By Aimee Shalan
This article, a reflection on the 2009 film “Videomappings: Aida, Palestine” by Till Roeskens, was originally published on Jadaliyya. It is featured on arenaofspeculation.org with kind permission from the author.
The struggle over Palestine—a struggle in which ideas, representations, rhetoric, and images are all fiercely contested—has been so overexposed in mainstream media in North America and Western Europe that the actual experience of Palestinians living under occupation has often disappeared from view. A preoccupation with “balance”, regardless of the asymmetry of the situation, has given vent to a seemingly vicious circle of tit-for-tat denunciations. In this context, legitimate Palestinian anger in response to decades of oppression is frequently regarded as an obstructive proclivity for “supercharged emotions” and the investment of intense, personal energies in fixed, absolute positions.
The topography of Palestine has, moreover, become so layered with strategic, religious, and political strata that most onlookers do not have a coherent mental map of the territory. This is partly because Palestine is for others so charged with significance; partly because Palestinians have simply not been in a position to control the images that have been used by others to represent them; and partly because of Western media’s fixation on Palestinians as a political “problem.” All of this has done little to shed light on the scandal of Israel’s military occupation and the extent to which segregation and inequality have violated the most intimate and subjective spaces of daily life.
A documentary that is well worth watching, in this context, is Videomappings: Aida, Palestine, by visual artist Till Roeskens. The film, which was released on DVD last year, circumvents the standard flood of media coverage and enables us to perceive the Palestinian landscape that Zionist cartography has overwritten in a gripping new light. Sketching a unique picture of the occupation, Videomappings captures the assiduous and drawn out nature of its tyranny over the inhabitants of a refugee camp near Bethlehem by projecting us closely into their personal experience of the world. Compelled to follow line by line the maps they draw, we begin to discern the multiple ways they have come to navigate the ever-more-circumscribed spaces around them. The documentary won several awards, including the Grand Prix at the Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille in 2009 and the Special Jury Prize at the Tetuan Film Festival in 2010. Three of the film’s six chapters are currently available for viewing free-of-charge online.
Videomappings was inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 documentary, Mystère Picasso, which depicts the artist in the act of creating paintings for the camera (from simple marker drawings in black and white to full scale collages and oil paintings). Similarly, Roeskens documents men, women, and children in the process of mapping their surroundings using the most basic of resources—a video camera, a small microphone, a frame made from wood found at the local dump, rusty nails bought from a nearby shop, and some sheets of paper glued onto the frame, which has been placed upright on a table. He films the back of the paper so that the maps drawn by a felt-tipped marker appear as if by magic, albeit the wrong way round. While Clouzot’s film shows Picasso at work, Roeskens’ witnesses are hidden behind the very statements they are in the process of making, as they narrate the story behind each stroke of the pen.
An earlier work provided a precedent for the project in 2001, when Roeskens made a video show from bits of reshot TV news mainly concerning the situation in Palestine, which he commented on live. Playing the part of a misinformed speaker, despite having lived in Palestine for two years, he put aside all preconceived knowledge and simply described what he was seeing: “Here is a man running and shouting, a car coming, here are hills, the desert…” Working in the space between words and pictures, the gap “between the visible and the sayable”, Videomappings likewise lays bare the basic facts of Israel’s military occupation. Conveying its brutality in the simplest of terms, each chapter cuts through the standard mantra of a deeply “complex conflict” and the “oh dear, what is to be done?” that tends to follow.
As Roeskens explained in an interview with Gabriel Borzmeyer in 2009, which is included in the booklet accompanying the DVD, it is because the territory is only revealed through a few hesitant, scribbled lines that spectators have the “complete freedom to construct their own images, those inside them, moving ones.” The faceless voices of the cartographers allow the viewer “to place him or herself in the minds of those speaking and to try to see as he or she does.”
A number of memorial books produced by Palestinian refugees compiling their collective memories of the villages they were forced to leave in 1948 have relied on personal memory or “folk” maps. Produced decades after the nakba at the request of the editors, these visual analogues to recorded oral histories are not purely statements about the existence of Palestine and the way its villages looked before the establishment of the state of Israel. They are poignant illustrations of the narrative discontinuity of dispersal, dispossession, and traumatic loss. As Susan Slyomovics has remarked in The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, it is as if each black line “must bear the burden of its cartographer’s passionate attachment to what has been remembered” as they reconstruct the obliterated geography of former Palestinian villages, freezing the past into carefully drawn pictures of each house, well and mosque.” (1)
Roeskens’ project, however, adds an extra dimension to this tradition of mnemonic mappings. His “situation maps” are motivated by a fear of “freezing the world by changing it into pictures.” Videomappings is set in motion with the remembrance of what once was, through the voice and drawing of Sabha Khader Abusrour. But her childlike sketch, which begins with her family’s village of Beit Nateef before 1948, does not take historical accuracy as its starting point. In its initial stages, her map is more akin to a moving pictorial poem. Drawing a single tree, she voices her passionate attachment to a lost paradise she never actually experienced, since she was born a year after her mother was forced to leave:
“In Beit Nateef you could find everything / such lovely woods, flowers, and the spring there / and the carob trees / the fruit was so big and so soft in your mouth / Oh my god, could you taste the figs there / and the oil we made from those olives / it was yellow like gold.”
