Film Show 030: Mohanad Yaqubi & Casey Asprooth-Jackson
An interview with director Mohanad Yaqubi & producer Casey Asprooth-Jackson about their film 'R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity,' which played at this year's True/False Film Festival & MoMI's First Look
Mohanad Yaqubi & Casey Asprooth-Jackson
Mohanad Yaqubi is a Palestinian filmmaker, producer, and one of the founders of the independent, Ramallah-based production studio Idioms Film. He is also a co-founder of Subversive Film, a research and curatorial collective that focuses on militant film practices. His feature-length debut Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory (2016) utilizes archival footage of the Palestinian people to present a “mosaic of struggle from the perspective of the colonized.” His newest film R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity (2022) originally began as a project titled the Tokyo Reels that was presented as an installation and mini film festival at Documenta Fifteen. It features 20 films made between 1964 and 1983 about the Palestinian struggle that was safeguarded for decades by Japanese activists before their preservation by Subversive Film. R 21 had its North American premiere at this year’s True/False Film Festival, and later played at MoMI’s First Look. On March 12th, 2023 via Zoom, Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Yaqubi and producer Casey Asprooth-Jackson about how they stumbled upon these 20 films, the creation of R 21, their long-standing collaboration, militant cinema, politics of representation, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: When did you two first start collaborating, and how did that come about?
Mohanad Yaqubi: Oh, do you remember Casey?
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: I do, I do.
Mohanad Yaqubi: I do as well, of course. It’s been a long time now.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: It’s been some years. Was it 2015?
Mohanad Yaqubi: 2015? 2014? Something like that.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: The Riwaq Biennale, right?
Mohanad Yaqubi: Yes. That was in Palestine, in Ramallah.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: Exactly. And there was an outdoor cinema projecting Viva Zalata (1976).
Mohanad Yaqubi: An Egyptian version of—
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: —of Viva Zipata (1956). Yeah, we met there. And then the rest is history. We’ve been working together ever since.
Mohanad Yaqubi: Yeah, it was an Idioms Film collaboration. So we worked on another production together—several advertisements, commercials. But was it also on Off Frame (2016) that you did some work with us?
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: Yeah. I was around then, when the editing was going on.
Mohanad Yaqubi: Yes. Casey is producing as well as directing an amazing film with his co-director, and they’re making a film that I’m producing with Idioms Film. So there’s actually a continuous collaboration on different films. And also, of course, Casey is associate producer of the other two documentaries that we produced at Idioms Film over the last three years.
I wanted to start off by talking about Off Frame. How did you approach that film? Obviously there’s a good spread of different material with all the archival footage. How did you approach the editing process? What sort of things go through your mind when making a film of this sort?
Mohanad Yaqubi: The whole thing started when I was doing my master’s at Goldsmiths in London. I was studying there, and writing and developing a sci-fi film. But two things happened that made me change my mind. First, my lecturer for Third Cinema asked me if I’m a Palestinian and I said yes. And then she asked me about a guy called Mustafa Abu Ali. She started to explain the whole history of militant cinema, struggle cinema, this transnational network. I felt like I’d come to London to study film, but then I discovered there was a big part of my history I didn’t know. So I started to do a little bit of research. My other lecturer was like, “You know, making a sci-fi film is going to cost a lot of money. You’re unknown. Make a documentary first.” So that’s how the two things came together. There was my interest in discovering more about that history, and I wanted to make a documentary. Since then, I’ve been hooked.
That was 2008. The first thing I found was Here and Elsewhere (1976) by Jean-Luc Godard. From the credits of the film, I started to search for names. I ended up with more than 70 films from searching and traveling around the world. The production budget was basically the research budget. There was not much text, and until today, there was not much written about the topic, or even any access to this material.
I started editing the film and I conducted around thirty interviews with people who were involved during that period. But when I edited the film—with the interviews and with the footage from the films of that period—I felt like it was just another talking-head documentary. So I removed all of the interviews, kept the footage, and worked with the sound only. It was kind of replacing the propaganda voice, or the political voiceover, by recreating the ambiance of that moment and imagining what the sound of that shot would be. In that period they were usually shooting with a Bolex, which doesn’t have sound, and then the sound would be separated on a Moviola. So the sound and image were never synced. That was the guiding line for Off Frame’s editing: to create a synchronization between the ambiance and image itself.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because of the way that science fiction has been historically used as a way to imagine new futures or to present alternative histories. I’m curious if you see a link between your interest in science fiction and the documentaries you’ve made.
