A Once Lost Film about Palestine

It was Golda Meir (1898-1978), Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1974, who famously remarked, “There was no such thing as Palestinians.” By this she meant that Palestinians simply do not exist. They Do not Exist is the Palestinian response to this widely-repeated assertion.

The film was made, in 1974, by Mustafa Abu Ali (1940-2009) who worked closely with Jean-Luc Godard and who went on to found the Palestine Film Unit (PFU) of the PLO, and thus he is considered the founder of Palestinian cinema. He studied at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1960s before pursuing his passion for cinema in London, from where he graduated in 1967.

The Palestine Film Unit came into existence in 1968, in Jordan, under the direction of Mustafa Abu Ali, Hani Jawharieh, and Sulafa Jadallah. The work of the PFU entailed film as a method of educating the Palestinian people, and thus the films the Unit produced were shown in all refugee camps, to ensure that the entirety of the population understood the problems that needed to be overcome and to enable them to persevere in maintaining the culture and way of life of the nation. In other words, the people were given resolve and assurance , despite the hardships of their suffering.

The films also sought to engage the larger worldwide audience, which was often overly saturated by Israeli propaganda; the PFU hoped to break the strangehold on information and to get the Palestinian message out.

The films made by the PFU were 16mm documentaries and they are the earliest examples of an engaged Palestinian cinema.

The PFU’s archive was once the largest and most comprehensive collection of Palestinian films. However, it was put into storage in the Red Crescent Hospital in Beirut in 1982, and its whereabouts remain unclear. Recently, some of the films were found located in the Israel Defense Forces Archive in Tel HaShomer, and there are calls for their release and declassification.

They Do Not Exist is an unflinching chronicle of the suffering brought on by Israeli bombardments and the bleak life of Palestinian refugees in Jordanian camps. There are also those men and women struggling against the Israelis whose hopes and aspirations the film explores.

The film disappeared in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Beirut (in the Lebanon War) and only resurfaced in 2003, and through the hard work of filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was shown in Jerusalem, a screening to which Mustafa Abu Ali was furtively brought.

The subject of the film is the people of Nabatia camp, as they carry on with their daily lives; and in the ordinarness of their lives is found all the pain and injustice that they must deal with as a people who keep getting in the way of the great plans of the Israeli government.

In the early summer of 1974, Nabatia was bombed by the Israelis and the various inhabitants shown in the film were either killed or driven away to another refugee camp. The film captures the relentless violence meted to civilians, as the constant reality of Palestinian lives, and we watch as witnesses to their humanity, which refuses to succumb to the iron fist of oppression.

The film also serves as a reminder that the Palestinian people have long been seen as the unwanted Other by Israel, and therefore their very presence is the “problem” that Israel continually seeks to overcome by stark “solutions.”

They Do Not Exist is also a moving representation of rootedness, in that Palestine is not simply real estate but it is home to a people who have lived there for many long centuries. The land as home veers away from an easy sort of nationalism which is a political construct; rather, homeland means the solidity of traditions, of history, and of a deep sense of belonging. In short, homeland is that which houses a people’s dreams, thoughts, aspirations and endeavors, so that life acquires meaning. There is a deep bond between geography and humanity. Thus, homeland is endurance, continuity and assurance. And it is this essential quality that Mustafa Abu Ali fully captures so poignantly.

This aspect of the homeland is further heightened in the film when the Palestinian struggle is placed within the wider context of anti-imperialism of the later 20th century, namely, South Africa, Mozambique, Vietnam, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Since this documentary follows the life itself of Palestine, tragedy is never far: the other filmmakers involved in making this film were killed not long after its completion, either in a bombardment or were shot by Israeli soldiers.

The film finally shows that the soul of a nation is impervious to bombs and bullets.