Name curator: Sarah Hamblin
Name artist: Abu Ali Mustafa
Title of the work you have chosen: They Do Not Exist
Year of production: 1974
Read the interview with curator Sarah Hamblin down here:
Name curator: Sarah Hamblin
Name artist: Mustafa Abu Ali
Title of the work you have chosen: Laysa lahum wujud
English title: They Do Not Exist
Year of production: 1974
About the curator
Name: Dr. Sarah Hamblin
Function: I’m an Assistant Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
What is your main interest: My research focuses on political filmmaking. I'm particularly interested in radical politics and the relationship between cinema and revolution. My current work is focused mainly on radical political filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s from a global, comparative perspective.
Where do you come from/ where do you live: I’m originally from the UK, but I currently live and work in Boston.
About the film and the filmmakers:
What can you tell about this film?
They Do Not Exist narrates the daily life of Palestinians in the Nabatiya refugee camp in Lebanon and the destruction of the camp by Israeli forces. The film was directed by Mustafa Abu Ali, founder of the PLO’s film division and a key figure in the Palestinian revolutionary cinema movement that emerged after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This revolutionary film culture that Ali spearheaded was an international Third Cinema movement in which directors made films that would function as tools for liberation. Working with other politically committed filmmakers from Cuba, Chile, Argentina, France, and Italy, Palestinian filmmakers documented the plight of their people and the growing resistance movement. In this vein, They Do Not Exist provides a first-hand account of the struggle for nationhood that situates the particular experiences of Palestinian refugees and freedom fighters within the larger history of both third world national liberation movements and western imperialist genocides. The film was shared widely overseas with various political organizations and film groups and was screened at several film festivals, winning the Honor Diploma at the Leipzig Film Festival in 1974 and the Arab Criticism Union Prize at the Carthage Film Festival in 1978.
The title of the film is a response to then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who, in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1969, stated, “There was no such thing as Palestinians. […] It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” In documenting the lives of people in the Nabatiya camp, They Do Not Exist is an insistent refusal of Meir’s claim and the larger Zionist denial of Palestinian history and culture. To this end, the film can be understood as an expression of existence as resistance; despite the Israeli government’s systematic attempts to erase all traces of a Palestinian people and culture, the film records and thus affirms their continued existence and will to resist.
Moreover, the very existence of this film itself is a testament to their resilience. They Do Not Exist was originally stored in the PLO archives in Beirut, which were created along with several other heritage collections to preserve Palestinian culture and the history of the struggle. After the invasion of Beirut in 1982, however, the film archive disappeared and is presumed to have been stolen or destroyed by Israeli forces. While most of this archive remains lost, copies of several films have surfaced, including a print of They Do Not Exist, albeit with the last minute missing. The revival of these revolutionary films and the eventual screening of They Do Not Exist in Jerusalem in 2003 (which Ali illegally attended) affirm once again the film’s message that the Palestinian people and their fight for their homeland endures.
How does this film relate to the theme “politics and poetry” in your opinion?
A number of politically committed filmmakers at this time were invested in trying to develop a film language adequate to the revolutionary politics of the period, and Ali was no exception. In doing so, he bought an aesthetic sensibility to bear on documentary footage. There are numerous ways we could understand the idea of a poetic film (or a political film for that matter), but I think the way that Ali’s poetic approach fuses with the film’s politics is most clearly seen in the film’s formal structures.
They Do Not Existis not a standard piece of militarist propaganda, although it certainly contains elements that speak to this mindset. Rather, it emphasizes the rhythms of everyday life and dwells on images of flowers and children and family, and it takes pleasure in the routines of domestic life – baking bread, drinking coffee, feeding children. These small actions are an embodiment of Palestinian culture, and the film uses slow pans and lingering long takes to emphasize their beauty. Although allusions to violence permeate this opening sequence, in documenting these routines with such care, the film affirms the persistence and value of Palestinian life.
Later in the film the camera similarly lingers on images of Israeli soldiers preparing for a mission and on a freedom fighter as he remembers Aida, someone presumably killed in the air strikes on the camp. These comparable framings and rhythms for such disparate moments ask the viewer to contemplate the complex relations between these expressions of community, violence, and loss. This vague sense of connection is carried through the film’s larger organization, as each segment is connected only by a loose chronology. Thus, despite its clear political allegiance, the film is not a didactic lecture. Rather it layers these narratives like verses in a poem, leaving the viewer to contemplate their connection and fill in the gaps themselves.