Mohanad Yaqubi: Totally. I mean, Off Frame and even the new film R 21 (2022), they’re like time machines. Science fiction is not about the future, it’s about a crack in the present. In this case, also, I kind of feel like looking at the Moviola—looking at the material from the Moviola, and watching the material for a long time—kind of isolates me from the present and takes me to a different time. I was always trying to understand what I wasn’t seeing. Off Frame and R 21 look beyond the image and try to understand what can be read through looking at it that is not the image itself. So from that perspective, I think it helped me. This idea of working with machines, these vintage machines—a Moviola, a rewinder, a scanner, a splicer, all of these metallic materials that feel like science from a different time—using them creates an environment. The first thing about sci-fi is creating the world of the story and giving it rules that are different from our daily rules. Working with an archive has this element as well.
Do you feel like working with these materials by hand, and working with these machines, affected the way you approached these films? Like, compared to if you just did everything digitally?
Mohanad Yaqubi: You know, when you see the film’s final version, you don’t see the sprockets, you don’t see the soundtrack. There is not any other information. Sitting on the machine and dealing with the material, smelling the chemicals, the vinegar… it all creates an ambiance, or a mood for the story. And so the materiality of the film becomes an important element by itself, somehow. When me and Casey did the shooting, it was like two days of shooting and we knew the scenes exactly, but that comes from a long experience of like, throughout COVID, just sitting and editing in the lab and the school. Of just watching these materials, splicing, and reading what is outside of the frame.
In the first film, actually, I didn’t have the chance to be with the material. I took all the films to a lab that scanned them and gave me the final product. But I had the chance to do it with R 21. I had my lab, I had my scanner, I had my Moviola, and I had the time. Two years of sitting there and just watching and testing different frames, different frame sizes, and also having the ability—which is different from digital—to stop time with the negative and the positive celluloid. You feel it, you see it frame by frame, literally: the ability to catch time, and to bring it to today, to take the audience there.
I really like that. Casey, is there anything that you would like to add with regards to this process of working with the film itself and how that affected the way the film looked at the end?
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: There’s maybe one moment that’s worth highlighting because it gets down to the materiality of this particular film process. While the films were being restored in the lead up to R 21—all 20 of the films it draws from were being restored to be played in Germany—there was one film that appeared to be silent. It was a really intriguing film, in part, because if I’m right, it was the one called Palestine and Japan (1979). Is that right, Mohanad?
Mohanad Yaqubi: Or no, it was called The Road to a Palestinian State (1974). NHK Productions.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: And that film was intriguing. It had some particular material, and the thought was that maybe it would have a voiceover that pulled some of the story of Japanese television production at the time and how it related to Palestine. And that film was silent because it was the only film that actually had magnetic tape on the film reel instead of optical sound. But it was only after having watched the film many times that we looked at it closer and realized that it needed to be run through a different machine. And we found a projector. I think it was an Elmo projector…
Mohanad Yaqubi: Exactly.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: …that was capable of outputting a sound signal from the magnetic strip. So the last piece of these forty signals of image and sound was finally put together. It’s probably a moment that’s familiar to people who work in restoration regularly, but for this process—which was at once trying to become as familiar as possible with how these machines interact with this plastic and how everything is supposed to work together, but then also how these histories fit together like a puzzle—I mean, it was kind of this beautiful eureka. And I felt that that was, I don’t know exactly what impact it had on the creation of R 21 in the end, but…
Mohanad Yaqubi: It did, it did. Also, a narrative can come from materiality. It’s not only what was in the film, but also the act of looking at the film, and who’s looking at it. So that was the important part where, even if the filming of the production was short, it was very concentrated because it came at the end of two years of just watching and scanning all of this material.
But I also would like to add something because it made me think about the sci-fi elements. It’s this idea of creating a film as a message out of 20 films. When you get 20 films and you want to give them back, you don’t want to give them back without a present. R 21 is the present—it’s this continuation. It’s opening up the collection so it can be added to. So this was R 21, but we want an R 22, an R 23, and that is an indication of vitality. Because when people don’t produce archives, they don’t exist anymore.
