University of North Carolina | Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
Testimony and Encounter in Palestinian Film
Beginning the late 1960s and early 1970s, just as Palestinians began to film and photograph themselves, a number of cultural critics began writing about the dangers of image fatigue and desensitization to the claims-making inherent within them. The inability of images to truly represent the horrific experiences of war and other types of suffering gave rise to the desire among some (e.g., Claude Lanzmann) to eschew the visual and turn to words as a more ethical venue for communicating experiences with extreme violence to others. In the West, the privileging of testimony contributed to the rise to the field of trauma studies and the medicalization of trauma as a deviant experience that victims learn to overcome in order to function in society. More recently scholarship on representations of violence has revisited the expressive capacity of images as the unique power (and indeed, reliability) of testimony has been questioned, and as scholars have turned to new theoretical frameworks (e.g., human rights, discourses of citizenship) to reclaim an efficacy for the images of violence that earlier writers had dismissed. Much of this theoretical work shares an overwhelming concern for the distant spectator of violence. How might she be politicized, anesthetized, or traumatized by images of suffering, and what modes of viewing must she implement in order to read such images ethically. Far less attention has been paid to the concerns and working contexts of those who create images and narratives about violent history or the effects and viewpoints of the communities represented in such texts, especially where violence and dispossession is ongoing. What relationships are created between filmed subjects and viewers through such films? What subjectivities are produced when one views images of one’s own suffering?
Within some struggles for political liberation (e.g. the recitation of testimonies in Latin America and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa) testimony about traumatic experiences has been treated as a political act. The public narration of experiences with violence is understood to tie victims to a community of sufferers. Filmmakers working in such contexts (including Palestinians) may thematize circuits of communication or experiment with modes of address. Some reconsider the political possibilities of images of victimhood as they experiment with turning grief into action. Others use dreams, humor, and estrangement to create new relationships between spectators, image makers, and filmed subjects.
In this paper I will focus on films that thematize testimony and the encounter between victims and spectators. Recognizing the fundamental problem in indexical representations of violence and dispossession, as well as the hierarchical relationships that are created between filmed subjects and viewers in testimonies and images about violence and dispossession, filmmakers such as Azza El-Hassan, Khalid Jarrar, and Elia Suleiman employ a variety of techniques to disrupt that hierarchy and create encounters of equality between those who experience violence and their distant spectators.