The philosopher, the toilets and the boycott

September 6, 2011
Sarah Benton

Cannes ya ma Cannes Ramallah [Gone to Palestine.7]

Elliott Colla, Jadaliyya

We’d been invited to the Franco-German cultural center to see a film by a leftist Israeli filmmaker. The advance notice had said that “this was perhaps the most important film on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ever made.” It was endorsed by a couple of well-known intellectuals from abroad, and all its screenings at the Jerusalem Film Festival were sold out well in advance. I’d never seen his first film, which apparently was a autobiographical work that was “sort of interesting.” My friends said the director was a good guy, even if his films weren’t so great. “In any case, this was his first attempt at making a feature film. It’s based on a book of fiction he published.” Afterwards, there was going to be a discussion by a Balkan philosopher, said one of the ecstatic blurbers of the film. The two men had come to Israel for the festival and insisted on making a side trip to Ramallah as part of their trip.

The room was packed with people. Young directors, producers, actors all showed up. The city’s cultural elite were present, including the poet. We arrived so late we had to sit on the floor. It took a number of times for them to get the screening to work right. The first time, we watched the credits and opening scene in a VHS format, but there were only Russian subtitles. The center’s director put in the DVD format, which had Arabic subtitles, but no sound. It must have taken at least half an hour for them to fix the glitches.

Meanwhile, the director hurriedly explained why they were there, and how, paradoxically, their coming to Jerusalem actually honored the spirit of the boycott that Palestinian filmmakers had called for. It certainly was paradoxical. The director said that they had corresponded with the boycott committee in Ramallah and that together, they had come to an arrangement that would allow them to make “unofficial” presentations, thus participating in the film festival and honoring the boycott at one and the same time. As they announced at the beginning of the event, their insistence on twinning their appearance in Jerusalem with one in Ramallah was part of this arrangement. Coming to Ramallah, they said, was an act of solidarity with the many Palestinian filmmakers who were de facto excluded each year by the festival. The director looked into the crowd and nodded at the poet. He then declared that the story of the film was “inspired by the work Mahmoud Darwish. This is the Palestinian premiere of my film. I don’t expect all of you to like it. Its truth may make some of you feel uncomfortable. But it will make you think. I have no doubt about that.”

The lights went down and the film started. The story was about an American Jew named John who serves in the occupation army and accidentally shoots a Palestinian child. The trauma of committing murder induces a form of psychosis in John and he is sent to a mental hospital which just happens to be located on the ruins of Deir Yassin. The asylum is haunted, we find out, by the ghosts of the 1948 massacre—only the patients are able to see them and interact with them. At some point, John is healed by a Jewish doctor played by the Palestinian actor Makram Khouri, and then he returns to New York City where he strikes up a relationship with a beautiful Palestinian activist played by Makram Khouri’s real-life daughter, Clara. We couldn’t remember if her character was given a name, but it didn’t really matter either way. John and the Palestinian woman sleep together immediately. “The steamy sex scenes,” someone said, “will probably have an adverse effect on Clara Khouri’s career.” When Clara finds out that John has served in the occupation, she dumps him, and then the story gets completely incomprehensible after that. There are many other incidents, one involving a second Palestinian woman who works in a Tel Aviv rave disco and who may be a suicide bomber. Talking about it later, we realized there was also a father-son drama throughout much of the film, though we didn’t get it at the time. There was also a dog named after the philosopher, and there was a suicide, though what it all meant wasn’t so clear to us. “Why were no male Palestinian characters in the film?” Someone asked. It was a reasonable question.

In short, the film was a total disaster. It was embarrassing. The plot made no sense, except as a primer of Freudian sentimentalism. Its use of symbol was both muddled and heavy-handed. The film’s most coherent and troubling gesture was that John needed Palestinians. He needed Palestinians to help him “work through” the psychological trauma of being a liberal guy who happened to have killed Palestinians. He needed Palestinians to sleep with. And then he needed them again to absolve him of his sins. We wondered why the director thought the film would make Palestinians “think.” When the lights went on, nervous laughter and hushed comments prevailed. There was a short cigarette break after which, the director announced that now the philosopher would speak.

We decided to stay for the talk hoping that it would at least take the taste of the film out of our mouth. When we walked back in, we found the room now half empty. The poet and many others had left. The philosopher began by talking about how they had come in solidarity with the Palestinians and that he wasn’t going to patronize us with talk about how difficult the situation was. He wasn’t going to patronize Palestinians by telling them what to do, or what to think. He wasn’t going to patronize them by talking to them about their situation at all—since it belongs to Palestinians and they understand it better than anyone from outside. “What? Am I going to sit here and offer you my thoughts on the wall or military occupation? I won’t patronize you by talking about that. Moreover, it is patronizing to think that this is all you want me to come to speak about. I won’t do it. Instead, I want to talk about how we have to be willing to talk about other things altogether.”

He recalled an incident, back in the 1990s, when “a white upper-class English Marxist” had dared to tell him and other Yugoslavians about what to do, and that his speech had reflected more about his privilege than his understanding of Balkan history. He spoke at length about how the real problem was when people want to limit talking to talk only about “what to do.” People who insisted that we had to “do something” rather than “think something” did not help the crisis at all. He pointed out how those who want to insist on “doing something talk” usually started their sentences with phrases like, “While we’re talking here, outside there are people dying” or, “The situation outside this room is clear enough, there’s no reason for us to go on talking about it—it’s time to do something about it.” “The fact is, however, that these guys are talking when they say we need to stop talking and do something. So my point is this: we must come to understand the particular kind of discourse they engage in, the kind of speech that denounces thought and speech in favor of pure action. I reject this kind of speech, and I do not have to tell you people, who understand it better than I, how disingenuous it is.” It was the kind of thought that only a white upper-class English Marxist could think up.