During the True/False Q&A, Casey mentioned that the shortest of the 20 films was three minutes and the longest was over an hour. How many different versions of the film did you have before you settled on the final one? Or was your process very methodical, like “I know I want this section, I know I want that section, and we’re going to put it together in this way.”
Mohanad Yaqubi: I don’t know if Casey mentioned this, but it wasn’t our idea to make a film. We were making a catalog, a visual catalog. So we edited a trailer. We selected a section from every film, and we put them one after another. And when we started to put the films in sequence, they spoke. They told us that there was a film—the films themselves did that. So me and the editor, Rami El Nihawi, were looking at it like, whoa, there is a narrative here that we didn’t intend. So whose narrative is this? And the whole film was actually searching for this narrative, or I would say, amplifying it.
So we didn’t really select from the 20 films in order to build continuity between them. When we selected, we cut from each film based on what we liked and what it was about, trying to make a summary. But then after we realized there was a film in this material, we came back and re-edited and made links and we basically amplified the voiceover. The voiceover itself is actually like a collage of different voiceovers that were going throughout the film. Of course, we made some adjustments to make it all fit together.
I know this was already discussed at the True/False screening, but I’m hoping you could reiterate again just how you came into possession of these reels.
Mohanad Yaqubi: I mean, it’s also related to our friends. We were screening Off Frame at Image Forum in Tokyo, and one of the audience members came forward and gave us a list of films that I didn’t know about. I mean, imagine that. I’ve been working for seven years on Off Frame and I kind of became an expert on this. But suddenly I’m faced with a list of films about Palestine in Japan that I didn’t know anything about. I was like, okay, here we go again. And that’s how it starts! And it actually made me imagine that these kinds of collections exist everywhere. So if you’re in Germany, Italy, the US maybe, or in Cuba, maybe we would find other collections from that period that we don’t know about. Or that I don’t know about. I mean, the people of the country probably know about them. Because in Japan, while I thought that nobody knew about these films, some people from the activist movement of that period knew about them. And some of these films actually screened at the Yamagata Film Festival in 2012 and 2014. So it’s a kind of ignorance of the solidarity network, this transnational knowledge that existed 40 or 50 years ago that is disappearing now. And that’s not only about the Palestinian struggle. It’s all kinds of struggles that producers produced, screened, and circulated, and they were forgotten because there wasn’t the institutional backup at the end of the day.
Who were the people you actually got the reels from?
Mohanad Yaqubi: It was somebody who was active in the Palestine Solidarity Movement in the ’80s. She got involved because of demonstrations to return passports to Japanese people who were denied passports after living abroad. They lost their passports and they couldn’t come back to Japan. So there was activism about this. It was a doctor, actually. She lost her passport in Sabra and Shatila in ’82 because of the bombing, and the Japanese embassy refused to give her a new passport, and she stayed 10 years. It’s the same practice today. France does that with all of the people who lose their passports in Syria or other places. So that’s how she became involved.
And then there’s Mineo Mitsui who’s a projectionist who owns a graphic design shop in Tokyo. He was active with Nunokawa Productions doing post-production services. And he was interested in the Middle East. Somehow, if anyone was creating films in the Middle East, copies would end up with him. And so I realize that Mitsui specializes in this. There are other people who are specialized in other conflicts or other struggles or other solidarity movements. So it’s not really an institutional thing, it’s not a group. Any group who wanted to show films about Palestine would call Mitsui and tell him, “We want to screen this film,” or “What is your suggestion?” and he would bring the copies and screen them. But since the early ’90s, he had kids, he moved out. I mean, especially after signing [the Oslo Accords], people thought it was over, that there was no need for solidarity anymore. So these films faded and nobody asked for them. I mean, when they asked for them once or twice a year, he would go and pick up a film and screen it. But I wouldn’t say that there is a group or an organized collective or a political party sourcing these films.
You mentioned how you found Godard’s Here and Elsewhere to be important because that led to a bunch of other films. Were you specifically taking cues from militant filmmakers with regards to how you approached compiling the footage? Do you feel like you are in a lineage of these sorts of films on a filmic level?
Mohanad Yaqubi: Yeah, I mean, of course. When we were editing, I had been watching only militant films for a long time. But when we were editing, I’d put a dissolve between two shots and suddenly I looked at it and realized how hard it is to make a dissolve. So that kind of aesthetic couldn’t be used because it’s expensive, it’s hard, it takes time, and that doesn’t serve the purpose of militant filmmaking—unless it’s about passing time. Every movement, all the extra abilities we have in the digital, they didn’t exist when they cut the negative. Aesthetically, that was the thing that we tried to be very poor in using—shot after shot.
