Film Fest: Women in Struggle

Someone try to tell me again how there aren't Arab feminists. I've got this movie and a book for you.
Someone try to tell me again how there aren’t Arab feminists. I’ve got this movie and a book for you.

Gemma: I have several places I could start with this one. 1) THIS is how you do a microbudget aesthetic. 2) This film turned out much bleaker than I could have anticipated from its beginning, and that seemed right. 3) “Political life alone is very dry, with no humanity.”

Rasha: This was not the roughest documentary I’ve seen – so far, that’s been reserved for what I’ve seen coming out of Syria– but this was emotionally harder and yes, in ways that are not advertised by the title “Women in Struggle”. And still, I found myself wishing there was more after the 56 minutes were over. I felt very grateful to hear these women’s voices. I know you were skeptical about the title.

G: I was very skeptical about the title, and I found it much more honest than that title implied, to me. It made me think there would be a Budrus-y Happy Ending, and it was much more complex and unsettling.

Some of the context.
Some of the context.

R: I think the title comes out of its own context, and I think we are used to hearing the word struggle more often that we’re used to seeing actual struggle depicted. I appreciated Rawda’s words about marriage as a “personal struggle” and how she wasn’t sure after being involved in political struggle that she was ready to engage in such an intimate struggle in addition. It’s so quick in the film, and her words just gesture at the larger social context in which these women are taking roles.

G: Relative to the film’s length as a whole, I actually thought they spent a lot of time on that moment. That’s a good way to put it re: struggle. We’re used to—or at least, I’m used to—the word “struggle” simply being another way to name social injustice. I felt like this movie really wanted to portray the pull—the true damage it does to individuals, the social context in which those individuals continue to live.

R: What does the struggle look like after you feel like you’ve lost the struggle? I didn’t realize that Rasmea Odeh was one of the women featured in this documentary. I’ve been following her case here and signing petitions, but this film adds whole other layers of context to the confession she made under torture. Damn.

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Watch this film and tell me if you think any confession made under the conditions she describes could ever be considered valid. No, y’all.

G: I have not been following her case here, I’ll need to look it up. She struck me as the one who retained the most fire in the film.

R: Well, yes, she’s been organizing here in the U.S. until she was targeted for discriminatory deportation. Dude, I wish it didn’t sound like some kind of brain teaser to ask: where do you deport a stateless person to?

G: Something I thought about while I was watching it was the friendships, the depth of the connections between the women whenever they appeared on camera together, even as the film made clear that each one has landed in a completely different place as a result of this shared resistance and torture.

R: Seeing them sing together and remember old jokes they told each other in prison to keep their spirits up was maybe the most awesome part of the film. For all the folks that thought the old lady sharp-shooting seed-saving motorcycle gang in Mad Max: Fury Road was awesome, I think they need to watch this film. Sometimes badass old ladies wear unassuming casual pantsuits, and we need to be ready to meet them.

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G: Yes, the filmmaker (Khoury) was clearly playing up that contrast.

R: I’ll have to look back at the funding, but to your comment about microbudget—I actually thought of The Gatekeepers more than The Zionist Story when I was watching this. Khoury’s choice to use no narrative other than the women’s voices in interview and in transit, and the very few moments when she asks questions from behind the camera, are used to great effect. The craft of the story gave the due gravity and lightness—I wish Milan Kundera hadn’t titled a book using the phrase “unbearable lightness” because that’s the kind of contrast that comes up for me in watching this.

G: That is a good phrase for it. I thought it struck a good balance among a lot of the films we’ve watched, in terms of presence of the filmmaker vs. invisibility. She makes her existence quite clear in that moment with the soldier at the beginning, when the dialogue takes place in camera-blackness, and when Rawda refers explicitly to her presence upon going back to visit her old apartment. So she doesn’t have the invisibility of filmmaker whose name I’m forgetting in Gatekeepers, or Bacha in Budrus. But she’s taking the narrowness of her scope and making it incisive and potent.

R: Well, I was going to say that she doesn’t have the option to be invisible as a Palestinian woman filmmaker trying to film in Israel & Palestine. Her presence and the reaction of soldiers or potential people to interview is inflected with all the choices and strategies of living under conditions of occupation.

The filmmaker becomes most visible through the policing of her filmmaking.
The filmmaker becomes most visible through the policing of her filmmaking.

G: Yes, and she uses that. She will tell the stories of these women, she will place them in the context of more “conventional” forms of female resistance, and we as viewers will take from that what we will.

R: When you say “conventional” forms, do you mean domestic sites like streets and kitchens and cars and living rooms?

Women are still locked in struggle.
Women are still locked in struggle.

