An ‘exercise in film programming’, Reem Shilleh’s 2016 project Perpetual Recurrences identifies and draws together scenes and motifs which continually crop up across the Palestinian film of the past five decades, from the militant cinema of the 1970s to more recent international work. She identifies a number of locales—including the classroom, the refugee camp, and the checkpoint—which, through their repeated accumulation, form the ‘political canopy’ of Palestinian moving image. The film is on show as part of Another Gaze’s programme ‘For a Free Palestine: Films by Palestinian Women’, which is available for free on their new streaming platform Another Screen until 18 June, with proceeds going to the Gaza Emergency Relief Fund and to supporting Palestinian film culture. The visual parallels amongst the programme’s diverse collection of cinematic interventions offer some additions to Shilleh’s list: the busy dinner table, the narrow city street, the cramped balcony.
The vast accretion of images of densely populated urban and domestic space, and of its brutal immiseration by urban warfare tactics, have created Palestine in the global imagination as a built environment defined entirely by conflict. In bearing witness to this conflict, these depictions have also contributed to the struggle for a Palestinian image that is ‘emancipated from its Orientalist and colonial representations’. At Another Gaze’s screening event, the artists reflected on the ethical obligation for activist filmmaking to register the material realities of colonial violence, and questioned the political economy of such image making. On one hand, it is seen as a necessary resistance to the erasure of this violence by Israeli propaganda, made all the more urgent given how physically inaccessible Gaza has become. On the other, it’s a burden that restricts Palestinian filmmaking to the documentation of a chronic and perpetual present, which is itself felt as a trauma. As Mona Benyamin observed, ‘One of the most effective tools of the Israeli occupation has been to suppress our ability to imagine a different future for Palestine’. While Shilleh’s project investigates the political affordance of these reiterated urban spaces in Palestinian image production, it also exhibits the impact of this burden: a kind of geographical and imaginative constraint which relegates Palestinian film to the same circumscribed spaces in efforts, as Aida Ka’adan said, to ‘historicize Palestine over and over again’.
Against this backdrop, the eerie post-human landscapes and lush, fictive ecologies of Basma Alsharif’s film We Began by Measuring Distance (2019) are a striking intervention. Not seeking to create work that is ‘necessarily activist’, Alsharif makes a conscious turn away from conventional documentary witnessing towards the surreal and the speculative, an attempt to imagine a future ‘beyond struggle’, that has ‘nothing to do with survival’. Raised between France, the US and Gaza, Alsharif recognises this distance as a luxury, and the subjectivity of spectatorship is a constant theme in her work. The film traces the movements of a nameless group of cartographers who attempt to make legible their surroundings through a series of measurements which are ultimately found lacking: ‘we measured a 360-degree circle […] we measured a foot […] we measured an apple and came up with orange […] we measured the distance between Palestine and Israel, and found that Rome was not built in a day’.
With its cool structuralist detachment, We Began by Measuring Distance draws on the stylistic conventions of western situationist and psychographic film: its dispassionate, anonymous narrator is reminiscent of Patrick Kieller’s ‘Robinson’, or the ‘Curator’ of Ben Rivers’ Slow Action (2011). Alsharif explains: ‘I needed a kind of pristine, sanitised, cold, emotionless gaze on the territory’. In her political context however, this flat affect carries a different kind of weight: as well as problematising the quantification of grief and the intelligibility of war, the film’s ‘game of measurements’ evokes the abstract cartographies and contested borders weaponised by Israeli statecraft to dispossess Palestinians of their land and prohibit geographical and political unification.
The instrumentalisation of map-making and measurement by colonial power is well attested to, especially in the Middle East—in 2006, Google was accused of erasing the designation for Palestine from its global map—but the group makes this discovery gradually, and is dismayed. ‘Innocent measurements transition into political ones’, Alsharif writes. In one scene, two people approach a group of trees, holding a yard of fabric between them which strains against the wind, to ‘find a distance between two points to fix our text to’. The fabric won’t reach—or perhaps it’s the distance that’s wrong—but ‘it will do for now’, as a banner on which a succession of numbers are projected: 78km, 67, 48, 17. This is the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem, we’re told, and its apparent diminishment is suggestive of the creeping advancement of occupied territory, but on second look, the numbers are also significant dates in the conflict: the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1978 invasion of Lebanon. This slippage between text, sound and meaning is deliberately disconcerting, and escaping from their grasp, the fabric flapping wildly in the air becomes an apt emblem of sense and language unmoored from the world. Speaking to the film’s problem of legibility, Alsharif says: ‘I was really trying to make a film which resists being easily read, as a protest against the accumulation of information on the occupation in Palestine’.
The film’s depiction of ecological life always occurs at a remove: mediated through picture books, obscured by strange weather events, or articulated via cinematic distortion. Near the beginning, we watch a child’s hands leaf through glossy images of pomegranates, olive trees, and expansive desert vistas which memorialise a homeland ‘no longer within reach’. Later, the city is enveloped in dense black fog, and its inhabitants wake up to an expanse of ice. The unspoken context here is the ruination of Palestinian ecology and agriculture by occupying forces, which have for years sought to make rural livelihoods untenable for Arab citizens and erode food and land sovereignty. If land can be classified as ‘uncultivated’, it is expropriated to settler groups: in the north, olive trees are routinely uprooted and destroyed, while elsewhere Palestinian farmers find their crop fields scorched and their vineyards slashed. Decades of bombings have left high concentrations of toxic metals in Gazan soil. The research group Forensic Architecture (with whom the filmmaker Emily Jacir, also included in the programme, has collaborated) recently found that since 2014, Israel has been aerially spraying crop-killing herbicides on the Israeli side of the border and mobilising the wind to carry the chemicals into the Gaza Strip, at damaging concentrations. The concept of calculated herbicidal drift dramatizes the nebulous nature of Palestine’s geopolitical borders, and the military mobilisation of wind in herbicidal warfare is a stark reminder that ecology is not inert matter: it is active and agental, bound up in a multispecies conflict and vulnerable to exploitation.
