Catherine Arnaud and Mouloud Mimoun: Your film tackles the Palestinian question in a totally new way, since it is the portrait of two women. Why this choice, and how did the film come into being?
Michel Khleifi: In a very natural way: it is the result of several years of work. I made several reports in the occupied territories, but I also have to say that the film was beyond me. The Palestinian question is basically an issue of oppression: an oppression that dominates the world. I said to myself that I would be able to give the Palestinian question a new dimension by talking about the most oppressed. I thought that women would help bring out all the contradictions.
On the other hand, at the formal level, my choices were the result of a personal reflection on left-wing or militant cinema’s failure to produce new dimensions. A film that I like a lot, Here and Elsewhere, poses the problem of this cinema’s hypocrisy, but nothing more; I wanted to tackle the problem in a concrete way by giving the floor to these two women directly. Because one often ends up doing a disservice to the people one would like to serve: Chris Marker described this phenomenon very well in his marvellous film Le Fond de l’air est rouge [A Grin Without a Cat], in which he dismantles the mechanisms of this kind of cinema. I wanted to show a profound reality: there are people who are struggling with their bodies and souls in Palestine, but without these two women these people aren’t much. The two women are the majority: I wanted this majority to speak, to see their contradictions for themselves in order to reinvent new forms of resistance. On the other hand, when I think of militant cinema, I believe there is often a need for porn-militancy. By filming war, we demystify militancy because we show the horror and instil a demobilizing fear. Plus, I didn’t want to make a sociological national film: I wanted the enemy to be afraid of a metaphysical dimension in order to show that, in any case, despite its strength and technology, there is this fertility of people’s memory and resistance that thousands of bombs cannot kill. For me, militancy means giving people hope and creative strength, but I wish to point out that I value the plurality of cinema and approaches.
In concrete terms, even before talking with the two women, I had already written sequences, based on the reality I knew and my own subjectivity. I realized that a lot of this preliminary work remained after the shoot. I was ultimately looking for an example of a “full” daily life: I powered a fictional story with reality.
And how did the shoot go technically, how did you manage to reconcile your demands as a filmmaker with the demands and reluctance of these two women?
As regards the character of the writer, Sahar, she was the one who decided on and selected the different spaces in which she was filmed; I dealt with this given by trying to express myself as a filmmaker within the imposed space.
On the other hand, as the unspoken is a very important element of her discourse, I had to bring in my own personality as a filmmaker to try to express this unspoken. I wanted the camera to not be higher than her – mostly lower. I wanted to make a film “for” her, not “on” her, which she dreaded. She did not want a film “on” her. I tried to express the “stuckness” of her situation, which in cinema becomes a framing of the frame, etc. As for the character of the widow Romia, it was a much more fragmented shoot.
Could you tell us more about the “stuckness” that the characters experience?
Both Sahar and Romia are trapped by the society in which they live, but they experience this stuckness differently. Sahar possesses the words, the other doesn’t. Romia exists, but without defining herself as an individual. Both are frustrated by history, the intellectual one perhaps doubly so for her awareness of this frustration, of the loneliness imposed on her by her situation as a divorcée.
Romia accepts her solitude after becoming a widow without bitterness, because she has decided that there is no other way. One character’s words corner those of the other, and I insisted on the film to work in that way, so that the viewer reacts to it, takes active part in the film, becomes an accomplice.
Which filmmakers do you admire the most?
The filmmakers who have left their mark on me are generally those who work on the liberation of the cinematographic language. The first was Pasolini and then Kurosawa, for his emotional force and his love of characters. Godard for his analytical rigour, A. Penn for the physical involvement of emotions. And there are many others.
This text appeared in Les 2 écrans, January 1981.
With thanks to Michel Khleifi.
Milestones: Fertile Memory takes place on Thursday 18 March 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.