Images from About the Sea

We used to go to the sea everyday, even in winter.

When I think about the sea I long for it, but when I reach it...

... it is not ours.

Now I have to travel to go to the sea because I can't reach it here.

"I remember when I first realized that we don't have a sea." Visually, the sea disappears...

...behind the wall.

The Guardian's images of Tora Bora

Tora Bora mountain.

Tora Bora, cross section.

Deep inside Tora Bora.


Tora Bora cinema

by Sobhi al-Zobaidi

In Palestine, a new and independent cinema is emerging, and by independent I mean from the authorities of state, religion and commerce.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Independent filmmaking in Palestine is better understood as individual filmmaking because of the absence of the institutional base such as foundations, film collectives, film schools, groups, and most important censorship. In fact Palestinian filmmakers act competitively, most often incompatible with each other. Very rarely do they work with each other. An increasing number of filmmakers compete for the same resources. With no institutional bases whatsoever, the whole thing is left to individual improvisation. And maybe that’s a good thing, because if institutionalized, who knows what it would be like?

The Palestinian cinema developing now is one driven by artistic impulses to resist, travel, and otherwise negotiate the world — a body of work shaped only by the filmmaker and his or her circumstances. Impulsive, passionate films, bad quality films, homemade, homegrown, and desperate, but in their own way they reflect a great deal about the inhuman condition that Palestinians live in.

Ultimately we can sum up the Palestinian dilemma with the question, ”What can people do without a geography?” Since 1948 with the founding of Israel, Palestinians have been living in an ever-diminishing space, a constantly transformed and disappearing geography. This has radically changed the way Palestinians practice space and the way they orient themselves in the world. Palestinians have emerged as disoriented people not only in the sense that they don’t know where they are going but also in the sense that they know where they want to go but can never reach there. To combat this loss, Palestinians resort to poetic and imaginary means such as those found in the arts, religion, and digital media. These provide Palestinians with the virtual worlds they need in order to negotiate their loss and confinement.

If the Palestinian is a prisoner, digital media has made it possible to make a film about his life in his prison cell. All that is needed is a small video camera mounted on a tripod and the tape always rolling. But what will the inmate film? Himself or the iron bars or his cell's concrete walls? And how would the prisoner convey his confinement within these few square meters? How would the prisoner film himself "doing time," as the word goes? Maybe through a lifelong-zoom-in to a concrete wall (as in Wavelength by Michael Snow)? Would he try to show his thoughts, his imaginings? Or maybe invoke all the other space, the outside space that he has no access to? My quest in this paper is partly inspired by this imaginary situation: What kind of film would be made by an inmate in his prison cell "doing time."

In this paper I focus on a number of films made by Palestinians within the last few years, a period mostly marked by the Israelis' building an apartheid wall that further segregates Palestinians into isolated ghettos. The films I discuss here are films by people made immobile, not only in the sense of their inability to travel, but more essentially in terms of their inability to reaffirm their identities as they relate to space. I posit memory at the core of this problem. And by memory I don’t mean only recollections of the past (the lost paradise) but also dealings with the present moment, with the actual, the bare fact. A Palestinian’s memory is mostly composed of an uninterrupted flow of uncertainties, insecurities, wars, and a general and detailed sense of destruction. What causes disorientation and loss is not "memories of things past" but of things present. The films I discuss here are more than just concerned with the present moment. They are the very product of it, images of it.

Fundamental to these films is a dislocation between memory and geography, a distorted sense of space, some kind of non-correspondence, and the result that the individual is driven towards virtual worlds in search of continuity. Memory in these films, to use a metaphor, is very much like fantasy in the psychoanalytical optic, where fantasy is the mise-en-scène of desire (Laplanche). Gilles Deleuze conceives of memory as a dynamic movement resulting from a

"fundamental split in time, that is to say, the differentiation of its passage into two great jets, the passing of the present and the preservation of the past" (Dialogues II: 151)

Memory is the internal projector that sets in motion our perceptions, thus producing our sense of orientation in the world. My quest in this paper is to trace moments where memory dysfunctions, where there is a loss of orientation, where memory does not correspond to geography.

I do so through ideas and insights from Deleuze’s chapter on the "Power of the False" in his book Cinema 2, especially his thesis on the emergence of the "crystalline regime of the image" as a sign for the collapse of a normal sense of space or "sensory-motor schemata."I also use Laura Marks’s text on "intercultural cinema"(2000) where she reads Deleuze's ideas into cinematic works made in the last two decades by a new generation of filmmakers who are refugees, immigrants, and exiles who settled in the West. I also build on images and observations made by Edward Saïd and W.J.T. Mitchell in two separate essays published in Critical Inquiry in winter 2006 in a special issue on “Geopoetics, Space Place and Landscape.” They provide valuable insights and critical perspectives on the invention and production of both memory and geography.

