Palestinian cinema: comedy in conflict

Saeed Taji Farouky
18 May 2006

"Hello? Can I speak to Kofi Anan?" a Palestinian man asks, holding a shoe to his ear. He's performing impromptu street theatre to the crowd gathered around his shoe stall. "Hello? Kofi? Why did you cancel the investigation into Jenin?" he asks, and delighted, the crowd erupts with laughter. "If you can't find a plane, we can send you a second hand one." He grins mischievously at his audience. "If we can't find a plane we'll send you a limping donkey!" Suddenly he looks at the shoe, defeated, "no more credit…" It is the closing scene of Mohammad Bakri's otherwise tragic documentary Jenin, Jenin, shot in Jenin refugee camp after a particularly violent Israeli military incursion – and it's funny, very funny.

The recent Palestine Film Festival hosted by the Barbican and SOAS, the largest of its kind in Europe, screened Jenin, Jenin among dozens of other films portraying the grim realities of life for Palestinians both under Israeli occupation and in exile. But amid the darkness and desperation, the festival included a few surprising moments of something rare and extremely precious in such circumstances: comedy.

It is unsettling to laugh during a documentary about a military siege, after watching ninety minutes of blood, rubble, bullets and tears. But it is also, curiously, very liberating. It is a reminder from the director, himself a victim of Israeli aggression, that there is still humanity there. Why do we laugh at moments like this, and why do directors include them in their films?

Also on openDemocracy:

"Paradise Now", Jane Kinninmont (April 2006)

"You don't expect a lot of laughs when you go to see a film about suicide bombers…"

There is no shortage of comedy in Arab films. Most of it comes in the form of farce and slapstick. Egypt, by far the largest producer of films in the Arab world, loves its slapstick. Adel Imam, the godfather of Egyptian comedy, tried to tackle politics in the 2005 film The Embassy is in the Building – a comic look at the true story of an Egyptian who finds the Israeli ambassador has moved into his building – but the film never strayed far from his trademark bumbling style.

The humour in Jenin, Jenin, as well as a number of other films in the festival, is different. It is a humour of desperation – comedy so biting it leaves a mark. When I asked Palestinian actor and director Bakri what role comedy played in his work he explained, "I believe in comedy that has a purpose. I believe in comedy that has satire behind it, and black comedy. Behind each smile there is a tear and behind each tear there is a smile. That's my style."

Out of Time, Out of Place, from Australian director Stefan Markworth, explores the lives of Palestinian refugees living in the camps of Lebanon. Like Jenin, Jenin, it reserves comedy for the film's final scene. In an outtake from one of the film's interviews, Abu Hassan – in the middle of a dialogue with the director – suddenly looks down at his shoes in astonishment: "Fuck! Look at my shoes! I have two different shoes!" He looks up at the camera again, embarrassed, and continues, "I can't believe I did this! They are so different!" It is an utterly incongruous scene, ushering in the credits on an otherwise typically serious documentary, and yet it perfectly summarises the incongruity of the refugee experience. Amid the daily struggle for basics like food, work and security, laughing at your unmatched shoes is the sort of self-effacing humour that offers a way – however small – of retrieving control in a situation that is otherwise hopeless. It represents one of the few things that cannot be taken away by force.

Saeed Taji Farouky is the director of I See The Stars At Noon and the co-founder of the film’s production company Tourist With A Typewriter. He is a freelance journalist and photographer whose work focuses on the culture and politics of the Middle East.

Also in openDemocracy by Saeed Taji Farouky:

"I See The Stars At Noon: filming Morocco's emigration hunger" (October 2005)

"Shadowplay in Dubai" (December 2005)

"Listening to Istanbul" (February 2006)

"Deserted in Western Sahara" (March 2006)

Comedy can be a powerful form of resistance. Mel Brooks once commented that if your enemy is laughing at you, he can't beat you to death. For many Palestinians in the occupied territories and in neighbouring Arab countries, the Israeli military represents an attempt to humiliate, disempower and dehumanise them, with checkpoints, arbitrary closures, land seizures, demolitions and unpredictable violence. Laughing is often the only way to defy that process and to prove that the strategy of dehumanisation won't succeed. For those who choose not to – or can't afford to – resist physically or militarily, persistence is the strategy, and nothing defies oppression like persistent laughter. It is a potent mix of daring rebellion and mundane disobedience, it is in endless supply and, most importantly, it comes from somewhere deep within the human soul. As Ahmed says in Out of Time, Out of Place, "I laugh with all my heart."

There is also another kind of comedy in these films: the ridiculous. In his autobiographical Since You've Been Gone, Bakri is filmed trying to flog DVDs of Jenin, Jenin, banned in Israeli cinemas, on the streets of Israel. He doesn't actually hope to sell any, but instead wants to film the reactions of ordinary Israelis when he approaches them (everyone recognises him – he is a famous stage and screen actor in Israel). One man tells him "You're a good actor. Why don't you stay out of politics?" Another shrugs "My wife watches soap operas! What can I say?" and the audience laughs, because Bakri has intentionally exposed himself to ridicule in order to highlight the ridiculousness that already exists around him. It is another way of confronting politics, but with a non-political approach.

This method is essential for dealing with a subject as ever-present as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, constantly presented and re-presented to fatigued audiences. Overloaded with an anonymous series of tragedies in which it's almost impossible to distinguish one military incursion or one suicide bombing from another, viewers need an entirely new perspective on the subject to make sense of it. In 2002, London-based director Leila Sansour hit upon a brilliant idea for doing just that: she sent a comedian to the West Bank. In a twisted take on Seinfeld, Jeremy Hardy Versus the Israeli Army saw the stand-up comic accompanying the controversial International Solidarity Movement there, and using the material in his stand-up routine upon returning to the UK. He made us laugh by seeing beyond the obvious and picking out amusing details that would otherwise be overlooked. Even The Embassy is in the Building, while lampooning every section of Egyptian society, still managed to find an original way of addressing the serious and controversial subject of the country's peace treaty with Israel.

Comedy certainly doesn't preclude politics. Instead, it can pack the biggest punch when it emerges from within politics, and few subjects provide as much complex and varied political material as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At this intersection of the tragic and the ridiculous, comedy serves its most important purpose: to provide the contrast, the inverse of our expectations as an audience. The comic scenes remain the most memorable and poignant moments of this year's Palestine Film Festival, proving that the darker the subject, the more cathartic the jokes. As Bakri observes to his audience in the closing monologue of one of his stage productions, "in order not to betray myself, I laughed at myself, to say there is still hope".

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