The Effect Of Violence

Azza El-Hassan is a freelance documentary filmmaker who lives and works in Ramallah, Palestine. She was born into a Palestinian family in 1971 in Amman, Jordan. She began her film career at an Arab television station and in 1996 moved to Palestine, where she made her first documentary film.

You made a documentary Zaman Al-Akba (News Time)1 on the empty streets of Ramallah. At that time all the people that you wanted to work with were too busy reporting the situation in Ramallah, which had been deteriorating daily since the Intifada. You pointed your camera at the ghost town with its deserted streets, which challenged you to extract some beauty from them. Why didn’t you join them?
If you mean why didn’t I join the news crews, well I couldn’t. In fact in my film I have a whole sequence dedicated to “News Reporters” who come from all over the world to film us because they think we make good news. I did not belong to them, I belonged to the people who were being filmed, to the subject matter itself. As a subject for news I felt that daily news headlines were damaging my psychology. Suddenly watching world news became an act of watching how Palestinian deaths were being de-humanised. A televised human tragedy was unveiling and I, and everybody who mattered to me was part of it. I wished to resist a time in which news becomes a way of defining a nation’s identity and being. This is why I did a documentary entitled News Time.
In my film I wished to capture life’s small details that were being destroyed by war and by media reflection on life in Ramallah. Yet, I soon discovered that I was making a film about the various layers of death. My film characters were all negotiating with death. Some with a cynical approach, others with a fearful one.

Do you think that it is important to try to keep up an artistic, creative work that is not involved in fighting?
If we are going to talk in a very detached way about wars, well, I think art is in many ways about extreme feelings and situations. On the other hand, war is by nature an extreme situation of being, in which everything is intensified. Themes about life and death become stronger than ever in a state of war; hence, it can lead to producing a strong art. The question is: can you, when you are part of a war situation, produce an entity that needs reflection and thoughts?
I think this is the challenge for an artist who is existing in an extreme situation. It is about the ability to find a space for him/herself in which they can step out of the immediate extreme surroundings and be able to reflect, and hence produce an art that is not merely a reaction to an extreme state of being. Yet, finding this space within is, I believe, usually very difficult because the public does take over the private in war situations.

Would you describe your films as political?
No. In my work I usually talk about a disturbed space or disturbed individuals. The cause of the disturbance in my hero’s/heroine’s life is usually motivated by the fact that the public “national” situation is taking over their personal life details. In all my documentary films I am part of the narrative because the dilemma which is causing the disturbance is effecting me personally as much as it is effecting my film characters. I am making documentaries about Palestinian harsh reality because it is my reality and it is my life that is being disturbed. If I was doing films to propose a political theme then I could do a film about any other part of the world. The injustice in Palestinian life that is caused by Israeli occupation is to me very personal.

Have you ever personally felt the urge to join protests against Israeli politics?
I believe that by merely existing I am protesting against Israeli politics. I come from a family of refugees who were dispossessed of their land and homes in 1948. The Israeli government has since refused to acknowledge the right of return of these refugees. It has also consistently committed massacres in refugee camps. Their policy seems to me as a wish that we all disappear into thin air. As for my work, the country of production of my documentaries is Palestine, a country that Israeli politics refuses to acknowledge exists. More important, my film narratives usually offer a version of life, reality and history, which contradicts the Israeli official version.

You are very critical of media influence on everyday life in Ramallah. Do you think the media has also had a negative influence on the development of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, that seems to be the most covered conflict ever. I mean are they partly responsible for what is going on now?
Regarding media role in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, I think my problem is not with the amount of coverage (I do want it to be covered extensively), but my problem is in the way in which it is covered. I think there is this post modern approach in covering the conflict in which there are the Palestinian victims and the Israeli victims, and then the end of the story. It usually lacks an insight of why all of this is happening. As a result, the Palestinians and the Israelis become equal, when really they aren’t since one is occupied and the other is the occupier. I’ll give you an example: a few weeks ago a prominent German paper asked me to write an article about my reflections on the situation. Before that they had already asked an Israeli director, who is a good friend of mine to write a similar article. The Israeli director who is very progressive and who is not blinded toward what is happening wrote a strong piece condemning Israeli politics and reminding the German public that at the end of the day this is an occupation. His article was published. When I wrote mine and I spoke about the situation from a personal Palestinian perspective, I was told by the paper that they expected that I would be critical toward the Palestinian politics just like the Israeli director was critical toward Israeli politics. As far as I see it, they wanted the Israeli to criticise Israel and the Palestinian to criticise Palestine and then we become equal and probably the German reader would conclude that we deserve each other. My article has not yet been published.

