David Koff, Academy Award-nominated director of People Of The Wind (1976), visited Palestine in 1979 to start work on what would become one of the most controversial films about settlement, occupation and resistance – Occupied Palestine.
Arabstoday caught up with him in the lobby of London’s Barbican Centre, where Koff’s film opened this year’s London Palestine Film Festival.
Occupied Palestine was released to notorious acclaim in 1981. The premiere, at that year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, was interrupted by a bomb threat.
“We started making the film in 1979-1980, which was several years before the First Intifada,” Koff tells me. “This was new ground. There had been maybe a few films but nothing that really tapped in to the Palestinian experience of Zionism.”
“The understanding of what was going on inside Palestine was very limited, especially in the US. So the context in which we were working was one in which we were almost discovering a new world as far as thinking what an American [or British] audience would see when they saw the film.”
Filmed and released in the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords, Occupied Palestine veers away from documenting history – and therefore pigeonholing itself as a document in time - and instead tackles what Koff calls the “deeper historical currents at work” before, during and after.
“There was a temptation to make a film about the reaction to that [Camp David]. Fortunately we decided we would not focus on current events at all and try to get below the surface.”
“Not only Camp David but all the other various agreements that have come along since, they all take place on the surface level like foam on top of a Russian reel. And the stronger currents beneath it keep flowing."
It’s true that when watching the film, the military-industrial complex-level hen-pecking, violence and daily grind of the occupation it shows seems to undermine what would later be stripped away as the false hope of Camp David. It’s an unfortunate fact of the Arab-Israeli conflict that whatever happens – which US president is trying to put their name to a just solution in the Holy Land, etc. etc. – facts on the ground remain largely the same. Somewhere right now – like Beit El – settlements are being planned, approved and built like they always have.
“There’s a continuity in the process of settlement which goes on regardless of what peace agreements or talks are taking place,” he says. “And I think our film provides some of the evidence to why Zionism is committed to a one-state solution in all of historical Palestine…but a one-state solution which has as few Arabs as possible.”
Indeed settlement – perhaps the central fulcrum of the film on which Koff offsets his presentation of the Palestinian national movement – has continued unabated for decades.
“The motor of Zionism runs and continues to run,” Koff agrees.
As evidence of that fact, he quotes revisionist Zionist historian Ze’ev Jabotinsky who, in 1923, wrote: “Zionist colonisation must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.”
It’s statements like the these by Israel’s so-called Founding Fathers – Jabotinsky opens the same article [The Iron Wall (We And The Arabs)] on a conciliatory note, claiming he is not an enemy of the Arabs, just feels an “impolite indifference" towards them – that not only undercut the hypocrisy of today’s Israeli politicians but demonstrate how similarly they view the conflict.
In fact the film is full of material that destroys that myth of Zionism as something other than a colonialist project aimed at dispossessing a native population from its homeland. Shots in Occupied Palestine weave through the roads and decimated villages of the land now known as Israel while interviewees, 1948 soldiers’ memoirs and human rights reports happen to tell the truth – whether they mean to or not.
Welcome to pre-hasbara Israel.
One interviewee even offers up the great colonialist mantra: “They’ve never had it so good.” Koff smiles as I point it out – it’s a phrase he knows all too well after years working as researcher, filmmaker and campaigner with colonised and occupied peoples in countries across 1960s Africa.
In his essay, Jabotinsky later talks about forcibly erecting an iron wall “which the native population cannot breach.” Metaphor or reality, the tone is all too clear.
Koff’s film might have predated the present crisis in the West Bank but his themes of the constants of settlement and resistance, told through the twisting narrative of 1948 and what came after, do a good job of bringing us to the present day.
At one point the film features young Palestinians throwing stones and settlements being built on hillsides.
A group of Israeli soldiers grab a Palestinian teenager and use him as a human shield as they fire tear gas towards groups of teenagers further down the road. It’s a carbon-copy of a video released from the West Bank – in April 2013.
If the images of the conflict are so exactly the same, the audience is left wondering whether anything at all has changed in 30 years of conflict, peace deals and broken ceasefires.
“Outside of Palestine certainly what’s changed is there’s a much greater awareness of what the Palestinians are facing and what they have faced,” Koff says. “It was unimaginable that in 1980-81 a film like Five Broken Cameras could have been nominated for an Academy Award –even been made.”
But it’s resistance on which the film ends.
“[Having] already done work on colonialism, I knew there would always be resistance – but it was how widespread it was,” Koff says. “Any place anyone wanted to take me, they could take me to a village anywhere and you’d meet people who clearly understood what was happened to them. In that sense they were already resisting.”
Like the boys being used as human shields and the settlements and mangy peace deals, resistance too has not changed. And that’s what makes Occupied Palestine such a powerful film.
“The dynamic of resistance has not changed,” Koff adds. “And it will not change.”