Syncing sound as well was an indication of luxury. That’s why they didn’t sync sound. It was always different sounds coming from different places. When you see an airplane, they just set that shot to the sound of bombing and the same sound of bombing is repeated in different terms. You’re sitting in the editing room thinking, I need the bombing and the shooting. I need the sound of the camp. I need the sound of the water. Every film is not able to get or record these sounds for itself. Even these shots. So you can see several shots like traveling between films, I call it inheritance. A film from May ’75 will inherit images from ’73, and ’73 will inherit images from ’70. And it goes on until ’80-’82.
I tried to show this in the editing to to go more into the essence of making militant film. Aesthetically, what does it mean in that period? I kind of adapted and realized that a lot of what we call experimental sound is not actually experimental because it’s artistic, but because that’s how you deal with problems or a lack of resources, shots, and time. And the necessity of making a film that responded to a certain political event in one year. That was my guide in the editing if that makes sense.
Yeah, It’s just problem solving for the circumstances.
Mohanad Yaqubi: But with a political ideology of telling a story or trying to show that violence or brutality without being explicit, for example. Or sometimes showing explicit images. But at the same time, you know why you’re showing this explicit image—to put it in someone’s face and to have it in comparison with other images that people have in their minds. So I think that maybe four of the films in the collection were about Sabra and Shatila, and it really resonated with the Japanese audience of that time. And even today, maybe. It’s the explicit images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. That actually disappeared from the media, and it’s not accessible to see, suddenly. Hiroshima and Sabra and Shatila somehow bear a kind of resemblance to that violence, to this imperial violence that crushes people in front of it. And you’re not even allowed to see that image.
Did you have specific guiding rules while editing with regards to what you wanted to show or did not want to show?
Mohanad Yaqubi: Yeah. We had 9 hours. That’s the total length of the films, 9 hours. And we cut them to 70 minutes. So it’s 1:9, which is very, very little. Usually it’s like one 1:200, or 1:50. So we didn’t have to make many choices. Casey, did you feel something when we were editing the film? Were we following certain things? Because you probably had a certain moment observing this process from inside and out.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I was asking it myself in the lead up to some of the Q&As at True/False because it’s a question that was likely to come about—what were the parameters or what were the dictates that were laid down beforehand that led to the processing. I guess I always return to this, what you said earlier about the footage speaking its own logic, right? Once these trailers were made, watching them in order, then out of order, or rearranging them as one does in a nonlinear editing system, there are certain synergies that present themselves. Trying to understand those synergies felt like the project, more than sort of saying, “Well, okay, we absolutely must do X, Y, or Z and we can’t have any of A, B, or C.” I wasn’t there for all of the editing, but when I was around for those processes, it felt more like it was a matter of trying to unlock what these relationships were in history and in aesthetics that didn’t present themselves on the exterior of the film canister. They could only really be worked out once the images were placed next to each other.
Mohanad Yaqubi: Exactly. And I think the main thing I would say is it’s a reverse chronology. So that’s the main timeline, the narrative. R 21 starts in ’82 and ends in ’45, and we just organize the footage according to the year of production. It feels like we are actually going deeper and deeper in time—it starts with color images and it goes back to black-and-white images. And these are things we noticed afterwards, actually.
What I noticed from Off Frame was that the format of the film as a narrative, as a timeline, becomes a canister for these films. With R 21, I was intending to make something like a jar to put these films in. In the future, or in two or five years, people will come back and a new researcher interested in this history will come and say, “Yeah, I want this film.” I’ll go, I’ll click, and watch the whole film. That’s the thing. I was not thinking of the collective or the people who collected the films or the Japanese audience. And I don’t think that at the time, anyone viewed the 20 films one after another as we did. So once we did that, we felt like the curation of the film reflected the mentality and the ideology of the people who collected them, who curated them. So we are trying to read the curators’ narrative, not the films’ narratives themselves.
