Beyond the Frontlines: Tales of Resistance and Resilience from Palestine (film review) by Martin Kemp

Derriere Les Fronts

Beyond the Frontlines: Tales of Resistance and Resilience from Palestine

Directed and Produced by Alexandra Dols (2017)

An appreciation

Over the years a series of powerful films have shed light on the reality of Israel’s occupation and Palestinian resistance – Jenin, Jenin, Occupation 101, Avenge but one of my Two Eyes, Five Broken Cameras, Where will the Birds Fly among them. Such films each make their distinctive contribution, evidencing the vibrancy of a people whose existence has been effectively scratched from the consciousness of the mainstream media and the socio-political elites in the West.  ‘Beyond the Frontlines’, the work of the French director, author and feminist Alexandra Dols, will establish itself as another significant addition to the filmography of the Palestinian struggle, and as a contribution to that struggle in its own right. 355047

Ten years ago Dols was completing a project exploring women’s contribution to the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, informed by the analysis of the psychological implications of the relationship between coloniser and colonised found in the work of psychiatrist-militant Franz Fanon. Dols was drawn to an engagement with Palestine after encountering the work of a contemporary female counterpart, psychiatrist-activist Dr Samah Jabr. Jabr’s publications – mainly in the form of succinct newspaper articles – likewise chronicle and scrutinize the psychodynamics of oppression, mixing irony and humour with acute observation and sharp dissection, informed by her skills as a clinician and her pride as a Palestinian.

These virtues are brilliantly translated into the film, where Jabr reads extracts from her own work off-screen, introducing a novel view or providing an original take on a theme with which we might be already familiar. Dols’ camerawork and an inspired soundtrack – Palestinian music of various genres juxtaposed with the violent noises that accompany the ugliness of state terrorism – give life to the ideas, as the ideas give meaning to the images. Viewers are treated with a series of insights that can only help steel us against the banalities and absurdities that fill the columns of mainstream coverage of Palestine.

Beyond the Frontlines is a film that works on different levels. Mental health professionals, particularly those interested in the application of psychodynamic concepts to the study of society and societal problems, will warm to their subtle use – never to ‘psychologise’ politics away shielding behind some dishonest claim to ‘neutrality’, but as a torch that illuminates the complexities of life in the midst of an ongoing settler colonial process – a process whose very existence has to be denied in the hegemonic discourse of the Western world. But the clarity with which these ideas are conveyed and illustrated makes them perfectly accessible to the ‘ordinary’ viewer. Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is that while it focuses on Palestine, it also speaks to us of universal themes – of asymmetrical social and personal relationships everywhere, of the consequences of social trauma, and of the critical need to extend and protect the right to self-determination, to freedom.

The position taken by the film is hopeful and determined, but it does not idealise Palestinian society. Jabr’s work celebrates those aspects of Palestinian culture that reinforce its capacity for sumud, its capacity to resist. But she also shines a critical light on the corrosive effects of the Occupation and capitulation to its logic on the fabric that sustains Palestinian resilience. In one memorable scene, she reflects on the defeatism of a taxi driver to illustrate the concept of ‘identification with the aggressor’.

Along with Dr Jabr, we encounter a rich and uncommon range of other voices. A young mother, Deema Zalloum, describes the horrific experience of rescuing her child from the clutches of settlers who were attempting to abduct him (this shortly before 16 year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, mutilated and burned in 2014.) Her story links with the precariousness of the lives of young Black Americans, and the anxieties of parents for whom state agents are a source of danger, not security.  Theodosius, Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, reflects on Israel’s moves to split the Palestinian community by declaring that its Christian members should cease to be called ‘Arabs’ and join the Army of Occupation, a crude example of the divide-and-rule tactics we have seen employed in every colonial context. The baker Cheikh Khodr Adnan, is interviewed shortly after being freed from ‘Administrative Detention’ – a legal euphemism for State kidnapping – in an Israeli prison, where he had survived a 55-day hunger strike. He explains the reasons for his protest and his aspirations for the future, clearly addressing an international audience he knows will be quick to label and demonise him. (Adnan is currently back in prison, and is again refusing food to protest the inhuman nature of his detention and that of other political prisoners in Israeli jails.) Ghardir al Shafie, a gay Palestinian activist, demolishes the crude ‘pinkwashing’ propaganda that seeks to cast the Apartheid regime as a model of diversity and toleration. She refuses to de-link the various components of her own struggle – against racism, homophobia, gender inequality, and for civil and political rights and national liberation.

Beyond the Frontlines is a work of love, but it is also a political act in the face of a situation that can engender deep feelings of helplessness. As al Shafie, (also a campaigner for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), says at one point: “During the aggression on Gaza… I felt that humanity has left this place.” She goes on, “I don’t want people to be aware, I want people to take action… In the case of Palestine every one of us has the power to change.” This film, of course, will suffer the same marginalisation as the people that are its subject: will we see it in our local cinemas, or on Netflix? But we can also take it up as a tool to promote change: by organising screenings with the opportunity for public debate. In this way we can counter the racist silencing of the Palestinians, and give inspiration to those involved in resisting oppression and abuse whatever the context.

Martin Kemp, Psychoanalyst and co-founder of the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network

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