This formal structure works in tandem with the film’s use of juxtaposition to prompt the viewer to contemplate the relationship between its various segments. They Do Not Exist juxtaposes the quiet morning in the camp with the violent aftermath of its destruction, the still, long shots and slow pans of life in the camp with the frenetic hand-held camera zoomed in on the Israeli jets as they drop bombs, and the lush, musical scores of Umm Kulthum and Bach with the violent cacophony of exploding bombs. Through this formal combination of parallelism and juxtaposition, the film mounts a strong critique of Israeli oppression, but it does not preach these politics. Rather, they are uncovered through the work of interpretation as viewers consider the relationship between these complementing and contrasting actions and experiences.
Are politics and poetry (or politics and arts) two separate worlds according to you? Why / why not?
They certainly aren’t the same thing, but I do believe that both are stronger and more meaningful when they make room for each other. Art presents us with a vehicle for engaging with the experiences of people unlike ourselves. It can help us to understand different points of view and perceive what has previously passed by unnoticed or been taken for granted. It can help us to imagine different worlds and ways of being. When politics loses sight of art and what it offers it becomes entrenched; it forgets how to listen to others and how to respond to criticisms and challenges. Politics becomes business and usual; it loses its imagination and focuses on protecting and preserving itself.
Art is also a powerful means of critiquing the world around us. When artists suggest that their work is somehow apolitical they relinquish this most critical social function and become disconnected from the world they are trying to represent. This is not to say that art must be didactic or utilitarian. But artists should recognize that art creates the world; it does not simply reflect it. All art is political; the best art recognizes this and is responsible to it.
Neoliberalism is doing everything it can to crush the arts and the study of culture. This is precisely because art can and does challenge the neoliberal claim that “there is no alternative.” Right now we desperately need art to help us understand and oppose what is happening and to imagine another way of living. Artists need to embrace this political function, just as any truly liberatory politics must make room for and listen to the lessons art can impart lest it risk ossifying into another rigid ideology that serves only the powerful. At this time of intense political upheaval when so many countries are fighting back the specters of fascism, art and politics must open themselves to each other.
There are a lot of political tensions and changes in the world right now. Do you (already) notice any changes in the focus and/or ideas and work of artists because of these developments? Do you have examples?
I think the biggest development is related to a shift in audience and historical orientation. Radical filmmakers up through the 1970s called for revolution because their audience was already politicized; there was an already existing unified group – a class, a people – that such films spoke to. With the decline of radical politics and the rise of neoliberalism, this was no longer the case. As Deleuze has argued, the task of political cinema shifted from calling on this group to act to bringing this group into being. For a while, this meant that political filmmaking was oriented around the archive as filmmakers looked to the past and focused on memory and history to create this sense of a people. The political crises of the last ten years or so (the economic crash, the rise of neo-fascism, the Arab Spring, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter) have helped, I think, to rebuild this sense of a people and of the possibility of a collective response to oppression. Political filmmakers are now seeing possibility in the present and focusing their attentions on today. The crises that have spurred this new era of political filmmaking are more globally intertwined than ever, so at the same time, the narratives of these new forms and their audiences are more complex and international. Alisa Lebow’s interactive documentary about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution is a great example of this new kind of work.
Besides the theme of “Politics and poetry” are there any other comparisons between this artist and Ivens according to you?
I think Ali and Ivens are connected on two levels. First is their shared commitment to documenting the experiences of oppressed peoples and those trying to build new lives in the face of violent upheaval. Both Ali and Ivens wanted to capture the reality of human existence through attention to the small details and routines of everyday life. At the same time, neither filmmaker was interested in presenting such people as hopeless or weak; rather, their films are affirmative stories about the power of solidarity and the resilience of those who struggle against oppression.
More specifically, as you can see in films like New Earth, Borinage and The Spanish Earth, Ivens became increasingly interested in exploring the relationship between people and land, a theme utterly central to Palestinian artists since 1948. The fight to liberate the homeland is present in so much of Palestinian cinema, but in They Do Not Exist the relationship between people and land takes on a more particularly Ivensian tone, as the claustrophobic and confining concrete structures of the refugee camp built by the Israelis contrast with the open, tree-filled space of the fida’e base. The Palestine National Anthem accompanies the introduction of these freedom fighters, its lyrics emphasizing the importance of home and the fight to reclaim the lost land of their ancestors. In this way, the occupying forces are presented, as they are in so many of Ivens’ documentaries, as an unnatural and unwelcome intrusion into this otherwise bucolic landscape, an incursion that leaves only death and destruction in its wake.
Second, Ali and Ivens are connected through the form of their documentaries. Like many of Ivens’ films, They Do Not Exist includes staged footage as well as directly recorded material, and it uses music rhetorically to strengthen the impact of its images. Neither Ali nor Ivens worked in the strict observational mode of documentary, but both still claimed to represent the truth of experience. They just did not consider it a violation of the documentary promise to capture this truth via the manipulations of film style.