Artist in focus: Michel Khleifi

“What we see on the screen, or in any picture representing the solidity of Palestinians in the interior, is only that, a utopian image making possible a connection between Palestinian individuals and Palestinian land.” It has been thirty years since Edward Said wrote this passage on Michel Khleifi’s first film, Fertile Memory (1980). For Said, the film managed, with astonishing precision and beauty, to call up the memory of his own mother and all those who have had their land seized by the Israeli state. In seeing the moment when one of the women portrayed sets foot on her own land that has been 'repossessed’ by Israelis but that she stubbornly refuses to sell, Said was reminded of how separated he was from the experience of an interior that he could himself not inhabit. “At once inside and outside our world” was how he described the experience of exile, one that Michel Khleifi himself is not unfamiliar with. In September 1970, Khleifi left the city of Nazareth in Galilee and found a refuge in Brussels, where he devoted himself to the art of cinema. It was only a decade later that he returned to the place of his birth to shoot Fertile Memory, the first full-length film ever to be shot within the disputed West Bank ‘Green Line’. It portrays the lives of two women bearing the weight of a double occupation: both the burden of Israeli domination and the restrictions of patriarchal society. By showing the lived complexity of life under occupation, in all its contradictions and its singularities, Khleifi’s film marked an important shift in the history of Palestinian cinema, one that he would explore further in his subsequent work. Rather than conforming to images of internal homogeneity and external Manicheism, such widely celebrated films as Wedding in Galilee (1987) and Route 181 (2003, made in collaboration with Eyal Sivan) continued to re-envision Palestine-Israel as a heteroglossic multiplicity of trajectories set out by individuals who manage to lift their thoughts and efforts to meet the challenges and violences imposed on them.

The films by Michel Khleifi (°1950) that are being shown in this program bear the traces of the turbulent times that Palestine-Israel has gone through in the past decades. Fertile Memory was finished just before the Lebanon war broke out, Wedding in Galilee was released shortly before the beginning of the First Intifada, and Route 181 was made right after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which led to the siege of Gaza and the construction of the West Bank barrier. Today, violence is once again on the rise and a solution seems to be further away than ever. As the continuity of land increasingly disappears from the lives of Palestinians, and narratives claiming the inevitability and irreversibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gain ever more traction, could Michel Khleifi’s ‘utopian images’ still have something to say?

"Dans la troupe lasse des cinéastes arabes qui se sont usés à concilier art et engagement, Michel Khleifi fait figure de petit dernier romantique, voire utopiste, qui pense qu’il faut filmer. Il lui a suffi de tenir bon sur un seul point: la fonction d’un cinéaste n’est pas de faire de la propagande, mais de poser un regard juste sur une situation et des personnages justes." (Serge Daney, 1987)