during the Second World War as a propaganda tool. Every group with a story to tell usually resorts to documentary filmmaking. I think the Palestinians were very aware of this and this explains why one of the first units established within the PLO was the Media Unit, which produced reams and reams of archive material and documentary films with a clear political agenda.

Siepen: Can you say something about the history of the »PLO Media Unit« and the circumstances surrounding its disappearance, and why you included your own research and the search for the archive in the film?

El-Hassan: Well, the PLO film archive went missing following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Up until today, no one seems to have any clear answer about its whereabouts. My interest in the lost film archive came from the fact that it is a »grand loss«. The Palestinian narrative of identity has always been haunted by grand losses: the loss of a homeland, the loss of a family member, the loss of history, etc.. The loss of the film archive became yet another loss which can be added to the list of grand losses. But what made it even more interesting is the intellectual property of which these archives consisted. The Film Unit was established in the late sixties to translate the ideas of an organization which saw itself as liberation movement. Regardless of whether I agree with the propositions made in these films or not, their fate is of interest to me. Stuck in a conflict with no possible political solution on the horizon, I decided to leave Ramallah and go on a journey to search for the lost film archive. During my search, I went to Jordan, Damascus and Syria. It is true that I was searching for films that had a very clear political message, but my search didn’t. Instead, in »Kings & Extras« I seem completely lost. I interview various ex-revolutionaries in an attempt to find out what happened to the lost archive. What I find is various contradictory stories; in fact there are eight different versions of what could have happened to the lost archives. I am searching for lost films and documenting my loss and the loss of my film characters at a time when there is a great need for some vision of what could possibly resolve an extremely destructive situation.

Siepen: Do you think films like the ones you make could play an »active« role in political conflicts?

El-Hassan: Have you ever heard of a film that started a political revolution? I think films which deal with a political conflict are about dismantling the situation; they are an attempt to create a rationale for being within this conflict. I do not see them as a political manifesto.

Siepen: Perhaps they are never at the start, but in the middle or at the end. Have you ever toyed with the thought of making a fiction film that reconstructs political events? For example, there is the film »West Beirut« by the Lebanese filmmaker Siad Doueiri, who tries to tell the story of the civil war in Lebanon on the basis of his childhood memories. Or the film »The Battle of Algiers« by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, who does a fictional on-the-spot reconstruction of a very specific aspect of the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria from 1954-1962 two years after the war. This film does not only ruthlessly show the torture practices of the French, but also analyzes the deadly logic of the FLN's (Front de Libération Nationale) guerrilla war, and shows how the two forms were mutually dependent. In this sense, »The Battle of Algiers« is not a propaganda film, but itself part of colonial history – a part critical of it. However, that is still a very ambivalent process: the film was banned in France in 1971, used by the Black Panthers as training material, but also by the right-wing military in Chile to train people in torture methods.

El-Hassan: So far, pure fiction doesn’t really interest me. Documentary film interests me more because I feel that it opens up a more interesting space by allowing you to negotiate with reality. Although, as you know, the boundaries between fiction and documentary filmmaking have been diminishing greatly, owing to the fact that each borrows from the other. I definitely do not think that the documentary films I make reflect reality. Not at all. Rather, I am asking the viewer to see reality as I constructed it. In »News Time«, for example, I start the film by claiming that the Intifada started after an eclipse; this is not true in real terms, but it is true if you follow my argument in the film, which takes the viewer back to 1948 when thousands of Palestinians were made into refugees. In »3 cm Less«, I start the film with the idea that poverty and occupation are causing Palestinians to grow three centimetres less every year. It is true that some Palestinian children are not growing as tall as they should due to malnutrition, but I use this idea in the film to look at the effect the public issue (i.e. Palestine) is having on our private space. In »3 cm Less« I concentrate on family relations. In »Kings & Extras« I refer to the making of a documentary, and state from the beginning, despite starting what is supposed to be serious research on lost film archives, that it is not a true reflection of reality. I also note from the beginning in the dialogues with my film characters that most probably this research will lead to nothing: that the research is an end in itself, and won't necessarily lead to the lost archive. So I really do not feel that I am doing documentary film, but at the same time I am far from fiction, as to me it is irrelevant. I am attempting to deconstruct thoughts of war and I use whatever medium I feel comfortable with. There is a theme running through all my work, and that is the effect of »the role of the victim« as portrayed in the media on Palestinian self-perception. »Kings & Extras« begins with a group of refugees making fun of how they are reflected in the media. In a way, my constant theme is how news reporting (which is supposed to be a reflection of reality) reflects an image that my characters do not see as real. I explained earlier why I think there has always been a greater interest in documentary film than in fiction in the Palestinian cultural scene, but I do not think this applies to me.
I think films as a cultural product usually carry the debates and sentiments of their makers and the society in which these makers live. Of course there are and were lots of films that contained strong political statements and which even went on to change the language of film But I think these films were never the inventors of the theory they then promoted. Usually the political theory came first and then the films. That doesn’t mean that in today’s age of multi-media things cannot happen the other way round, but I haven’t seen it happen yet. »Kings & Extras« is a film about being stuck in a highly problematic reality in which there is a great need for political and theoretical statements but where it is not possible to find any. This is mainly because, after the development of the New World Order, liberation movements have not found grounds on which to base their arguments, and hence have in a way lost their vision. This is a real problem: to be in need of a political resolution and not to have a theoretical premise upon which to base your movement. I think it is this lack that led to the development, for example, of many Palestinian films which described the Palestinian situation and identified with the role of the victim, an approach which is uninteresting and one-dimensional. I think the trap of describing rather than dismantling or attempting to organize results from this. So, to go back to your question: I think films do not make revolutions, but they can argue in favour of one if there is a theoretical basis to which the maker has affiliated him\herself.

Siepen: One last question: are you interested in the technological possibilities offered by the Internet and the virtual archives like »Indymedia« to which they give rise?

El-Hassan: Of course I am. In building archives, in the flow of information and in creating a new kind of art. Definitely. I’ll tell you something entertaining: since the Palestinian Intifada began, the Israelis, as you know, have made movement impossible for Palestinians. This of course has meant that communication between people in the various areas is being threatened. Since then, the IT industry in the West Bank and Gaza has experienced a great boost. This is mainly because Palestinians have started getting very high tech in order to communicate and mobilize themselves by using the Internet. There is another interesting aspect which is now emerging: there are at least seven million Palestinian refugees in the world, many of whom have the feeling that their Palestinian heritage has been lost due to the destruction of society, and they have created archive projects on the Internet to preserve what they see as being lost.

Translation: Timothy Jones