Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Of Palestine and Ken Loach

Samir Farid reviews two of the Berlinale’s documentaries

Al-Ahram Weekly

Among the political films screened in the course of the Berlin Film Festival, which closed last week, was the Israeli documentary filmmaker Dan Setton’s State 194, on Palestine, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September. This is Setton’s ninth film since 1994, and all nine are on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Setton, who was born in Cairo in 1951, presented the film at the auditorium in person, describing it as different to his previous work in that - as he put it - it expresses a degree of optimism, focussing on Palestine receiving non ­­­— member observer status in the United Nations in 2011. This was no doubt the most important development in the Palestinian question since the founding of the Palestinian Authority following the Oslo Accords in 1994. Setton’s, an American production, is the first film on the event: that it should be an American-Israeli effort with no Arab participation whatsoever is rather surprising.

Filmed in colour by Hanna Abu Saada and Yoram Millo, the film has a powerful opening: together with the opening titles, we see the UN documents recognising the state of Israel, followed by those recognising the state of Palestine. It is 2004, and Obama — speaking at Cairo University — is declaring his support for the two-state solution. A bird’s eye view shows the separation wall, with the words “Palestine” and “Israel” appearing on the respective sides of the screen. In 2007 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appoints economist Salam Fayyad prime minister of Palestine. As of 2009 the PA launches its two-year campaign for UN member status, starting with the building and rebuilding state institutions in preparation. Fayyad himself is seen saying, “Where there are no institutions, there is no state; and where there is no state, what is it that we’re going to demand recognition of? We must prove that the Palestinian people are capable of self-government and maintaining relations with others.”

The action of the film takes place between 2009 and 2011, dealing with the Abbas-Fayyad plan to build the Palestinian state. It demonstrates the extent of the difficulty the process has faced, not least among which is religious right-wing extremism, with Hamas in Gaza and the religious right-wing forces rising to power in Israel at the same time: both reject the two-state solution, with Hamas employing some 250 thousand troops to reject peace and the Israeli right continuing to build settlements on Palestinian land — some 500 thousand since Oslo. The direction brilliantly juxtaposes black-and-white archival material (on the Arab-Israeli wars from 1948 to 1973 and on peace activist demonstrations in Israel, for example) with documentary scenes in colour, together with dozens of interviews with representatives of both sides as well as the world community: how an Israeli and a Palestinian whose son and daughter are killed, respectively, found a Parents Assembly. In lieu of narrative, screen titles communicate the required information; here as elsewhere the director shows incredible precision and remarkable evocative skill.


The great British auteur Ken Loach is well-known not only in the world of film but also in that of politics: he is not content with portraying his own vision of reality in the films he makes, imbuing them with a left-wing socialist view and a strong bias for the poor; he is also politically active independently of his profession, and his position in defence of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation is well-known. This was especially clear during the last few years in his refusal to participate in festivals that receive government funding. Last year he participated in the British campaign to boycott Israeli products sold in the UK; he also boycotted a production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice by a settlement troupe. His latest film, The Spirit of ‘45, was screened in the Special Screenings section of the Berlinale. It is a well-known fact that Loach started his career with documentaries, before making any fiction films, even though he directed both genres with the same efficiency and in the same style. This is his first full-length documentary since 1998.

The Spirit of ‘45 is a cinematic event in every sense of the word, recalling Mikhail Romm’s landmark Ordinary Fascism, which was a turning point in documentary cinema some half a century ago — recycling and reinterpreting WWII footage. Here he rereads film documents of the long period starting from the end of WWII in 1945 and until last year, when it was produced. It expresses his vision of the history of his country and the world. Like every real artist Loach uses the past to speak of the present, contributing the forging of the future as he sees it. Thus the film fluctuates between footage and the testimonies of political figures, historians, experts as well as officials, nurses and other ordinary people.

The spirit of ‘45 is the spirit that prevailed in Britain following the Allied victory, when the question the world over was what kind of world do we want after a war in which over 50 million people were killed. The British answer to that question was the first 20th-century victory of the Labour Party in the elections that took place in the summer of 1945, making Clement Atlee the prime minister who confronted the principal problem of the time, that of rebuilding what the war destroyed and eliminating the slums it gave rise to. One slum resident is seen recounting how he used to sleep with five siblings in the same bed, surrounded by insects and rodents knowing that he was the subject of an empire that spread from Canada to South Africa and from India to Argentina. Labour’s incredibly successful policy was the nationalisation of public services and the building of schools and hospitals on the widest possible scale. “This wasn’t just housing,” one interviewee says. “It was comfortable housing.”

With the electoral victory of the Conservatives in 1979 and the rise to power of Margret Thatcher, the Iron Woman undertook a comprehensive reversal of all such policies all through her reign, which lasted until 1990, privatising everything back. In his film Loach makes a powerful case for condemning Thatcherism and the violence of the police suppressing protests against it. He also condemns globalisation and expresses support for anti-globalisation activism, from the Seattle movement to Occupy Wall Street, calling for a return to the spirit of ‘45 and showing optimism in this regard. Yet Loach does all this in purely cinematic style: the film is in black-and-white since most of the footage is in black-and-white; Loach turns contemporary scenes and colour footage into black-and-white also — until the last scene, which is a repeat of the opening scene of soldiers back from the war but this time colorised to look bright and express optimism.

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