For example, in these films there are no militant narratives or classic propaganda narratives. I realized after screening the film that the people who were behind collecting these films were trying to totally disassociate themselves with the radical Japanese left—the United Red Army and the Red Japanese Army. And that’s why you don’t find these films in the propaganda collections. Maybe one or two of them have that element, but also they are coming from ’73, from ’74. After that, they become more about looking at the political question of the Palestinians who want to have a state, and what is needed to have a state. So it’s like an embassy. Also you see humanitarian films in the collection, like from peace committees, serving that soft activist approach of helping victims rather than helping or being part of a militant political movement.
The first three or four films were really about the Arab world. You can imagine the collector who didn’t know anything at the end of the ’60s and was interested in a certain region. He or she didn’t know Palestine. They know the region. It’s an Arab region. It has Iraq, it has Jordan, there is Lebanon, there is Kuwait, and there is Palestine that emerges slowly to become the focal point in the solidarity movement. It’s actually a kind of anthropological research at the beginning as well. They were trying to see different models and that’s very much in the Japanese modernity project. It’s always building up on existing models and refining them, whether it’s politics or it’s cars.
This is all really interesting to hear. I like the idea of it being a continual process and that you can see that from watching the different reels. You mentioned how these films had something to say when you were editing them, that they were speaking. What sort of things do you feel like you learned yourselves, both of you, after having edited and then seen the film? Could you speak to how it has gone over with audiences? And then could you speak to what you think other Japanese people have learned from having seen the film as well, or from individual reels in recent screenings?
Mohanad Yaqubi: At the beginning, it was a conflict in my head. Is it a Palestinian archive or is it a Japanese archive? In the end, I realized that it’s actually part of the Japanese memory. It’s a memory of activism, of how activist movements organized educational screenings and discussed how to mobilize and use other struggles in order to relate to local issues.
I was excited about finding these films. They’re Palestinian films. We Palestinians, we come from a total genocidal landscape where everything has disappeared. There is no archive. There are no indications that we even exist. Like in airports that I’ve traveled to, Palestine doesn’t exist as a country. Maybe in the last ten years that is now happening. Even submitting to film festivals ten years ago, there was no Palestine. So finding other films and finding material, building up this archive, this heritage, it means a lot. But it means an even greater deal to the Japanese left movement. Because that movement has suffered huge silencing and persecution because they always pointed to a certain radical moment in their history, and they’re not allowed to speak about anything after that. So it’s always about the Japanese Red Army, it’s always about the United Red Army. It’s always about the violent thing. And it doesn’t allow a space to produce or even present left politics in the Japanese political landscape. The collection as a whole has two aims. One is to show that Japanese left wing activism, but also to show a history of independent cinema distribution in Japan and how this independent cinema distribution was used as a focal point for political discussions, and as a cover for these discussions.
We are still waiting hopefully to be screened at Yamagata in Japan this year. I want to use the film. The whole idea of making the film was actually using it as a way to start research, to ask questions or to present it to friends and to have something to ask them. Or to research where these films have been screened and to delve into this. We got feedback from Japanese people who wondered, “Why would the Japanese be interested in a small country like Palestine?” That was one one of the reactions. It’s very sensitive to compare the Palestinians fighting against the occupation with the Japanese fighting against the Americans, because the Americans came and ended up a fascist regime. People go into that self-criticism of like, we deserve what’s happened to us. But that’s actually a reaction to being under occupation. You start to blame yourself for what is happening to you.
You find these kinds of reactions. That’s the other thing. Today, can someone make a film about another country just out of a pure sense of solidarity? I mean, that was common in the ’70s. A Swedish director would go to Algeria to make a film. They would arrive at the airport, make a film, and screen it back in Sweden. A Japanese person would go to Palestine and make a film or, you know, a Cuban would go to Guinea-Bissau. These kinds of gestures or perspectives of solidarity show what’s going on, but today we’ve lost it. Today there is a different kind of politics of representation, which is understandable. But at the same time, this is something to dig more into.
Do you have anything you want to add to this, Casey?
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: Yeah. I find it’s one of the things about the project that intrigued me the most, and that once the film started to come out of the 20 reels and Mohanad and the rest of the team were preparing to release it there in Germany, I sort of was struck by this positionality, right? It is a Palestinian film from a Japanese archive that is perhaps also a Palestinian archive. It’s trying to, forcefully and without trying to hide anything, put together histories that are not necessarily expected to be pushed together.