My reading is also powered by images, such as the image of the inmate in his cell. But I also use the image of Tora Bora. Yes, Tora Bora, the one in Afghanistan. I use Tora Bora as a site, a performance, and a metaphor. Tora Bora as a terrain, a passage, an escape, a maze of some sort, a very different kind of relation to space. These images of Tora Bora and the inmate in his cell serve as a shortcut to the kind of experiences that I want to convey in my reading of these films. By image I don't mean just visual image or representation of a thing, rather I follow Bergson's notion in Matter and Memory;

"and by "image" we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing - an existence placed halfway between the "thing" and the "representation." (1991: 9) [highlights in the original]


In a way, it is against my own memories of incarceration, of being made immobile and absent, that I conduct this whole reading. In what follows I want to pursue a reading of Palestinian cinema that goes beyond categorizing them as "roadblock movies" around which identities clash, power is practiced, and struggles take place (Gerz and Khlefi). As informative as they can be, these readings tend to simplify a much more complex and radical Israeli-Zionist discourse that aims at erasing the Palestinian. In the "road-block-movie" model, the Palestinian character is faced with an obstacle, which, most often is overcome metaphorically or defied by use of the camera. In the films I discuss, it is not the roadblock that presents the crisis, but memory itself. These films are "space block" movies, where no camera tricks can overcome the obstacle.

Tora Bora

Beyond the geographical designation for a location in the White Mountains in Eastern Afghanistan, the term Tora Bora has become synonymous with some sort of a spatial maze, a web of underground tunnels where someone (like Osama bin Laden) can hide and disappear. In the media as well as in public imagination, Tora Bora has come to mean a new kind of territory, interior territory that cannot be mapped or fully revealed or exposed and whose elusiveness gives rise to ever more fantastical imaginings. In 2004, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf joked about the inconclusive U.S. bombardment of the caves by calling on the Afghanis to open Tora Bora for tourists; maybe their curiosity would dig up Osama bin Laden.[2]

Here is an entry on Tora Bora in CBC News Online:

“Tora Bora is a system of tunnels and chambers carved out of existing caves in the icy White Mountains southwest of Jalalabad, in the eastern part of Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.”

The writer, after much description, concludes with the following:

“The caves themselves are built deep inside the mountains, so the American 'bunker buster' bombs, which penetrate 30 meters into the earth before exploding, aren't very effective. The Pentagon admitted that even the massive, seven-ton "daisy-cutter" bomb dropped on Tora Bora on Dec. 10 was mostly for psychological effect."[3]

In Wikipedia, the entry is lavishly descriptive:

“In 2001 it [Tora Bora] was in use by al-Qaeda and was suspected to be the headquarters of Osama bin Laden. It was described variously as a multi-storeyed cave complex harnessing hydroelectric power from mountain streams, or a lower-rise dwelling with hotel-like corridors capable of sheltering more than 1,000.

In the Guardian Unlimited you can find visual graphs that illustrate the supernatural qualities of Tora Bora.[4] Inside limestone rocks deep in the mountains, the graphs reveal a smooth, well-structured passage with ventilation and water sources. The relation between the inside and the outside is like that of the human body. The inside is connected to the surface in particular places; the rest is not to be exposed. Anything inside is either to be protected and kept, or destroyed. In this sense Tora Bora is not a place, but a passage, a connection, a vessel that carries a thing from point to point. The body becomes a Tora Bora when it is used, for example, to smuggle.

In Palestine the term Tora Bora has become popular as a designation for "those really dangerous passages" between different Palestinian villages and towns cut off by the Israelis. Tora Bora is the name taxi drivers (like the protagonist of Hani Abu Asaad’s Ford Transit) use to refer to the treacherous geographies that have been multiplied by Israeli violence. Tora Boras are those kinds of passages that one is not sure whether one can or cannot reach: both possibilities always equally exist. The line forks and one never knows which way one will end up — dead, arrested, or free. Palestinian Tora Boras are very much like the "last sky" in Darwish’s poem.[5] They are last possible movement before decay and death, the last possible space, the body. It is my body that moves me through Tora Bora, and everything outside my body is hostile: the air, the space, everything is threatening.

But Tora Bora is not another name for the roadblock, because Tora Bora starts from beyond the roadblock. Tora Bora assumes movement to start with. It is a passage, a crack, a flight, or a leap. It is anything but death. Cinema provides Palestinians with this place to be. Cinema is Tora Bora par excellence. In cinema Palestinians can smuggle themselves anywhere (in and out of Palestine) and they can go everywhere — as in Divine Intervention,with the ninja woman defying gravity, and where an apricot seed destroys an Israeli tank.

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