It was interesting to see this man gesticulate wildly, to see him sweat and speak through his accent. To see him go on about why critical thinking mattered so much in the circumstances here. He said that the more people claimed that it was time to simply “do something,” the more important critical thought became, because it was the only way we would get beyond reactive politics, towards something more strategic and creative. “And that’s the only way you, and I hesitate to say this because I have told you that I did not come here to patronize you by telling you what to do, will get out of your current crisis.”

He then told a story about how his young son had seen the wall and wondered why it had been built. While this was going on, however, we became conscious that something was going on in the room. Many people got up and left, those who stayed were becoming as fidgety as the speaker. The people behind were asking each other why he was insisting so much that he was not patronizing, “What did he mean by saying that, and saying it so often?”

When I tuned back into the philosopher’s talk, he was now talking about how different kinds of toilets reflect the national identity of their makers. He explained how one could not shit into a French toilet without having it smear all over the porcelain. German toilets were designed with a shelf, so that the shitter could inspect it carefully, smelling it, testing its consistency and so on. When one shitted in a British toilet, it simply disappeared down a hole, never to be seen again. This revealed much about different national styles of philosophical inquiry, “The French style is to take something and explode it inside out, not caring where the pieces land. The German style is empirical and methodical—poking and sniffing, leaving nothing unexplored, no matter how difficult or unsavory. The British style is elegant and economical, and never involves getting your hands dirty.” There was a pause, then he added, “Americans toilets are designed to catch the shit and make it float. What does that say about American philosophy?” For the first time, people in the audience laughed. I don’t recall what else he said that night, but he went on and on, and eventually we began to warm up to him. We were enthralled by this strange performance that, as promised, had nothing to do with this place or this situation. It was clear there was no script for his talk, and he stopped only when the director of the center interrupted him and announced that people were waiting for another film that was scheduled to be screened in the same room.

The event fizzled out just as it had started. Everyone was invited downstairs for wine and sweets, and, if people wished, they could set up chairs and the philosopher would continue his excursus. The wine was from the old monastery in Bethlehem—Cremisan. I helped myself instead to some of the sweets set out on crystal platters, and walked outside. The philosopher was already going again in the café area, surrounded by a growing number of people attracted by his wit and frenetic energy. Someone wryly asked him about how Montenegrins shat. I didn’t get to hear his answer but it made the room laugh hysterically. I rejoined our group who were now speaking to an older Palestinian man, a director of some fame.

Darwish directed a series of PLO-funded films from the early 1970s. He was a pioneer—his shorts that dealt with the armed struggle, first in Jordan, then in Lebanon, were critical documents for any student of the period. More than that, each film text experimented with a particular element of cinematography. They may have all focused on the armed resistance, but the first one was really “about” framing, the second montage, the third sound, and so on. These films had long been forgotten save by old comrades and an enthusiastic group of recent devotees. When I found out that he’d studied at the Moscow Institute, I asked him about Sonallah and Malas, and he told me how they’d all been there together. I asked if he’d worked with Godard in Jordan, “Yes! How’d you guess? I was his production assistant. He was there for only a few months, but while he was here, he worked. He never rested. I’ve never seen that sort of ethic. After what happened, he didn’t know what to do for a couple years with all that footage.” Only later did someone tell me I had been asking the wrong questions.

Mustafa had returned, like so many others, when Oslo opened the door. In 2000 he found out that that door had shut behind him at some point. If he left, there would be no coming back to Palestine during his lifetime. He was working on a film at the moment, the script was ready, the schedule was ready, the budget was ready, the actors were cast. “But, you know, European producers are terrified to work with us. Sundance won’t work with Palestinians unless there are also Israelis involved. It’s so much easier for everybody to work with these lefty Israelis instead. The funny thing is, I read about all these lefty Israeli directors, they’re everywhere. Tel Aviv is filled with them. Jerusalem is filled with them. New York and London are filled with them. Every international film festival is filled with them. My question is this: Where are the right-wing Israeli filmmakers? You’d think that with all this lefty filmmaking, there wouldn’t be an occupation anymore.”

At that point, one of our friends came up and told us that she’d contacted her friends on the boycott committee to verify what the director had said. She’d gotten suspicious when no one from the committee had turned up for tonight’s event. It turns out, she said, that he had in fact contacted them the month before. But they’d disagreed with his reasoning about the festival. Nor did they think much of his idea to come to Ramallah to compensate for breaking the boycott. As I listened to this news, I wondered what exactly had just transpired right now. The whole experience of the evening—the film, the philosophical rants—melted back into nonsense. I bit into the sweets on my plate.

I didn’t notice what was happening until I heard the splitting crunch in my molars. I assumed that there was some pistachio shell in the baklava, and spit out the food onto a napkin. Only then did I realize that I’d been biting into glass, not nutshells. I ran inside to the bathroom, gagging, wondering how much glass I’d swallowed. I spit out bits of pastry and nuts and syrup and blood into the sink. Someone else walked in and joined me. One of the platters had broken, and glass had gotten into the food. The caterers began to throw it away only after a number of us had taken pieces to eat.

The cuts were not too deep, but they were painful and bled quite a bit. By the time I walked out of the bathroom, the crowd had gone home. The director and the philosopher and their entourage had gotten into their van and headed back to Jerusalem. My friends were waiting, wondering what had happened.

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