Desire & Resistance in Contemporary Palestinian Art
A series of films by John Halaka

During periods of extended political conflict, art can often be the best way for a society under the stress of cultural annihilation to sustain itself, critique its attackers and project its historical identity to the world. This is very much the case in Palestine today, where art is seen and used as a tool of cultural survival. Driven by a desire to persevere as a historical culture in the face of an extended military occupation, the visual, literary and performing arts are flourishing in complex ways in Palestine. 

For more than sixty years the worldview of most Palestinians has been, in large part, shaped by a sustained military occupation. In reality, the Palestinians live under dual occupations. The first is an overt, external, military occupation that shapes their relationship with the world and has forced them to become a culture of resilient and defiant survivors. The second is a covert, internal, cultural occupation, enforced by customs and traditions that rigidly define their relationships with each other as men and women, rich and poor, connected and disenfranchised.

I am currently developing a series of documentary films that will highlight the intersection of personal, cultural and political identity in the production of contemporary Palestinian art. Through discussions with Palestinian visual artists in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and the Palestinian Diaspora, I probe how those artists, living and working under the pressures of political and cultural occupations, bring into expression, the potentially innovative tension between individual and national concerns. The purpose of the project is to explore and present to Western audiences selected views representing the diversity of contemporary Palestinian Art. I began working on this project during the summer of 2006 and have completed two films in the series with a third film currently in progress. The first film, The Presence of Absence in the Ruins of Kafr Bir’im, introduced the viewer to Mr. Ibrahim Essa, an elderly poet from the Galilee who survived the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. Mr. Essa employs an ancient oral tradition of poetry that, in style, is similar to what is now called “Spoken Word Poetry”. This improvisational oral tradition has been around for centuries in Northern Palestine and continues to be used by farmers and villagers to express the community’s intimate relationship to the land; a yearning for past times; and their cultural, psychological and physical attachment to the ancient and modern ruins that exist throughout that region. The Second film in the series, Wounds of the Heart: An Artist and Her Nation, focuses on the work of the Palestinian visual artist Rana Bishara. Her artwork is deeply embedded in and informed by the Palestinian experiences of displacement, exile and occupation, as well as the desire of Palestinian refugees to return to the lands they were displaced from. The third film in the series explores the artwork of the Jerusalem based photographer Rula Halawani, and has the working title, A Poet’s Eye: The Photographic Work of Rula Halawani. I have also recorded interviews with several other Palestinian artists and will continue to develop this series over the next few years.