It seems like a hazy memory today, but there was a time when the Palestinian struggle was a key element in a popular upsurge which seemed to be on its way to triumph over colonialism and its remnants all over the world.
Long before The Two-State Solution, before Oslo and the endlessly futile Peace Process, before the so-called “Authority” in the fragmented cantons of the West Bank, filmmaker Mohanad Yaqubi reminds us, there was the Palestinian Revolution. In the new documentary “OFF FRAME AKA REVOLUTION UNTIL VICTORY” we can see on film fragmentary scenes from those heady days during the 1960’s and 70’s when militant Palestinian fighters, buoyed by the world-wide currents of national liberation and anti-colonialism, took up arms to overthrow the Zionist project. These were not “jihadists” in the current parlance of the Global War on Terror, but revolutionaries fighting for the return of an exiled people to their homeland — and to build a radical non-sectarian democratic state in Palestine.
The film is both a resurrection of that era and a self-conscious meditation on the efforts of the Palestinian film makers to produce a representation of the struggle in their own terms during the 1960s and 1970s. The memory of the period is reanimated through what was on film and a critical reflection on what was outside it – or “off Frame,” as the title indicates. “Revolution Until Victory” was a popular slogan among Palestinian resistors.
The documentary is based on the director’s rediscovery of the work of the PLO’s Palestine Film Unit through sometimes grainy prints surviving in archives around the world. The original negatives, like much of the documentary record of the Palestine resistance, were lost in the intentional destruction of the PLO archives by the Israeli invaders of Lebanon in 1982.
The film begins with stills and newsreel clips of British Mandatory Palestine, ending in the expulsion of at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes to refugee camps, first of tents and then with more permanent, though still impoverished housing as the years went by. Yaqubi reveals again and again in contemporary documentary and PLO propaganda footage how the Palestinians struggled to create their own narrative and gradually transformed from victims to resistors, from exiles to self-conscious freedom fighters. In the words of author and historian Elias Sandbar “For people who suffer from invisibility, the camera would be their weapon.”
The struggle against historical “erasure” is one thread that animated Palestinian resistance throughout those years and it continues to this day. A segment of Yaqubi’s film reproduces clips from a PLO documentary response to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s infamous 1969 statement that “The Palestinians Do Not Exist.” In 2011 former House Speaker and presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich called the Palestinians an “invented people.” A few years later, influential billionaire Republican funder (and “Friend of Bibi”) Sheldon Adelson asserted that the Palestinians were “a made-up nation” and his campaign donations have helped to make this a near universal dogma on the Conservative Right.
“Revolution Until Victory” is also a vivid reminder that the image projected by the PLO in those days was defiantly leftist and secular. Scenes of fighters (men and women) are interspersed with clips of people learning how to read, weapons shown alongside books and teachers citing Che Guevara on revolution and love. The analysis portrayed in the clips is overtly Marxist. Everyone from Arafat to individual fighters speaking about the struggle as one for liberation, not against “the Jews” but for a free Palestine where everyone could live in peace. It was a cause – along with the contemporary Vietnam War – that resonated among prominent radicals across the world. We see clips of international celebrities like filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and actress Vanessa Redgrave. As well as footage narrated in French and Italian. (Writer Jean Genet’s posthumous work “A Prisoner of Love” would document his meditation on the time he spent with Palestinian fighters in the 1970s.)
In the late 1970s Palestinians trained together with South African ANC fighters, Mozambican FRELIMO and ZAPU (Zimbabwe) troops, alongside Lebanese Communists in Algerian and Soviet military camps. An ANC soldier I knew in Zambia during the 1980s was called “Ya Habibi” by his comrades (and also years later on the streets of Pretoria when he became a colonel in the new South African Army) because that is how they heard him greeted by PLO fighters in the same Crimean training camp.
In retrospect, of course, it was unlikely that Palestinian freedom fighters alone could ever have defeated the mighty Israeli military machine, armed and supported by the US and its allies. Palestine was not Vietnam. But the PLO armed resistance – like the ANC’s during the same period – played an important role in bolstering morale among the Palestinians under occupation and in the diaspora. Without it the Intifadas of the 1980s in Palestine and South Africa might not have been possible. In the case of Apartheid South Africa the result was the growth of an unstoppable internal resistance and powerful international sanctions that brought about a democratic de-colonization. Palestinians are still waiting.
But, as filmmaker Yaqubi has written: “Resorting to cinema’s temporal nature and time being an elastic concept, Off Frame” assumes the role of a time machine. . . by opening a portal into the life, hopes and desires of a people living in a revolution, fighting to be recognized and to reclaim control over their representation.”
The film ends on a hopeful contemporary note. Interspersed with the final credits are scenes from a classroom in contemporary Ramallah where the teacher and students (boys and girls together) speak about “peace with dignity.” On the walls are photos of Yasser Arafat and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. As the last credits roll, a student assembly salutes the Palestinian flag, accompanied by the strains of the stirring Palestinian anthem Biladi – “My Land.”
Jeff Klein is a frequent visitor to the Middle East, a speaker and author of many articles on regional issues and Palestine-Israel. In the 1980s he worked for the exiled African National Congress in Zambia. He has an occasional blog: At a slight angle to the universe.
The Film will be shown on Sunday, October 22 as part of the Boston Palestine Film Festival.