Credit: Sobhi Al-Zobaidi
by Michael Scoular Essays Featured Film

Through Different Modes of Image-Creation — The Documentaries of Sobhi Al-Zobaidi

February 25, 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.

Sobhi Al-Zobaidi’s career as an artist has, so far, unfolded in three acts: the video diarist in Palestine, the academic in North America, and, today, the restauranteur in Vancouver, who, speaking to an at-capacity audience at a solidarity screening this year, opened by saying, “I made films, but I am not a filmmaker.” The statement points to a fact — Al-Zobaidi hasn’t completed a film in over a decade — and it also contains an implicit assertion: that the world of film festivals and Q&As is one he is satisfied to have left.

Born in Jerusalem in 1961 and raised in Jalazone refugee camp, for a decade Al-Zobaidi was part of the first generation of artists making videos that documented aspects of Palestinian life — any history of the way digital editing and consumer formats transformed filmmaking that excludes Palestinian works is missing a key chapter, one exemplified in early works by Al-Zobaidi like My Very Private Map (1998) and Crossing Kalandia (2002). The former might be considered a work of investigation, incorporating footage from the recently relocated UNRWA film archive, only to edit it in counterpoint against interviews with Palestinians old enough to “remember a time in history when there was no such thing as a refugee camp.” (The film’s production and release marked 50 years since the Nakba.) The latter, like its diary form suggests, allows for reflection on Al-Zobaidi’s own subjecthood, using the most directly first-person of forms to consider the limits of self-expression — no trivial matter to consider, with broad solidarity, not individual reputation, the stakes on which successful resistance lie in Ramallah, where much of the diary is recorded. Anniversaries loom large in this cyclical film as well, which closes with the first birthday of a child, a natural end to the inward gaze of the diary.

Al-Zobaidi’s desire to observe the transformative effect of the camera, to ironize and refract images of daily life, as well as his strong instincts for narrative shaping of material are immediately apparent in his work. Yet because his works can be categorized as documentaries, the baggage of the term, and the tendencies of how they might be received — as instruments, argument points, or unalloyed records — has shadowed their routes through festivals and conferences. As Al-Zobaidi recently commented, they become vessels for an audience’s “preconceptions, their minds, their education, their background.” While his work never reaches the aggressive association of an essay film like Jayce Salloum and Elia Suleiman’s Introduction to the End of an Argument, the starting point for Al-Zobaidi’s filmmaking is that it is motivated to never resemble the history, the journalism, the institutional perspective that precedes his videos.

Crossing Kalandia opens by depicting the way everyday life is threatened by violence — Al-Zobaidi’s family, as it happens, lives in the same neighborhood as Yasser Arafat’s — but it would be completely wrong to characterize the film as a chronological portrait of the family’s response to the opening incident, or that it portrays their lives, or even that everything that Al-Zobaidi shows (other Israeli attacks, checkpoint harassment, cultural performances, daily routines, news reports) “happens” to the family. Rather, these strands of the film enter Al-Zobaidi’s mind — they exist both as events and as things that could happen — and the film wrestles with ways to connect reality and possibility in a way that measures up to the film’s presentation of a thesis and an antithesis. With respect to the latter position, a common thread in much of Al-Zobaidi’s work is the widespread longing, not just for the ideals and negotiations of “peace,” but norms — what might be represented as a normal, markable way of experiencing time and space. (This latter element becomes increasingly prominent in the films that come later in his career.) Al-Zobaidi knows, of course, that this reaction to colonial violence is insufficient and that he needs to desire something else to conceptualize something else.

Perhaps in response to the documentary notions that trailed his work, Al-Zobaidi increasingly carried the ambitions to stage fictional scenarios within his work. If the thesis in Crossing Kalandia is that the absence of a meaningful Israeli Left is an extreme outcome of the same symptoms that can be felt anywhere, perhaps even in the fragile solidarity — the isolation and fear — of Palestinians, then Looking Awry (2001-05), in its ironic quest narrative, suggests a way this can be viewed from a more distant vantage point, this being the remote editing room of a higher-budget video commission. The film “Sobhi” has been commissioned to make — a trite panacea about religion — doesn’t need to necessarily correspond to the type of films that festivals or audiences would expect to be made in Palestine. By wrapping the moment when Ariel Sharon entered Haram al-Sharif in a broad and easily-punctured satire, Al-Zobaidi wants to make it comprehensible as an action, rather than a vague bit of politics or the inciting incident for a movie. This isn’t the first time this kind of approach shows up in his work — the shadowing of Haaretz reporter Amira Hass in Crossing Kalandia, not to mention the handheld tracking of Al-Zobaidi at work with his own camera, function as the intentional foregrounding of artifice, not to make their subjects stand out in relief as “more real,” but to drill down through different modes of image-creation.

