Credit: FIDMarseille
by Öykü Sofuoğlu Featured Film

A Stone’s Throw — Razan AlSalah [FID Marseille ’24 Review]

July 1, 2024

Satellite or street view imagery usually provokes an overwhelming sense of spatial disorientation in the viewer. On the virtual surface of the planet, a myriad of streets, valleys, rivers, desolate roads, ugly neighborhoods, and busy avenues seemingly await the pseudo-traveler — the cyber flâneur — to be explored. While the four corners of the world lie ahead at A Stone’s Throw, or rather a click away, this simulated proximity does nothing other than underline the arbitrary nature of the control, surveillance, and discrimination mechanisms that encompass geopolitics. Not to mention how similar technologies are used for politico-military means to target, oppress, and inflict violence on disadvantaged populations.

Exposing the inner tensions of these images, hacking, and misappropriating them in order to transform them into counter-operational images has always been one of the predominant audiovisual strategies in films that directly address issues related to political and military oppression. The work of Montreal-based Palestinian filmmaker Razan AlSalah surely exemplifies some of the most powerful instances of this method of hacking and hijacking the image. Following Your Father Was Born 100 Years Old, and So Was the Nakba and Canada Park, AlSalah continues to explore the trajectories of displacement in A Stone’s Throw, where we follow the footsteps of Amine, an elderly Palestinian man who has been living in a constant state of exile. Forced to leave his birthplace, Haifa, to seek refuge in Beirut, only to end up on Zirku Island where he had to work in an oil and gas plant, Amine has spent a life being dragged from one place to another. This left him with only a few vague memories of the sea by his hometown and the physical and psychological damage that years of endless labor have inflicted on his body and mind.

AlSalah’s camera accompanies Amine as he walks down the streets or along the seaside — his body looking very fragile, with a protruding hunchback that one can’t help but associate with the emotional burden he has been carrying. As with her previous films, by combining different formats of sounds and images, AlSalah situates Amine’s story within a complex historical and political web of systemic oppression that the Palestinian people have been subjected to. Amine’s account of the time he spent working on the island becomes evidence of how the Zionist project makes use of the labor of displaced Palestinians, incarcerating them into work camps, as well as how fossil-fuel and nuclear capitalism benefit from it. By drawing parallels with Palestinian rebels-turned-workers who attacked the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline during the Great Arab Revolt, Amine’s words also attest to the historically rooted nature of the exploitation they have endured.

In A Stone’s Throw, AlSalah applies her signature cinematic device of virtual trespassing, which consists of using Google Earth imagery to “gain” access to restricted areas, here on Zirku Island. The partly distorted, flattened aerial view of the island is juxtaposed with its user reviews on Google Maps that are scraped through Python’s interface. There’s a bitter and disturbing sense of irony in looking into a world where sites of systematic exploitation and oppression can get four-star ratings or comments with smiley faces. Yet the associative power of AlSalah’s images is so palpable that the mind starts to stray off — toward other regions that are not so far away on the map. Buildings or facilities in Gaza, too, must have Google Maps reviews, one thinks — they still do actually, but is there anything left there? Only ratings, comments, and photos?

Although the viewer is invited to wander off-frame to make connections and find echoes in similar instances of Zionist violence inflicted on Palestinian people, A Stone’s Throw fundamentally directs the gaze to the multiple layers of meaning within the frame, created through the overlapping sounds, images, and texts. For history, as we know, is far from following a linear course, leaving behind the traces of the past once and for all. As much as the Zionist narrative would have liked them to be effaced, AlSalah shows us how Palestinians’ traumas and losses, as well as their resistance and hope, can accumulate and grow into a new force — a force that is crystallized in the image of Amine walking by the sea in Beirut, to which a Google Street View from the port of Haifa is overlaid. This is what echoes in Amine’s words when he talks about unleashing the imaginary: something irresistible, something bigger than material force. An image.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 1.