Next to the tree, three rudimentary lines appear depicting a tent—the first tent of Aida refugee camp pitched by her family in 1956 (coincidentally, the year of Clouzot’s Mystère Picasso). And from there, the blank sheet slowly fills up with lines, as she represents each of her extended family’s tents and those of her neighbors. Next comes the street running through the middle of the camp, which was named after the first martyr of her family, Ishaq Abusrour, who was shot in the head by an Israeli as he was looking out of a window with other students at the university. “They say he was holding a Palestinian flag,” she says, “but they lie.” As the pen continues its work, she lists the names of others. Sixty members of her family have been killed since the first.
Between the Visible and the Sayable
Paradoxically, it is precisely by restricting our field of vision to the narrow limits of a square meter, the size of the canvas improvised on site, that we gain access to parts of the camp that would otherwise remain hidden. “We used to visit, talk, play, and cook for each other,” Sabha recounts, “but today the Israelis have made us suspicious. They put spies among us, so people are all afraid and keep to themselves.” While she speaks of distrust, a box appears around each tent, symbolizing the construction of buildings that have taken their place. The weight of overcrowding and isolation accumulates with every movement of her pen. She does not say so, but foreign eyes are all the more suspect, and we are invited to move, through her drawing and those that follow, into areas of the camp that are likely in reality to be out-of-bounds.
A young man walks us through the memories of his family’s land, now controlled by Israel. We discover his favorite spot, often visited by eagles. We hear how his farmland was confiscated and destroyed in a single day, while he and his father were interrogated. “You have no land,” he was told, “forget about it.”
A child depicts her home and reveals which rooms are best for hiding from soldiers. A man draws the camp’s different neighborhoods, his favorite house, and the Intercontinental Hotel—“for tourists, not for the camp.” The worst location is a girls’ school, “where most people got wounded.” We learn of the shooting of tear gas into the school and the evacuation of the girls; of a watchtower, where soldiers may be at any time; of the place they use to enter the camp and where to hide to survive. We see the checkpoints and the way around them via the mountains, the settlements, the Wall, and a “terrorist bulldozer” knocking down trees.
One woman describes the convoluted journey she and her granddaughter, who suffers from a hereditary disease, have to take to the hospital in Jerusalem for treatment. Another tells of the Wall’s gradual internment of her house and the damage it has wreaked on the family business, located in what was once a vibrant commercial street.
The Politics of Mapping Injury
Roeskens describes Videomappings as a political project, insofar as it is an expression of the right to draw one’s own map. Ownership, in fact, tends to be at the center of every cartographic act. Maps may profess to be judged in terms of their scientific and historical accuracy. Yet the vocabulary with which they are written—the borders plotted on a map, the selection of names and symbols, and in particular the detailed demarcation of certain features and the omission of others—essentially overwrites reality with a particular interpretation. What is at stake, then, as Dennis Wood has observed in his book The Power of Maps, “is not longitude and latitude, measured to whatever degree of fineness imaginable but…ownership…because the map does not map locations, so much as create ownership at a location.”(2)
The political pull of Videomappings, however, resides in its reframing of the relationship between mapping and ownership in Palestine by disobeying the norms of documentary. Usually documentaries identify their protagonists as fully as possible, and in doing so, lend integrity to the testimonies they make on film. By presenting its cartographers as disembodied voices, however, Videomappings makes all the more visible the injustices they continue to suffer as anonymous victims. In his commentary, included in the booklet accompanying the DVD, Jean-Pierre Rehm notes:
“No one is the owner of the wrong that he has been subjected to. By definition, to the contrary, it is the very nature of injustice to de-possess and alienate. If pain is forced on an identity, it is then in no way a transparent, stable identity that is ultimately at stake. As it is the principal of identity itself which suffers the hurt and damage, and that must be completely reconsidered.”
For Palestinians, decades of dispossession and exposure to violence have made suffering a conscious marker of identity. And in this respect, Videomappings also represents an important intervention into the relation between injury and identity politics that political and philosophical theory engages. In much of this literature, scholars view the assertion of identity politics as much a symptom of powerlessness as a redress of it. In States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Wendy Brown has argued that the problem with identity politics is that it permits positioning without temporal or spatial mapping and so licences a sense of situation “without requiring profound comprehension of the world in which one is situated.”(3) From this perspective, any identity that is rooted in a state of injury promotes a loss of perspective, in as much as it substitutes the obligation to spell out exactly what it means with an excessively local, that is, restricted or personal, point of view.
Yet, in Videomappings, it is precisely the charting of a local, restricted point of view that provides the spectator with a broader political perspective and a deeper comprehension of the world. There is no attempt to remedy the powerlessness of the film’s protagonists. In mapping their own suffering, the anonymous cartographers do not try to secure the ground of being “good” in an effort to render justice and repair the crimes against them by getting the onlooker on side. We see their experience of the world as it is, without ethical elaboration. And crucially, in a postscript to his written introduction to the film, Roeskens confides: “it seems to me I would never have made a film in Palestine if, as a Westerner, I didn’t identify with the Israelis: if I didn’t have the acute feeling that the arrogance and brutality of this colonization’s process are also mine, ours.” The politics of Videomappings is all the more profound because it does not reduce the response of the bystander to a comfortable scenario of moral recrimination. Rather, it opens space for spectators, desensitized by mainstream media coverage, not only to feel the suffering of Israel’s victims but also complicity in their oppression.
1. Susan Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 7.
2. Dennis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guildford Press, 1992), 21.
3. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 35.
Aimee Shalan is Head of Education at Caabu (the Council for Arab-British Understanding) and Vice-Chair of Friends of Birzeit University. She is also a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Guardian review. Previously she taught at City University and Queen Mary, University of London. She has a doctorate in the Politics of Palestinian Literature.