In 2022, when the movie was released, I think the natural reaction in the art world—maybe also in the documentary film world—is to say, okay, but whose movie is this? Whose history are we talking about? Who’s speaking on behalf of that history and where do they come from? And it’s not that those positions and that reaction isn’t often helpful—I think it’s often very important. But also maybe this position that we’ve become so accustomed to has obscured an older tradition. Or maybe, it’s not so important how old it is, but that it is a tradition that has had benefits at other moments in time, which is to see histories in terms of their relationship to solidarity and to be intrigued by the unexpected collision. Or maybe it is to look into the potentiality of histories being in conversation with each other from a distance.
I think one of the reasons, for Mohanad and Rami as well, that you end up at the position you take with the film is because these movies speak from a place where that collision—those two histories speaking to each other—feels so natural. You know, it was obvious that there were people in Japan who felt passionately about the struggle in Palestine in a way that seems shocking today. But when you position yourself, when you place yourself in that time period, the question of precisely who the authorship began with becomes less essential, right? It becomes more about, what are the shared ideas, what are the shared goals, what are the political motives. And maybe there’s new possibilities that come out of it. This was one of the questions I was most interested to ask you about, Mohanad, when we were speaking on stage there in Germany at the premiere of the film. And you know, I’m fascinated to see how the answers continue to proliferate and how understandings of this positionality get reinterpreted.
Mohanad Yaqubi: I totally believe that films that give answers are boring in many ways. If a film doesn’t open into another film, it’s very closed and opposes the concept of militant cinema. Militant cinema is really an imperfect cinema—it’s a question, it’s a narrative that keeps on developing, and if it closes, it means, “Yeah, I know all of the answers and I’m just presenting them to you.” It makes me a historian, it makes me a teacher, which is not an interesting position to be in. And that’s what I really like about R 21, that it leaves these questions open. Who’s behind it? Why did they do that? We’re trying to navigate that. These questions are for me and for others to keep digging in.
At the end of the day, even if these histories don’t collide or interact, the ability to think about it and to create certain histories is a position of power. And this is something that an occupied person or nation is looking for all the time—how to fit their narratives within these mix of narratives. In the West at least, there is always a certain confined narrative, as if you have a direct understanding of it. But what doesn’t happen is like, “Yeah, but there is a Japanese understanding of that.” There is. There is an Indonesian understanding of that, and that produces different narratives that are addressed to the Indonesians that are not addressed to the West. When I say the West I’m talking about the human community that follows the mainstream American media, basically, which is not the whole world. But what are the possibilities that are produced? I’m interested in that.
And I feel like R 21 is, in that sense, much more mature than Off Frame. In Off Frame there was this fascination with the time period. Like, you know, I only selected the shots that I loved, and I was fascinated with the movement of the camera, with the compositions. But with R 21, it was more about opening a question and also creating narratives and speculating without being interested. There is nothing about truth. At the end of the day, when we are working on a film or documentary, it’s about how believable you can present it to be.
Obviously the film industry has changed over the years, but you’re going through the film festival circuit right now and I’m curious how you made decisions with that. What are your goals with regards to how this film is distributed and how it’s presented to audiences? What sort of things are you thinking about and want to make sure happen with this film?
Mohanad Yaqubi: For example, there is a very small film festival called Jerusalem International Film Festival Palestine. It’s a kind of futuristic film festival because it comes as an opposition to the International Jerusalem Film Festival that is run by the Israelis. So I was very much interested in that film festival that was in Gaza. It was the second after IDFA. I sent it to them and they screened it, and I put the laurel at the beginning of the film saying Jerusalem International Film Festival/Palestine. So for me, going to festivals is designed to kind of indicate the possibilities, for example, of how after 50 years when somebody’s seeing the film—and hopefully we might be back to Jerusalem—that it has perceived the possibilities of being screened in the Jerusalem Film Festival run by Palestinians. Or run by the democratic system. I don’t want to say only the Palestinians because I don’t see a solution without the Israelis involved in this solution. So in that sense it’s how I designed it.
And now I’m more interested in the Global South network. Screening it in places other than Western festivals. They’re asking for it. There are people from different film festivals around Europe and the U.S. that are interested in it. I’m not very interested in them because they produce the same narratives. The film works more in places like Dakar and Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro and Indonesia and India. These are the places I want to explore. And these kinds of narratives empower other directors to explore narratives that are not dependent on how they’re being evaluated from a Western perspective. This is an area that we are not educated on and we don’t have access to. It’s always by trial and error.
