• MOLLY HOLLENBACH
THE POETRY OF CINEMA
"CINEMA IS THE modern poetry," says
film director Hanna Latif Elias. His lyrical film,
‘The Olive Harvest’, was the Palestinian
Authority's official entry to the 2005 Oscars.
Yet this film was a collaborative project, shot
with Palestinian actors and an Israeli crew. Elias,
a Palestinian born and raised in a village in
Galilee, a northeastern province of Israel, embodies
many qualities not usually found together: he
is a feminist and peace activist in a land and
culture characterised by male dominance and irresolvable
"We are not in a simple society any more,
and we need new ways of seeing the world,"
Elias says. "Language is still the most powerful
medium, but there are many languages.
The language of cinema is one we all speak and
Hanna Elias is an intense man, who speaks with
such passion that his hair seems to curl and uncurl
with the flow of his ideas; as his eyes light
up, his eyebrows semaphore, and his hands frame
a shot that only he can see — as yet.
Elias often casts non-professional actors in key
roles in his films. The three main characters
in The Olive Harvest are played by non-professionals,
who turn in utterly veridical performances. Not
every director can get good performances from
non-professional actors. How does he do it?
"Everybody knows how to act," Elias
says. "You’re sitting in a coffee shop
and the man at the table opposite is looking at
you, and you put on a great act. You're talking
to your friend, she's telling you a story, you're
laughing, but it's not for her, it's for the man.
You’re showing off. You're acting, my friend.
Everybody acts. When we make a film we're mimicking
THE OLIVE HARVEST is the
story of two brothers who both fall in love with
the same woman. They embody conflicting values
and stand as a metaphor for Palestinians and Israelis,
the sons of Abraham, so engrossed in their enmity
that they risk destroying the woman who represents
the land they both love. Raeda is the daughter
of a dying patriarch determined to protect the
family’s land, symbolized by the olive groves.
She must choose between the man she has secretly
promised to marry and his older brother, whom
her father prefers.
"Because of the politics
in the Middle East," Elias says, "ninety
percent of the film goes to the men and their
issues. But the ten percent about the women is
very important. It's a simple theme. In the Arab
world a woman doesn't have the right to choose
her future husband. I want to challenge that in
an elegant way. When the film screens in the Arab
world, women really talk about it. Women say,
'Oooh it's nice that Raeda (the heroine) can choose.'
They also like the fact that the two sisters are
different. The older sister who has moved to the
city is the 'individual' woman. She doesn't belong
to the tribe. She breaks away from that."
"There will be no peace in the Middle East,"
Elias believes, "until patriarchal society
totally changes and women become an integral part
of all aspects of society. It's not just the vote.
It's when women are in charge of their body and
their spirit. Why is the Middle East messed up?
Because half of us are paralysed — the women.
And they happen to be in charge of the new generations.”
The Olive Harvest won the Special Jury Prize and
Best Arab Film at the Cairo International Film
Festival. Amnesty International sponsored a special
screening in Los Angeles. Despite its laurels,
the film has not drawn many offers for distribution,
and Elias has decided to distribute it himself.
He prefers discussion to accompany the screenings;
it's part of his mission to foster grassroots
understanding through film.
AFTER ALMOST A decade of
working on various Palestinian-Israeli co-productions,
Elias' most recent project is an ambitious effort
to spark discussion of Gandhi’s principles.
He spent several months this year in Ramallah
and Amman, Jordan, dubbing the 1982 Richard Attenborough
film, ‘Gandhi,’ into Arabic and promoting
its showing in the Arab world.
The Gandhi Project emerged as the brainchild of
a team made up of Hanna Elias, Jeffrey Skoll (founder
of e-Bay), and Kamran Elahian, a high-tech entrepreneur
who was the producer of The Olive Harvest. The
three decided that the film could carry Gandhian
ideas to a wider public than any number of speeches
or pamphlets could, and they will support projects
with related aims.
"I believe the best way to support Palestinian
democracy is to bring in the concept of Gandhian
non-violence,” Elias says. “Gandhi
unified all groups under one banner against the
[British] occupation — Sikhs, Muslims, and
Hindus. There is so much similarity to our current
situation in Palestine, with the different factions
we have resisting the occupation, the Wall, and
the colonies. The idea of economic self-reliance,
of an economy independent from Israel, is also
essential. We shouldn’t buy anything from
Israel until we’re at peace with them.”
Elias warms up, the words tumbling out. “People
think that Gandhi was just about nonviolence,
but that’s not it. He had four principles:
civil resistance; independent economy; unifying
all groups; and nonviolence. You need to prepare
for nonviolence. You have to enroll the community;
that’s why it’s a challenge, because
we live in a world where people want it all NOW.
It didn’t work like that with Gandhi. When
he had a problem he went and meditated until he
worked it out and then he shared it with people.
“Nonviolence is not a style; it’s
a process that happens after you lay down the
groundwork. Those four elements need a host: contribution.
That means you contribute. You spend time. That
is an essential part of Gandhi’s teaching.
“We have the rights from Sony for nonprofit
screenings to Palestinians everywhere in Arab
countries. Because cinema is a community experience,
we will screen it in refugee camps, community
centers, and libraries to create a forum for discussion
within the community. The film needed to be dubbed
into Arabic because people in the refugee camps
don't understand English and often don't even
The idea of dubbing an English film about Gandhi
into Arabic struck me, at first, as quixotic.
The film won eight Oscars and dozens of other
international awards, but it was also criticised
from the left for painting too rosy a picture
of the interethnic hatreds that eventually led
to the Partition of India and Pakistan. So I asked:
Why Attenborough’s Gandhi?
"I saw the film when I was in film school,"
Elias recalls. "I cried. A Hindu father comes
to Gandhi and tells him that he hates Muslims
because Muslims killed his son, but he is tormented
because he himself killed a Muslim boy. Gandhi
says to him, 'go and adopt a child and raise him
as a Muslim.' At that, I cried.
"Personally, I want to share what moves me
as a human being. When I laugh or cry over any
experience, I know it has a value and it needs
to be on the screen. The hologram that is me —
I belong to Palestinians, Arabs, the Muslim world,
Christians, and Israelis — that hologram
is all of me, and I swim in it, I honour it. Anything
that comes into that hologram and moves me, I
try to show it to others.”
But isn't he in a difficult position, advocating
non-violence in a setting of mutual hate and distrust?
"Yes, of course," Elias answers. "People
ridicule me. Even my friends ridicule me. And
people say, 'Why not tell that to Israel?' And
I say, yes, of course. But Israelis have to talk
non-violence to Israelis. We certainly have violence
in our society, but I don't believe that if Israel
would be gone tomorrow everything would be OK.
There's evil in every society. What you need to
do is minimise it. My goal isn't to get people
talking about non-violence against Israel alone,
but also within the community itself." •
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