Constructing a nation’s memory: The cinema of Michel Khleifi

As he celebrates his 65th year, Michel Khleifi is being honoured at the Shubbak Festival with the Palestinian auteur curating the film programme. Joseph Fahim takes a moment to reflect on the director's body of work

For many years, Michel Khleifi was the ultimate voice of Palestinian cinema. Emerging from the ashes of PLO resistance cinema, the Nazareth-born, Brussels-educated and based filmmaker was the leader of the so-called ‘new Palestinian cinema’ of the ‘80s ─ a movement that ventured to break the dominant stereotypical representation of Palestinians and create a new space that links Palestine’s destroyed past with its austere present and uncertain future.

Always deemed controversial by Arab commentators and foreign critics alike, Khleifi’s films were the first to capture Palestine’s true soul, the first to depart from the jingoistic works of previous generations to present rich portraits of a complex reality; of an atypical land and its atypical inhabitants. In nine films that range between documentary and fiction narratives, Khleifi has developed a recognisable set of symbols, themes, characters and aesthetics that have become a key part of Palestine’s collective memory.

Always deemed controversial by Arab commentators and foreign critics alike, Khleifi’s films were the first to capture Palestine’s true soul

He made history in 1980 with the documentary “Fertile Memory,” the first feature produced in the West Bank; yet it wasn’t until 1987’s ”Wedding in Galilee” that Khleifi became an artist of international renown. Winning the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 and the Golden Seashell award at the San Sebastian Film Festival the same year, “Wedding” ─ a chronicle of wedding in small Palestinian village disrupted by the attendance of intrusive Israeli guests ─ was the film that put Palestinian cinema on the world film map.

To celebrate his 65th birthday, the London-based Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab Culture is celebrating Khleifi’s career in its current edition by having him curate this year’s film programme. The line-up is comprised of a selection of his own films along with a number of European and Arab titles that address some of the themes and concerns of his own work.

Arab and European films presented in the programme include Maroun Bagdadi’s gritty Lebanese Civil War drama, “Out of Life” (1991); Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic cross-culture love story, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974); and Kamal Aljafari’s Palestinian experimental documentary of displacement and agonising stillness, “Port of Memory” (2010).

“Fertile Memory” and “Wedding” contain all blueprints that would inform the  entire body of Khleifi's work

Khleifi’s featured films include “Fertile Memory” and “Wedding” along with lesser-known productions of his such as “Canticle of the Stones” (1991), a love story about a separated couple reuniting after 18 years; and the mammoth “Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel” (2004), a 270-minute, three-part documentary co-directed with Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan that interviews Arabs and Jews in highly candid encounters.

“Fertile Memory” and “Wedding” contain all blueprints that would inform the entire body of Khleifi's work: strong female characters defying the hegemony of the patriarchal Palestinian society; impotent male protagonists representing the powerless Arab force; the seamless intermingling of documentary and fiction and blending of the real with the surreal and the mythical; the detailed depiction of Palestinian traditions; the emphasis on the Palestinian attachment to the lost land; the obsessive construction of memory from the fragmented Palestinian history; and, perhaps most contentious of all, the palpable hope for a reconciliation of sorts between the two sides.

This last point, along with his position as an outsider always stranded between two different worlds (a sentiment explored at length in his last movie, “Zindeeq”) made him an ever-controversial figure in Arab cinema. The success of “Wedding” didn’t grant him the financial independence he sought. Instead, he tussled time and time again to produce his films, which grew more ambitious, more mysterious, and perhaps less hopeful by time.