How is history relevant? How do we create visual representations of history that resonate with the present? How can archival film create de-colonised narratives that further our understanding of subaltern histories and experiences?
As a documentary filmmaker and researcher engaging with colonial archives I have been reckoning with these enquiries as I create archival films and representations of Palestinian women pre Nakba Palestine (1948 Palestinian Catastrophe). I am interested in pursuing archival film as a way to revive meanings of the past within colonised societies where local narratives have been lost and abandoned by “dominant” histories. Archival film in that sense may capture representations of history that respond to local -on the ground- needs for cultural expressions that locate the “missing” in lost knowledge. It also has potential to lead reflections on how the past is constructed and represented with a relevant lens to present times.
Archives are sites of memory and narrative in which states consolidate historical material in the form of documents and records, signifying their power to create and control knowledge and meaning about the past. Embedded in the politics of power, states compile, structure and categorise the archives to construct nationhood, shaping collective memory, national identity and history. Jacques Derrida writes in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, there is “no power without the control of the archives, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation” (Derrida, 4).
In practice, the archive is never neutral or objective. The archive often constitutes a record of a nation’s victory as well as brutality over another. Access to archival material and information is not always possible, particularly when search inquiries reach the cracks in the archive and undermine the politics and historical narrative of the state. This is no more true than when the researcher is searching the archive for subaltern histories. The archive in this context becomes a site of ongoing contestation where the researcher needs to be persistently critical of the exclusions and absences that the archive hold against the subaltern. Moreover, to search for subaltern history entails understanding the semantics and logic of the archive and its narrative, in order to locate the missing links. Derrida declares that the archives “store, accumulate, capitalize, stock a quasi-infinity of layers, of archival strata ... are at once superimposed, overprinted, and enveloped in each other. To read… requires working on substrates or under surfaces, old or new skins” (Derrida, 22). Thus, the task of the researcher in this condition becomes subversive and aims at excavating additional layers of knowledge and meaning generated through her search in the archive.
Searching the archives poses tremendous challenges to the researcher of the history of Palestine, let alone to the researcher working on the history of Palestinian women. A researcher would have to search in the scattered archives in historic Palestine (present day Israel) and the various localities of the Palestinian diaspora as well as in the UK, the US and other countries, to collect fragments of private and public records. On the other hand, the state of Palestinian national archive is as tenuous as the Palestinian State itself- both are non-existent. The researcher doing archival search on Palestine would have to visit Israeli archives. State, military and national Israeli archives hold overwhelming numbers of civil, military and security records that date to British colonial rule in Palestine.
These archives are not always accessible and they hold imbedded representations of erasures toward Palestinian history and its people. In my tackling of these challenges and in my process of locating the “missing” knowledge related to Palestinian women’s lives before 1948, Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Childhood Around 1900” became an inspiration for me. Benjamin eulogising a place and time gone by declares: “I, however, had something else in mind: not to retain the new but to renew the old. And to renew the old – in such a way that I myself, the newcomer, would make what was old my own- was the task of the collection that filled my drawer” (Benjamin, 156). Throughout the making of “The Silent Protest: 1929 Jerusalem”, the film I am presenting here, Benjamin’s words accompanied me. This film is a short documentary that follows a day in the life of the Palestinian women’s movement in 1929 under British mandate. The film creates a narrative from memoirs, personal letters, photographs, official records, news archives and oral history accounts, exploring the construction of Palestinian women’s history through film and the meanings of these constructs and representations in present time.
My archival search to make “The Silent Protest: 1929 Jerusalem” stems from my documentary film “Restored Pictures” about Karimeh Abbud (1893-1940), the first Palestinian female photographer in early 20th century Palestine. The personality of Karimeh Abbud led me to the feminist work of Matiel Moghannam, one of the women organisers of the Palestinian women’s movement in 1929. Moghannam in 1937 published her book The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem through Hyperion Press in Westport, Connecticut. In her book she documents the inauguration of the women’s movement in 1929. She informs her readers that on the day of the inauguration of the movement 200 woman participants endorsed the cancellation of the Balfour declaration and they protested British policy and rule against the Palestinian population in the country. Moreover, Moghannam informs us that the women organisers formed protest and media committees for addressing the organisation of protests and addressing media and press with regards to the political conditions in the country. The inauguration event concluded with a delegation of women sent to meet the British High Commissioner, John Chancellor and to present him with a statement including a number of demands that highlighted the extreme and inequitable treatment of Palestinians by the British in Palestine. This delegation of women then rejoined the rest of the inauguration event participants on a protest of cars that paraded the streets of Jerusalem calling against British mandate policy and rule in the country. The women delivered statements to foreign embassies and emissaries in Jerusalem. Women worked within the national framework and created a movement independent of nationalist male structures.
I believe the dismal conditions of global and local politics we are witnessing today not only trigger us to think of how our struggles and grievances as women are overlapping, but also of the urgent task of looking into the past through a lens of continuity in experience. Contemporary feminists in Palestine and elsewhere juggle various identities and balance affiliations based on class, religion, race and sexuality, very much similar to “early modern” feminists who also negotiated similar tensions while shaping their feminisms. Through my film works I wish to deepen our understanding of how social and political contexts shape women’s lives, historically and in present times. I am interested in the construction of imaginaries through film and in understanding practices of social justice and feminist liberation.
Benjamin, Walter, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2006.
Darrida, Jacques. The Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz. 1995; repr. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Mahasen Nasser-Eldin is PhD student at De Montfort University in the UK, pursuing practice-based research in archival film. She is a filmmaker whose films tell stories of resistance and resilience, crafting carefully researched and scripted narratives that restore new life to forgotten figures and celebrate those on the margins of society. Mahasen’s research focuses on the re/use of audio and visual archives in the writing of historical narratives through film. Her study is interdisciplinary and draws on different bodies of literature relating to archive practice, subaltern histories, transnational feminism and subjectivity.