Monday, June 17, 2013

Occupied Palestine, an Interview with David Koff

On June 5th 2013, at the Jerusalem Fund, I had the luck to watch the documentary by David Koff “Occupied Palestine”. This documentary was one of the best I watched about the colonization of Palestine.

Koff’s documentary offers an analysis of the Israeli occupation that is still today rare to find. The documentary is interesting to watch because it gives a visual representation to what the Palestinian scholars Walid Khalidi and Rosmary Sayigh have written in the 1970s. Koff in his documentary presents the Zionist project of the conquest of Palestine. It is close to Walid Khalidi’s work because it debunks the Zionist myth stating that Palestinians chose to leave. The documentary shows that they were forced to because of the extreme violence used by the Haganah. It is close to the work of Rosemary Sayigh because it shows how Palestinian peasants, deprived from their land, decided to resist. It explains therefore how the resistance in Palestine started from the bottom up.
The documentary does not leave out any aspect of the Israeli occupation. It shows how Israel steals water from the Palestinians, how villages and houses were and are destroyed by the Israeli and how Palestinians are imprisoned arbitrarily. It also mentions the tortures in prison, for instance, how some prisoners are force-fed
The documentary was first shown in 1981 at the San Francisco festival. A few minutes into the documentary, the building where the film was shown received a bomb threat and had to be evacuated. This documentary could have been the call of conscience for many individuals sympathetic to Israel. The rampant occupation of Palestine might have been stopped if individuals around the world saw images of the Zionist colonial project at the end of the 1970s. Koff’s documentary is still relevant today because it shows that contrary to what leaders and medias are asserting and have asserted, Israel never had any good attention, and that from the beginning, it was a vast colonial project. 

US Campaign: Why was your documentary not shown in other festivals across the United States after the San Francisco festival of 1981? What were the justifications that were given to you to justify it?

David Koff (DK): At the time the film was released, in the early 1980s, there was little public knowledge in the U.S. of the Palestinian movement and the resistance of Palestinians to colonization and occupation. Because the film doesn’t shrink from the realities of the confrontation between Zionism and the Palestinian resistance it was considered “controversial” and beyond the limits of reasonable discourse.  So, for example, when the film had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1981, the screening was interrupted for more than an hour by a bomb threat. The consequences of that were immediately manifest when a theater-owner in San Francisco who had shown my previous films, and who came to the premiere with the intention of doing the same with Occupied Palestine, told me afterwards he would not show it.  I had a similar experience in London, where another theater owner, who compared the film to The Battle of Algiers, also refused to program it. Both these reactions were driven, in my opinion, by fear of audience reactions and public opinion.

US Campaign: Why did you not try to show your documentary after a certain amount of time? Was your documentary censored in the United States? 

DK: The film was not formally “censored” in the US because there was no “official” attempt to suppress it by the state or state agencies. It was effectively censored, however, by the unwillingness of distributors to represent or show it. One major distributor of films in the US refused to represent the film on the basis of the title alone - “I don’t have to see it,” he said, “to know we don’t want to have it in our catalog.” 

The film has been shown over the years on a limited basis in the U.S., mostly on college campuses where it has been used by instructors and more often by student organizations active in Middle East political issues. A shorter version of the film was shown on some public television stations in the U.S. in 1986 but the major stations in New York and Washington DC refused to air it. Depriving the audiences in those cities of a chance to see the film was definitely a form of censorship.

US Campaign: Why did you decide to make this documentary about Palestine?

DK :Long before I began making films I was a student of colonialism and national resistance. I had lived and worked in Africa and had traveled around the world observing and writing about colonialism and independence movements. The first films I made were in Africa, focused on African resistance to colonial rule.  I had always had an interest in Israel, having grown up in a Jewish (but not Zionist) home, and by the late 1970s I wanted to learn more about what was actually happening on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories.  I realized that the Palestinian experience of Zionism was missing from much of what was written, and almost completely absent from what was shown on the cinema screen. When I set out to make the film in 1979 it was soon after the Camp David Accords. There was a lot of talk about ‘land for peace’ and the possibility of resolving the conflict. I wanted to make a film that went beyond the current events and paid attention to the deeper currents that drove the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians.

When you went to Palestine in the late 1970s did you remember which American companies were present? Which ones were benefiting from the Israeli Occupation?

DK:In the film itself you see a Mack earth moving truck and a Caterpillar tractor.

US Campaign: According to the Guardian, you stated that you were surprised that your documentary was shown. Why were you surprised?

DK: I wasn’t so much surprised that the 2013 London Palestine Film Festival decided to show Occupied Palestine, but rather that the organizers of the festival chose to feature it for the opening night Gala. I had hoped the film would simply be selected to be shown during the festival. This was a courageous decision on the part of the festival directors, given that the film was made more than thirty years ago. However, I think their decision was validated by the excitement the film generated and by the audience response at two separate screenings. The festival program called the film “trailblazing,” a “tour de force” and “a singular work of engaged filmmaking.” There was a vigorous Q&A with the audiences after the screenings, and there was also a substantial amount of media coverage.