G: Yes. I’m thinking of all the interviews with the mothers and aunts outside of the prison, and then the immediate juxtaposition of their presence with our three central women talking about their anti-occupation work, or even more explicitly Rawda and her mother. Khoury spends a lot of time on Rawda’s discussion of her mother and her sister-in-law baking for the resistance fighters, with Rawda clearly endorsing the importance of that, while making it clear that ain’t what Rawda herself was doing at that time.

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R: What do you take from that? I saw it as using current conditions to show a continuing narrative—she’s filming today the same kinds of things that were happening when these women were in prison—something she doesn’t have footage of, but it sounds like you’re seeing something else.

G: Oh, I saw what you mentioned in addition. Again, this is what I liked about this filmmaker: she had such a light hand, wasn’t telling us what to think. But I also saw that she was setting up women who were directly involved in bombings, women who were on … I hesitate to say “the front lines,” but I’m not coming up with a good term … as unusual, as set apart in their social context. Almost playful with the title.

R: I hesitate to receive it as playful. I sense the title comes from a place of respect. I found myself thinking of The Weather Underground documentary. I’d have to look up when it was filmed to know if it was before. It’s significant to me that Aysheh mentions the PFLP early on, given the tendency of narratives to take on the side of either international activists or Fatah/the PA. I found myself wondering why Leila Khaled wasn’t interviewed in that case, but there could be many reasons for that.

G: Oh, I don’t mean disrespectful, and yes, it was very similar to that documentary in a lot of ways. But I do mean that there seemed to be an almost-established image of what a “woman in struggle” should be, and our central women did not fit that image. Khoury was deliberately using that term and that juxtaposition to create a complex picture.

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R: I see: A woman’s place is in the struggle. Well, we see Rawda sitting with her mother and they are both wiping their eyes talking about her experience of being in prison and being ashamed that she didn’t take into account all that her mother had to go through just to visit her and the effect that the culture of fear would have on her family in the outside world. Neither position becomes the privileged position in the struggle.

G: Same way she was using the film on the TV screen at the beginning, about Djamila Bouhired, the Algerian resistance fighter from the mid-century. But yes, “neither position becomes the right one” was Khoury’s strength. She’s a real storyteller.

R: She’s got two other films.

G: Ooh, and this was her first! I was thinking about the questions that you listed when we discussed Zionist Story, and I realized that I’m inherently irritated with films that have theses. I like films that have themes instead. This was one, and Five Broken Cameras was one. And I consider them diametrically opposed ways to make documentaries, thesis versus theme.

R: Yeah, I hear you. When I’m watching films about a brutal occupation that’s turned into an ongoing humanitarian crisis, I don’t think I’m ready to say that “I like” any of these documentaries. In some ways, I’m glad that they all exist—with the exception of Waltz with Bashir, which I could have done all the way without. I think that even where people go for a thesis, they end up making a documentary that repudiates their position by virtue of all it leaves out. One thing that I do appreciate about Women in Struggle even existing is that it rebutts the Fox News idea that there are no Arab feminists/womanists.

Aysheh has no time for such trifling.
Aysha has no time for such trifling.

G: YESSS to the second part. Again, with the same grace. She rebuts it without making that rebuttal her primary goal. I am ready to say that I like them, as I can like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States better than Bill O’Reilly’s book about killing Lincoln or whatever. I’m not claiming it’s the only mode of criticism that’s germane to these films, but how they engage different individual viewers matters. And I can definitely be glad something exists without thinking it defined its capacity well or filled itself to that capacity.

R: Do we have closing thoughts?

G: The only other note I wanted to bring up was I noted the intimacy of the filmmaking. This was definitely an insider-to-insider film.

R: Yes, and the translation was rough. There were definitely some words that I think I would have translated differently. It doesn’t change the overall film, but yes, there are a lot of groups, events, etc. that don’t get discussed in depth because there’s an assumption that a viewer has some basic or even deep knowledge.

G: I always wonder about the translations, what’s being missed. For a viewer like me, I find that assumption powerful, because it opens up my need for knowledge without inviting me to get into a fight (which was what I felt Zionist Story was doing, what Michael Moore basically does). But I get that that isn’t a universal reaction.

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R: I’m glad to have this film to consider along with Five Broken Cameras and Budrus, which are focused on nonviolent resistance. Aysha’s quote—this occupation didn’t begin with negotiations and nonviolent protest, so it seems unrealistic to expect that such an occupation ends through those means alone—and her story about her niece reciting a poem that brought 7 generals to her cell because the sound of the word “Palestine” in the mouth of a child was too threatening, stand in dynamic tension for me. I hold them both uncomfortably and I long for the hope she says that moment gave her.

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G: My brain is still full of parallels to anti-apartheid activism in South Africa; I have a hard time shaking it now.

R: Maybe you shouldn’t try.

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