What it means to be Palestinian

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A new animated film The Tower by filmmaker Mats Grorud explores the Palestinian diaspora as seen through the eyes of Wardi, a young Palestinian girl who lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

The film is informed by Grorud’s own experiences working in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp, but also by the book What it Means to be Palestinian, by Dr Dina Matar, head of the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS University of London.

The Tower International Trailer 2018 from Tenk.tv on Vimeo.

Dina discusses both her book and the film:

How did you first come to write What it Means to be Palestinian?

“Following my PhD work on the Palestinian diaspora in the UK and their engagement with media and how this engagement might influence the ways they discussed their identities, experiences and memories, I wanted to extend the research to Palestinians in those countries and spaces affected by the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) of 1948.”

“Therefore, I decided to design a research project based on oral history and collective memory methods to address how Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Occupied Territories and Israel related to and thought about media in their everyday lives.”

“However, the interviews dictated the outcome, which ended as an oral history that highlights, without intervention, memories and experiences of ordinary Palestinians. The book is written in a chronological order, each chapter covering a particular period, beginning with stories about people’s lives just before and during the Nakba and ending with the Oslo agreement. In many ways, the book began with a particular research aim, but moved in a different direction altogether, thus providing an example of how research can complicate assumptions and generalisations about the people we research and the academic tendency to remain confined in interpretive frameworks that are often already set.  In the end, the outcome was a dense and intimate story of what it means to be Palestinian in the 21st century.”

Where did you collect the accounts of the people featured in the book?

“The research was conducted in the summer months of 2006, 2007 and 2008 during those times when I had no teaching commitments. I visited Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Occupied Territories and Israel and interviewed a total of 100 people of different age groups, gender and socio-economic background. I could not visit Gaza, given the siege, but I managed to interview Palestinians from Gaza in Lebanon, Jordan and in the UK. I spent time with people in their offices, homes and in public spaces as well as with families in homes, partaking in everyday activities while talking with them about what they remember most and what they care about.”

“I was humbled by their generosity and friendship and was always surprised by how eager they were to talk and have someone listen.”

“I commissioned one of my former MA students, Tanya Habjouqa (a well-known photojournalist) to take the photos of some informants; two of them have since died and many, particularly those in Syria, had become refugees again in different and difficult contexts. The cover was by another journalist, Rich Wiles, based in Bethlehem.”

How did Mats Grorud become aware of the book?

“Mats has been undertaking his own research to write the script for his film for over ten years. During this period, he came across the book What it Means to be Palestinian and used some of the stories for his script. Indeed, the film narrative structure is similar to the book, in the sense that it is a narrative of narratives; a collection of personal stories and memories of Palestinians in the Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. He wrote to me in June last year to say he had used three of the stories in my book for his script and needed copyright permission, which both I and my publisher gave. Since then, we have been exchanging emails and conversations. I also helped him in ensuring that all details were historically accurate.”

What is the idea behind The Tower?

The Tower is the story of 11-year old Wardi who lives in Bourj al-Barajneh camp and who has a very close relationship with her great grandfather Sidi. One day, realising he does not have much longer to live, he gives her the key to his house in Palestine, which he left in 1948 during the Nakba. He begins to tell her his story, which to a certain extent is based on one of those I interviewed in the section about the Nakba.”

“The ‘tower’ refers to the ways in which houses are constructed in the camp where, given the limited space, families tend to extend their homes upwards, vertically, towards the sky.”

“As she climbs up, Wardi meets other members of her family who tell her other stories until she reaches the top. It is a story of Palestinian lives over the past 70 years; a touching, moving, and uplifting story of humanity and humans making do in very trying conditions.  Of course, animation works here as it further humanises people, while the clever use of visuals and puppets, as well as still photographs that Mats collected during his year-long stay in the camp, enhance the aesthetics.”

How was the film received at its premiere at the 2018 Annecy Film Festival?

“I attended the premiere and the second screening at Annecy. At both occasions, Mats acknowledged my contribution ahead of screening and we both took part in a Q&A session after the second screening. The film was very well received, judging by the reviews in major publications.”

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