Credit: Sobhi Al-Zobaidi

While presenting Looking Awry in 2007 at the academic conference SCMS, Al-Zobaidi was said to be developing two narrative fiction projects. Neither appears likely to come to fruition. Aside from the problems of funding and other resources, Al-Zobaidi also moved, with his family, to Vancouver, at first to complete a PhD, then to operate, with his wife Tamam as co-owner, a restaurant of Palestinian cuisine. But, as Jean-Luc Godard’s axiom in Notre musique posits, Palestine, in the film world, is the stuff of documentary — in an interview, Godard added: the type Frederick Wiseman would film. He was referring to early Wiseman, of course, of Titicut Follies, High School, and Law and Order — films that unambiguously structure themselves in argument with the institutional molding of reality into prisons. Al-Zobaidi’s films do not formally take after Wiseman’s example, except that they face a similar problem. As he put it in an essay on work by other Palestinian filmmakers of his generation, “How [does] the prisoner film himself ‘doing time’? Maybe through a lifelong-zoom-in to a concrete wall (as in Wavelength by Michael Snow)?”

Al-Zobaidi’s Red, Green, Black, and White Indians (2008) — of his shorts, the one most indebted to the avant-garde — also concerns itself with this question. Its construction is simple: it chops and screws the record of a protest action in which Palestinians, on the occasion of Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Huwara checkpoint, dressed themselves in costumes clearly borrowed from Native American stereotypes. No mere endorsement or condemnation, the film scrambles its source, separates out its elements by varying speed and inviting distortion artifacts, and suspends the moment in a state of paralysis. Al-Zobaidi’s films are always concerned with re-evaluation, not the shock of spectacle. Here, rather than a mere document of an event, the metaphorical directness of the protest — Palestinians are Indigenous people — frays into questions: how effective is it to emblemize that Palestinians are Indigenous people? In 2008, on the basis of images, Al-Zobaidi surely was given pause. Aside from the question of appropriation, one suggestion is that the group aspires to be considered in the same fraught and mournful light of the imagistic legacy of the “Indian,” if not hollow manifestations of evil, then defeated victims of genocide, as in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.

But this is far from the only time Indigenous art and Palestinian identity have crossed paths. Al-Zobaidi would likely have been aware of Mahmoud Darwish’s epic poem “The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” which, drawing on the account of Chief Seattle, presents the interweaving of history and personal chronicle. (The poem’s influence is wide — Godard excerpts its lines in Notre musique.) And in the time that has passed since making this video, Al-Zobaidi, in Vancouver, has seen the increasing solidarity between protests against the criminalization of Indigenous land defenders and protests against the Israeli state’s genocidal attacks. (To take one example, in both cases protestors have temporarily blocked the city’s port; there is a shared understanding that resistance, as Al-Zobaidi underscores in Crossing Kalandia, only too rarely attacks the economic normalcy that flows unabated, regardless of how large a day’s march might grow.)

This isn’t to say time has recuperated the material Al-Zobaidi manipulates in Red, White, Black, and White Indians. They are still a cartoonish attempt to turn suffering into images. And in Vancouver, while his film career is on pause, and his time is spent supporting other artists’ work, there can be a similar quality to the city’s broader intersection of culture and Indigenous rights — there’s hardly an event or festival screening that happens in the city without a land acknowledgment, yet with only a couple exceptions, film and other arts organizations have taken care to maintain a would-be apolitical silence on Palestine.

When screened under the banner of an institution, the works of a Palestinian artist like Al-Zobaidi will bear the risk of being flattened into political noise, their synthesis of montage and voice transcribed into event recaps. Yet the films themselves, while intentionally advancing the possibility of solidarity, do so in ways that can’t be reduced to mere statements. They ask a viewer to keep up with the network of associations Al-Zobaidi builds up, not to engender agreement, but to suggest the capacity for thought that can be mapped within the forms, both fictive and not, he bends to his designs. That is, to go back to the earlier My Very Private Map, Al-Zobaidi’s film compels us not to merely agree with the accounts he presents in the film, but to gather our wits so we can ask the questions that pushed him to take a camera out into his community.