When I asked you for an interview, and I told you about the subject I wanted to talk about, you told me you never dealt with the issue of self-sacrifice. And you wrote me that you think that suicide attackers are more the symptom rather than phenomena. Could you explain what you mean by that?
This is because I thought that since I never looked at the subject of “self-sacrifice”, then probably your interest in including me comes from your desire to have a Palestinian perspective on the issue, especially since this year there have been a number of Palestinian suicide attacks. But as you probably know, knowledge of a subject does not usually spring from the mere fact that you belong to a certain group. Like you cannot probably explain many aspects that have formed German perceptions if you haven’t investigated them. Still, your subject did interest me and I thought this would be an opportunity for me to think about it.
As a Palestinian who knows very well the effect of violence and intrusion then I of course do not believe that anyone has the right to kill any one else. I also believe that life is so precious that to decide to kill yourself for any reason you must be disturbed. The question is, why is it that there are so many disturbed people ready to take their own lives?

In his book Today’s Terrorism: a New Challenge?,2 Kai Hirschmann writes on suicide operations. He notes that a relatively high percentage of women are participating in suicide operations in contrast to other activities of the same organisations, where men clearly dominate. For example, as part of the suicide unit The Black Tigers from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, operating in Sri-Lanka and India, women participated in 40% of the group’s suicide activities. In the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, there were 6 women out of 12 persons involved in suicide activities. In the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, women carried out 14 of 21 suicide attacks. Do you think self-sacrifice is a typical female virtue, and would you describe it as a positive virtue?
I think to suggest that women’s participation in suicide operations within these groups is based on the notion of self-sacrifice as a typical female virtue, is a reflection of an orientalist thinking that has no insight into the dynamics of patriarchal societies.
All of the examples given in your questions belong to societies that are usually described as being sexist and oppressive toward women. As for the political groups used in the example, they all consider themselves to be liberation movements. Putting the two together, an oppressive thinking toward women and glorifying the fight for liberation then naturally they will consider it to be a man’s job to hold weapons and fight. I would assume that to many of them it would seem as an insult to their macho and male dignity to place women as fighters. One of the examples, the Palestinian Islamic groups, refuse to allow women to carry out any of their attacks, including suicide operations. One of their leaders and I quote said: “We have enough men ready to fight. When not one single man is left then women will take over the struggle.”
I would like to note that the two suicide attacks that were carried out by Palestinian women in the last few months were executed by a secular party. I would suggest that a good explanation of the statistics given in your question regarding the high percentage of women participation in suicide attacks could be the issue of access. This is simply because the oppressor is also usually sexist enough to assume that women are incapable of committing “men action”. I know this from personal experience, where in 1998, I did a documentary about an Israeli settlement. Access to these settlements without a permit is usually impossible to any Palestinian. I of course knew that I would not be granted a permit to go and film inside the settlement. Hence, I went by myself and began filming. I was never stopped or questioned because they did not assume that I could be a Palestinian. Mainly because they thought that a Palestinian woman would not dare and enter and would not be holding a camera. Their racism and sexism served me to complete my documentary.
Going back to your question whether self-sacrifice is a typical female virtue, I think that in the West and in the East this notion has been used by societies to oppress women. They are the caretakers, the child bearers etc. … leaving women with very little alternative to enter life’s other arenas. I defiantly do not consider it a positive virtue but I would not connect it to suicide operations.

  1. Zaman Al-Akba [News Time], Azza El-Hassan (Director), Palestine, 2001.
  2. Kai Hirschmann, “Today’s Terrorism: a New Challenge?”, in: Terrorismus als weltweites Phänomen, ed. by Peter Gerhard, Berlin, 2000, p. 45f.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Tragedy, pages 137-141