Credit: Mubi/Mohammad Bakri
by Shar Tan Featured Film

Jenin, Jenin — Mohammad Bakri

February 21, 2024

The staff of In Review Online have come to the collective decision to abide by the international call from Strike Germany. We will be withholding coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival on the grounds that its institutional backing from the German government is marred by the latter’s censorship and marginalization of activist voices. Germany’s military and financial support of Israel, alongside the repression of those speaking up against Israel’s genocidal actions against the Palestinian people of Gaza and its assault and expropriation of those within the Occupied West Bank, should not be ignored or condoned. We wish to send our commitment of solidarity to all filmmakers and cultural workers who have joined this strike; business as usual is unacceptable. As over 100 Palestinians are killed each day in Gaza, we find the festival’s attempt to mitigate these criticisms with the gesture of The TinyHouse Project to be a condescension toward active and ongoing genocide. The festival’s poor attempt at good faith gives little actual space to the voices who push against empire, and offers only a tiny house, filled with hot air, off to the side, where no one else can see or hear you. While we will not be covering the Berlin Film Festival, that will not be the end of our participation in the strike. Instead, as a form of counter-programming, we will be reviewing selected works within the Palestinian Film Archive and publishing original writings related to these films. We declare solidarity with all participating in this strike, and solidarity with those participating in protests across the festival grounds.

“As Palestinians,” Mohammed El-Kurd writes, “we understand from a young age that the semantic violence we practice with our words dwarfs the decades of systemic and material violence enacted against us by the self-proclaimed Jewish state.” Baseless charges of antisemitism against Palestinians, in particular, is one example in which discursive violence enacts and maintains the borders of (in)humanity: you can’t be heard when the world has already decided that you’re guilty of a crime. Such is the politics of innocence that constitutes every single framework of recognition in every single cultural context. When you cannot be seen as human, the violence that you experience cannot exist. 

The censorship of Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, for instance, exposes the limits of representation when it comes to documenting Palestine. For the “crime” of filming what happened during the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, Bakri was prosecuted by the Israeli government, asked to apologize to soldiers, and to change his film so that it was no longer offensive to said soldiers. What happened in Jenin didn’t matter; what mattered was whether Bakri was civil enough in his craft. On June 23, 2002, Iyad Samoudi, the executive producer of Jenin, Jenin, was murdered by Israeli soldiers. There is no language or epistemological framework truthful enough to capture the slow death that Palestinians are subjected to; Bakri’s documentary is not a finished product insofar as it exists as part of an ongoing genocide that continues to be viewed and reported through willful distortion. 

Jenin, Jenin comprises first-person accounts of the massacre, and it is routinely interspersed with clips of a deaf Palestinian man who gives Bakri a tour of Jenin. He signs what happened with grueling detail, down to the exact corner where a person was killed by a sniper shot to the head. His sequences are the only part of the documentary without subtitles — we understand what a gun looks like, and what happens when it is used. Horror lies in the clarity of language and facts: a massacre is not a complicated issue. But the Palestinians who are interviewed know that their words are always already subjected to a regime of truth where Israeli lives are worth more than theirs. “What good is your filming,” a 72-year-old Palestinian man asks Bakri, “when no Arab has been able to do anything?” 

By necessity, Jenin, Jenin is a documentary that reflects back on itself as a medium that purports to deliver the truth. Its participants are painfully cognizant of the surveilling and punitive gaze of the camera, aware that looking and empty platitudes are all that the world is willing to do. “Dogs bark in order to express themselves,” a young Palestinian father says, “but they won’t even let us bark.” Bakri takes their anger to heart. He films interviewees walking away into the distance, with their backs turned to us. On the one hand, these shots indict our complicity as passive onlookers to genocide. On the other, with immense sorrow, Bakri reveals his own frailty as a filmmaker — not even the closest proximity to a camera is enough to convince the world of the value of Palestinian life. In the eyes of the Western viewer, their backs are always turned. 

Throughout Jenin, Jenin, interviewees all share a common outlook: whatever that has been destroyed can be built again. They can rebuild their houses, and they will have children. But what is harrowing is that there are some things that take decades of love to cultivate — all destroyed within seconds by bulldozers and bombs. Bakri directs our attention to olive, lemon, and fig trees that are now buried under rubble, indistinguishable from piles of gray. A man’s canaries were killed. Everything that defines what it means to have a life worth living is subjected to senseless destruction, and with one goal — to destroy hope in the future. 

But there is hope. A young girl, no older than eleven or twelve, sees the future and declares that she will fight for it for as long as it takes. “We will never make peace with them,” she tells Bakri, “even if our president does so.” She looks at Bakri (and the camera) with a clarifying lucidity that not even a close-up is able to capture. She is a child who was born in occupation, and understands that Palestine has survived, and will continue to do so. For a moment, the camera lingers as she stares back at us. And for a few seconds, the gaze is hers.