Credit: Maryse Gargour
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film

The Land Speaks Arabic — Maryse Gargour

February 22, 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.

Documentaries that seek to uncover buried truths must contend with a fundamental filmic contradiction: narrativization and Hollywoodization — required to make truth palatable to an audience — cover it in a sheen of subjectivity that, in some way, illegitimizes any claims to its objectivity. The filmmaker can mitigate this somewhat by extensively using primary research material like official historical documents (identity cards, labor contracts, political referendums, newspaper articles, photographs, and film footage) that, in theory, are objective. Or, they can rely on secondary research material like present-day testimonies and surveys to evoke history through subjective experiences that feel objective enough when placed next to fact. However, the filmmaker still has to arrange these different research methodologies by either isolating them or mixing and matching them to convey something. How is this subjective arrangement of truth, then, objectively truthful?

Maryse Gargour’s The Land Speaks Arabic is an impressively assembled documentary about the “cleaning and spoilation of the Palestine land by Zionists” that never really engages with the difficulty of representing truth onscreen. And that’s totally fair: its pressing concern is to posit Zionism as a branch of colonialism whose origin is not, as was widely believed, a direct consequence of World War II’s anti-Semitism; it extends back to the late 19th century.

So long as the film focuses on exposing the historical origins of Zionism, it’s most successful at turning research into irrefutable facts. Gargour employs a tell-then-show or tell-and-show approach to first make a bold claim and then back it up with strong historical evidence to verify its legitimacy. Early in the film, Dr. Nur Masalha, the expert asserting the film’s central argument of defining Zionism as a branch of colonialism, states, “Already in the 19th century, the Zionist leaders, the top leaders, talk[ed] about transfer in Zionism. But [they] talk[ed] about it in a sort of dream: Gradually, you have Jewish settlements increasing in Palestine; gradually, the Palestinians will be pushed out.” Immediately, the film cuts to Theodore Herzl’s letter written to the mayor of Jerusalem in 1899, which spells out Masalha’s sentiment. Another instance, also involving Masalha, follows the same pattern: he claims that Zionists needed to reinterpret Judaism to “justify [their] colonial enterprise”; “they used the Bible to create a mythology — some sort of blood connection between ancient Israelites and modern European Jews.” Cut. Now, we see black-and-white film footage of Jews praying in a synagogue with a reporter-like narrator orating: “Throughout all the sorrowful centuries, the Hebrews were scattered over the face of the Earth. Their religious rituals have kept ever before them the memory of Palestine as the land promised to them by Moses.” Another cut. Then, we see an article in The Palestine Post that quotes the words, “The Bible is Our Mandate,” spoken by the primary national founder of Israel, David Ben-Guiron. Gargour repeatedly uses this simple but incredibly effective form of visual verification to legitimize claims as facts.

It’s trickier when personal testimonies are also involved. Mainly, Gargour uses interviews with Arab Palestinians forced to flee their homes after 1948’s Arab-Israeli War to add detail to historical record. Sometimes, it’s merely serviceable: the claim that “Palestinian land was already occupied by farmers and peasants” is elaborated by three residents telling us the different vegetables they grew on their land. Other times, it’s critical: Palestinian residents give brief personal accounts of the healthy relationship they shared with Arab Jews to make a clear distinction between their disdain for Zionists and friendliness toward non-Zionist Jews. (Some of the interviewees seem to conflate the two, which the film, to its detriment, never interrogates).

The problem arises when The Land Speaks Arabic — otherwise so intent on shining light on truths through its filmmaking — succumbs to settling in as a collection of personal testimonies about the loss suffered by Palestinians during the 1948 war. It’s not that their accounts aren’t moving. It’s that Gargour tries, quite unconvincingly, to bring some of their very personal stories to “life” by intercutting their telling of it with impersonal newsreel footage of the war, replete with generic gunshot sound effects. Her tell-and-show verification method — so productive before — is unproductive here because she uses it to evoke, not confirm; the film hasn’t and doesn’t afford these testimonies the space and time to real-ize them.

But that, and Dimitri Arsenopoulos’ generically manipulative score — a staple of most documentary films that needs to be unstapled — are really the only major aspects of the film that raise questions about its occasional inability to legitimize its primary and secondary research as truths. Its orchestration of everything in these moments is either too overeager to convey its devastation or too unconvincing to manifest it. But the rest of The Land Speaks Arabic effectively arranges research into fact through form: it educates truthfully, not manipulatively.