You know, I studied in London. All of the films I produce, they go through the same circuits: Berlinale, Toronto, you know, blah blah blah. Never at the end do we say, “What would the people in Sudan say?” I don’t know. And we don’t have the networks, so we have to use the funds we produce and make to access them. You wouldn’t find the programmer from Kinshasa sitting at Berlinale. You might. But in trying to program films, you have to go to them. The distribution plan we are working on is to go, not to wait.
I’m curious how you see yourself in the lineage of Palestinian filmmakers. Obviously you produced works by Basma Alsharif, and I’m thinking of directors like Mona Hatoum. What do you see Palestinian filmmaking as being?
Mohanad Yaqubi: I don’t see myself as a filmmaker (laughter). I see myself as someone who works with images, with narratives. It is also influenced by the period before [the Oslo Accords]. That’s also the period before co-productions, which was more Third Cinema. I mean, today I don’t see many. But that’s also the problem. Which is why it’s necessary, before making films—you can’t make films without having infrastructure. And there is no infrastructure. The only infrastructure that exists is through co-production. And that means as filmmakers we are not producing our own narratives. I don’t want to be a filmmaker if that’s what it means.
So that’s why, with Casey and with other people, we’re very much involved with the Palestine Film Institute, trying to find alternatives for distribution networks, for producing, but also for injecting. At the end of the day, we are not… there has been an illusion in the last 20 years that we are a national cinema as Palestinians—like Iranians, like Egyptians, like Moroccans—and we forget that we don’t have a country. Which is actually a reflection. At the end of the day, as Godard says, the cinema is not a reflection of reality, it’s the reality of that reflection. It’s exactly that. The Palestinian cinema today is the reality of that reflection of an illusion that we have a state, that we have sovereignty, and we insist upon telling narratives that are like normal narratives, like of anyone living in any place. But you can’t. Every time you’re doing that, there’s something wrong. We have to admit that we are a liberation cinema, a cinema that has to keep on going until it is liberated. Then we can sit down and think about making films. I wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. My only references are Third Cinema, struggle cinema, cinemas of revolutions from Algeria, from Cuba, from Vietnam. This is my cinematic heritage. And I see my work as a continuation of that lineage.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: I’m just reflecting on the last piece you said there, Mohanad, and how much I agree with it. It’s such a beautiful way of putting what the PFI hopes to do. There is a lineage and sometimes it extends beyond national borders or imagined borders and yeah, I identify with what you’re describing as well.
Mohanad Yaqubi: I mean, Casey shows me a lot of these great films all the time. That is real solidarity in many ways, when we are sitting and he sends me a new film. That is what we learn and exchange from each other.
Do you have a list of all these Third Cinema films? Are there places that you can direct people to access them and see what is available or what has been made?
Mohanad Yaqubi: There was a program at BAM two years ago in New York that also screened Off Frame. There was, I think, six months of screenings of different films like this.
Actually, I do know about Solidarity Cinema. That’s a website, and they have a list. They have screenings here in Chicago.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson: Yeah. I can’t think of a comprehensive filmography, but, I mean, there’s places that are more fruitful to start looking at than others. For some reason my mind goes to Stoffel Debuysere’s dissertation. The footnotes there have quite a bit to begin looking into. He’s a programmer in Belgium who has run the Courtisane Film Festival, which is pretty extraordinary. It’s an art film festival that happens every year in a city in Belgium, and the guy’s name is Stoffel. He wrote a dissertation about different eras in Third Cinema in which he conducted interviews with filmmakers, not so unlike the interview you’re doing now, who’d made movies about the history of militant cinema. And I know when I think of that history, I often think, you know, Stoffel’s got the list. So the footnotes of his dissertation could be a good place to start.
Or another thing would be Newsreel, the American radical film collective. They were active in New York City, and then they also had a branch in the Bay Area, and they have a great website which you can still find. They have tons of stuff that was collected over the years. It’s not a comprehensive history of Third Cinema, but it’s an activist flavored collection. And this did include American Palestine Solidarity activists who would send copies of movies they’d found to Newsreel, so that they could be put in their archive.
More information about R 21 AKA Restoring Solidarity and the 20 films that it builds upon can be found here.
Thank you for reading the 30th issue of Film Show. Revolution until victory.
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