Shifting Roles (A Conversation with Azza El Hassan)

By Nat Muller, 23 October 2002

Nat Muller talks to Palestinian filmmaker Azza El Hassan. Based in Ramallah since 1996 her films include The Place, Sinbad is a She, Title Deed from Moses, Arab Women Speak Out and News Time.

Palestinian filmmaker Azza El-Hassan (1971-) grew up in Lebanon and Jordan and moved to Ramallah in 1996. She holds an MA from Goldsmith College (London) in Television Documentary Film. Her films include The Place, Sinbad is a She, Title Deed from Moses, Arab Women Speak Out and News Time.This interview was conducted during the Ars Electronica festival (7-12 September 2002) whose theme was 'Unplugged: Art as the Scene of Global Conflicts'. I spoke to Azza El-Hassan after the screening of her film News Time (2001), which tells a personal narrative of the impact of the current intifadah (uprising) on neighbourhood life in Ramallah. Besides Azza herself, the film features her landlord and his wife, Abu Khalil and Umm Khalil, and four neighbourhood kids — Nidal, Kifah, Shadi and Fadi. News Time is nominated for the Grieson award in the category New Comers. Whilst commemorating the grim anniversary of the second intifadah [1] News Time tries to negotiate and voice a much needed subject position for the Palestinian people.

NM: In your text for the Ars Electronica catalogue you point out that the crisis situation in Palestine demotes you from being an artist to being an informer (telling the world). What is the difference between a filmmaker from Ramallah and a Japanese film crew for example?

AH: I think that the essential difference between a Japanese film crew and me is that they go seeking the story, and I don’t. The reason I am talking about it is because it is disturbing my immediate and personal surroundings. So it is a personal story. The political context becomes a sub-narrative or a background image to the disturbing effect that is present within the immediate. So I think the difference is great, but it is still different from the idea of the informer; the informer is another issue. It is one of the biggest dilemmas if you find yourself in a situation where there’s great injustice: you’re immediately forced into a certain role, which is in many ways a one-dimensional one. You become ‘the narrator’ of a great story. You have to tell the world what is happening to your people. It is a role that is exhausting and it is also definitely a limiting role artistically. You want to be an artist, the things shouldn’t be so black and white, but in an extreme situation, they do become black and white. To resolve this you end up continuously negotiating your role and perception in order to maintain a distance, and this is very difficult. An additional thing is that the minute people say documentary they assume you should be objective, and I am not objective. This is the first thing. The second thing is that I am not really interested in being honest: for example in News Time certain scenes are staged. I want to tell a story and these are the techniques I use. In my work I am shifting continuously from traditional documentary to something else.

NM: What struck me very much about News Time is its aesthetics: it’s very rough with jump cuts, as if it was done very quickly, and you had to get it out instantly.

AH: News Time, I had to get out really fast, but if you look at my new project A Cathartic Act, you will find a similar treatment of the material. I am dealing with an irrational abnormal situation, so I can’t find easy cuts to be an answer. The whole situation is rough, so I think the rough cutting is only part of it. The other thing you find in News Time, is that only in the final scene it moves into a traditional mainstream type of editing. In the beginning I am trying to resist the main narrative of war and escape it. But in the end of the film I give up because war does take over every aspect of our lives. So the cutting changes in the end of the movie.

NM: You seem yourself to have a prominent role as filmmaker within the film: you are not a disembodied entity, but an active agent, stepping into the frame. How do you view your position in News Time?

AH: In a way I think the narrative was as much about constructing the kids, as it was about constructing myself at the same time. We are all trying to find a rationale to survive an irrational state of being. In the film you observe me and the kids making a really hard effort to keep some structure in our lives. I, similar to my characters, am shifting roles: I become an object of war; whilst at the same time I am trying to make a film.

