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FILM • 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 enmities.
"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 understand.”
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 ourselves."

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 read Arabic."
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." •

For more information, see <www.GandhiProject.org>, <www.HannaElias.com>, and <www.theOliveHarvest.com>.