Environmental violence subtends several of the other films in the programme: Larissa Sansour’s In Vitro (2019), for example, imagines a Palestine in the fallout of an eco-catastrophe, in which the corrosive air has forced inhabitants underground where they attempt to cultivate an orchard from heritage seeds in a bunker below Bethlehem. Like Alsharif’s film, the sci-fi fantasy of In Vitro claims the need for future myths to counter the mire of the past and the sterility of fact. While trees burn above ground, the young protagonist—who was born in the chamber and has never left—spins dreams of the olive harvests out of inherited memory. Her aunt implores: ‘we need you to guard these images’.
Rather than directly picture the reality of ecological terrorism, Alsharif’s film makes an escapist dérive from this dystopia. Disenchanted with their measurements and becoming ‘more and more […] unsettled’, the cartographers elect to go to a place they ‘had only seen in books’: ‘THE VIRGIN FOREST’. Here, Alsharif presents us with an amniotic ocean territory of swaying anemone tendrils, a realm of shelter and abundance in which entities move freely and life proliferates. In a further disjunction between representation and reality, the underwater images are overlaid with narrative description of a vibrant vegetal world, a shady forest canopy with an ‘understory of shrubs, herbs and tree seedlings’.
This hybrid space—as if dreamed up by someone who had never seen a forest—suggests itself as a form of decolonized ecology, and illustrates Alsharif’s conviction in the ‘utopian possibility within cinema’: in this instance, its capacity to imaginatively re-create ecological refuge where real-world geopolitical violence allows for none. The ‘Virgin Forest’ offers a temporary suspension of the truth: that in 1948, with the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state, native trees and crops were uprooted and replaced with thousands of European pine, which acidified the soil, reduced biodiversity and which continue to cause forest fire; or, that 10,000 forest trees were destroyed by a military incursion on a Palestinian nature reserve in January this year; or of the millions of litres of raw sewage discharged into the Gazan coast each day, which pollutes ecosystems and threatens human and marine life alike.
Alsharif’s aesthetic improvisation is therefore as much a stylistic choice as it is a necessary solution to exile and to the destruction of real-world ecology. Like the subterranean regeneration underway in In Vitro, Alsharif’s utopia is a submerged ocean territory, a resistance to the Palestinian dispossession of coastal land and the increasing threat of water scarcity. Footage of the mushroom clouds produced by air strikes find visual parallels with the soft, undulating motion of jellyfish. Likewise, in her feature-length film Ouroboros (2019), drone footage of a war-torn cityscape blends seamlessly with aerial shots of gently breaking waves. This extended metaphor chimes with Razan AlSalah’s description of the street-view geography of her film Canada Park (2020) as an ‘undercommons’, a form of digital trespass that wanders beyond the bounds of enclosed territory. For all three artists, the subterraneous, real or analogic, offers an escape from the rigid delineations of power above ground.
But Alsharif’s utopianism is not a simple one. She has spoken often about the necessity of relinquishing hope, of accepting the possibility that Palestine may never become a state, that the right of return will never be acknowledged: ‘To ask for people to continue to have hope in the face of so much injustice is insulting.’ The tricky relationship between hope and resignation is a productive tension in Alsharif’s work, for her, the abandonment of hope might paradoxically be what allows Palestinians to ‘live beyond’ struggle. Ouroboros asks a similar question: is the only way to survive to forget? Or does that condemn the struggle to repeat its mistakes? And despite its utopian endeavours, this ambivalence rears its head too in We Began by Measuring Distance. At first an idyll, the language of entropy creeps in to the ‘Virgin Forest’, which becomes contaminated by the discursive logic of apartheid: ‘dead trees, rotten snags and stumps’ litter the forest floor, ‘creating some travel routes for wildlife, and blocking others.’ In a disturbing evocation of the slow violence of decades-long war, ‘a visitor […] will often mistake dead trees in early stages of decay for live trees’. In this light, the resemblance between jellyfish and the dust clouds from Israeli bombs begins to seem less like a placid evasion of conflict than a recognition of the presence of its contours in every sphere of life.
Returning to Gaza after several years in Europe, Alsharif observed people finding ways to ‘move past a failed civilization’ and ‘circumvent their impossible situations’. Her work explores these strategies of circumvention, but the film also expresses an uncertainty about the limits of speculative ecological aesthetics to act as models for resistance or liberation, if ecology itself is co-opted into complicity with oppressive regimes. In distancing herself from the obligations of ‘activist film’ to effect political change, Alsharif’s work does not resolve these doubts in favour of, as Eyal Sivan writes of the need for a Palestinian image, ‘a strict visual representation that rejects any possibility of confusion or misinterpretation’. Instead, past and future, utopia and dystopia, fiction and reality all coalescence uneasily, and the work’s poetic and activistic resistance is located in its ongoing contradictions, which are deliberately left ‘unsettled’.
Phoebe Campion is a writer, researcher and filmmaker from London, working at the intersection of the GeoHumanities, poetics and visual culture. Her work explores landscape perception, ecological entanglement and technologies of domestication, and investigates poetic and material notions of scarcity, precarity, legibility and encounter. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching experimental poetics and site-specific art practices in response to compromised landscapes (industrial forests, agro-chemical fields, upland deserts) since 1970. She is a staff writer for Another Gaze, and an editor for King’s Review magazine.
 Eyal Sivan, ‘A beholder waiting not to wait anymore’, for Galerie Image Farés, April 2014.