NM: Do you think that the current generation of the second intifadah differs in its relationship to media than your generation, of the first intifadah?[2]

AH: I only moved to Palestine five years ago, so I didn’t live through the first intifadah, and hence cannot compare. I am a Palestinian, but six million Palestinians are living outside of Palestine as refugees. An instance I do remember from my student years in Britain, is that during the first intifadah the Israeli ambassador was asked about the horrific TV images about the violence of the Israeli army towards the Palestinian civilians. He answered that the problem was that Palestinians were too photogenic: they look good on camera. This is of course a very racist way to talk about the Palestinian image...What I can tell you though, is how the media affected my work in News Time. As I began filming, I discovered that practically every corner in my town had been featured on a news network. Ramallah and its people have been engraved in the viewers’ mind. My challenge became to shoot Ramallah as my main location in a way that does not resemble the news: How do I film people in a way that they look more real, and are more than just subjects for observation? In News Time I dedicated a whole sequence to journalists and media people for whom – as I mention in the film – we dress up to look in our element. They seem to be silent observers to a horrific state of being.

NM: In News Time you very much address the issue of being gazed upon: perhaps you could elaborate a bit more on what it means to be(come) a spectacle for the international media, and how you offer a different gaze?

AH: In many ways I think the problem starts when a reflection of a nation’s own identity develops to be the media perception of it. You have to remember that Palestinians, just like the rest of the world, watch the world news and learn about themselves from the latter. This is very damaging, especially if the reporting makes no attempt to preserve the nation’s dignity due to the over-emphasis of bloody images or a lack of insight into what is happening.I try to offer a different gaze in my work. News Time had no substantial funding, so what actually happened – and you remember that in the first scene you see me watching TV – is that I found myself stuck in the house with no work because everything was put on hold, and I was watching what was happening outside my door. So I started shooting my neighbourhood, and as I was filming I was trying to resist this [stereotypical mediatised] image. But I think that sometimes I reproduce it and step out of it again; I think I was trying to negotiate how to escape it, how to get out of this setting, but I don’t think I succeeded very well. I am not talking in terms of the narrative, but in terms of escaping this international gaze. But I suppose when the film is shown in festivals, and the audience can see ‘them’ gazing at ‘us’, it does raise a set of questions. So maybe the result comes with the actual watching, rather than within the film itself.

NM: Usually the mediatised image we have of Palestinian youngsters is quite different from how you depict them: sitting in their classrooms, and being passive and sad. We have almost an inverted image of them: they are active, they are shahid [martyr], they are outside and aggressive, and they have dreams, namely that one collective dream of revenge and becoming shahid, whilst your boys when asked about their dreams, reply to have none. Is this a dreamless generation?

AH: It is not only the youngsters, but it is all of us. The whole world might be suffering from the collapse of ‘a vision’ but we have a huge problem, because in the Palestinian case it becomes magnified, since we’re in a crisis situation. So it all becomes aimless. The only truth is that there is injustice, but where do we go from there? It is not visible, there’s no international proposition, and in that regard also no Palestinian proposition.

NM: Is it a usual phenomenon, as we see in the film, for kids from other places and refugee camps, to come to Ramallah to ‘seek action’?

AH: Well one thing about this intifadah is that it is a refugee camp intifadah. You won’t find city boys or kids coming from rural areas at the checkpoints; it’s the refugees who are going there. They are the unwanted ones, who no one wishes to talk about or wants to solve their problems, so they seek the checkpoints. Reality is so dim: they are unemployed, so this does become the only form of excitement.

NM: There’s a particular moment in News Time I found very confronting: you film this very well-known media image of Muhammad Al-Dura and his father [3] caught in crossfire which is stuck on a huge billboard, and it says surprisingly enough in English, not in Arabic, ‘A Palestinian tale … to be continued.’ You are telling your own Palestinian tale, was this a conscious strategy, and what does this image mean to you?

AH: First I want to note that it’s the Israeli version to say that Muhammed Al-Dura was caught in crossfire. The Palestinian version says that only one side was shooting…To go back to your question, you have to keep in mind that this film was done in the beginning of the intifadah. Today you have these posters all over town. Yet, in the beginning it was a complete shock to see faces of dead people plastered everywhere, so this is why I concentrated on them in this film. What’s interesting about ‘A Palestinian tale’ is that everything becomes an exhibition: this was done in English for the journalists to see, and is not meant for the Palestinians. However, the reason I filmed it was that I was intrigued how the children [the neighbourhood kids in News Time] were going to react to it. We arrived there, and the only thing the kids did was count the bullets. But you know what is most disturbing? When you realise how small Ramallah is … the chance of you walking around and knowing the faces on the posters is very high. They’re not strangers, you know them … this is the son of X … it is such a disturbing reality.

NM: Could you elaborate a bit on your new project A Cathartic Act?AH: This is the working title; it will not be the title of the film. The plot of the film, which was actually also how the film really started, centres around three different people coming up to me and asking me to do a film about them. This is quite bizarre because usually the filmmaker looks for the story. So this made me think that there’s this obsession with needing to talk, needing to tell. Maybe it’s our way to find a psychiatrist. So this is actually how it developed. But what’s an interesting detail is that all the three stories are related to parents, and all three characters are from my generation. The first story is about two sisters who want to do a film about their mother before she dies, and the mother is a lovely woman, but she put them in an orphanage at a certain period of her life, because she didn’t have enough time to fight the Israelis and take care of the children. The second story is the story of the daughter of a hijacker. She is very angry with her father, not because he hijacked a plane, but because he died while doing so. In the film she tries to make peace with this. Since in the first and second story I was ‘used’, in the last story I play an active role and decide myself who gets to use me. I go to Lebanon in an attempt to help a woman to communicate with her relatives in Palestine. Here the film takes a strange turn when the relatives refuse to communicate with her. I think the first story engenders the feeling that Palestine is in a way a curse because it is affecting all our lives. The second story is a contemplation on how we are dealing with it, and how much we are losing in the process: fighting is not priceless, you pay a very high price. And in the last story you realise that all generations are still stuck within the same story. It’s an 80 mins long documentary and I am very excited about finishing it, which should happen soon. It’s interesting because I think this film is going to be problematic for both Arabs and Westerners alike. Maybe we can have consensus at last [laughing]. I think within Palestinian culture there would be a difficulty with the generation gap problems the film is addressing: this is not the time to talk about these matters, this is the time to fight. For the West, I think it touches on lots of unspoken issues, like for example the fact that a hijacker’s daughter could be hurt because her father is absent. In a way, the hijacker’s daughter’s discussion with me is different … If she would be talking to a Westerner she wouldn’t express herself so explicitly. She reclaims me to her world. She says to me: ‘You’re like me, even if you don’t think you are.’ So any outsider looking at this becomes a peeping tom; she sets the boundaries of who is allowed to be part of the discussion.

NM: Which position do you yourself take in this film?

AH: This is my sixth film, and I appear in all my films. In this one I am also part of the narrative, but I change roles. In the first story, I am trying to discover the mother with her children (who are in their 30’s), and at the same time I don’t want to bully her, so I am like her child. In the second story I become more of a doctor who is helping the other person to perform this cathartic act. And in the last one, I become a tool that they use.

NM: How do you feel about politics entering the realm of art and the aestheticisation of politics, which might eventually lead to a minimisation of political impact.

AH: I do not think that this should necessarily lead to a minimisation of the political impact. I think the danger lies in the practice of sensualising misery, which naive art might do. Or by trying to pretend that the various discourses [political and aesthetical] at work are equal players in a grand global world, I think one sees that a lot nowadays.

NM: How does the situation in Ramallah affect your practice; can you actually work?

AH: To be honest, for the past six months it has been impossible, it has been hell. I went to Jordan to edit A Cathartic Act because there are continuous curfews, so stores are open only for two hours, you run and get your food and then get back to your house. It’s a situation where you end up feeling as if you’re an animal because you become very much in touch with your basic instincts: I need to eat, I need to do this, I need to get that. It is becoming completely unbearable, and though claims have been made that no Palestinians have left, the truth is that 2% left, which are the highest educated. The ones who are stuck are the ones who have no choice. I can’t see where this can lead. So of course it is affecting my work. Picture this: you can only film when the curfew is lifted for a couple of hours.


1. The second intifadah, also known as the Al-Aqsa intifadah was sparked on 28 September by, then right-wing party (likud) opposition leader now prime minister, Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

2. The 1987-1993 uprising that led to interim peace agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.

3. Muhammad Al-Dura and his father were caught in cross-fire at Netzarim junction on 30 September 2000; the 12-year old boy was fatally struck in the abdomen. Ever since Muhammad Al-Dura has become the posterchild of the second intifadah, and not only symbolises the suffering of children, but also the gruesome role of the media..

[with thanks to Ursula Hentschlaeger for the title suggestion and Guy van Belle for the pix]