Culture

Palestinian camps, Amerindian reserves

BEIRUT: Most people would probably agree that being colonized sucks. Once upon a time, most Westerners could be counted on to support national self-determination but that didn’t mean all colonial-settler states got the same media narrative.

Take apartheid South Africa. The international community looked the other way for a few decades but eventually international banks baulked at doing business with Pretoria and states conceded that the segmentation and disenfranchisement of colonized South Africans was unjust. So long apartheid.

The state of Israel, on the other hand, had little reason to fear effective international pressure vis-a-vis its Palestinian policy. Activists have found it useful to place the history of post-Nakba Palestine alongside that of apartheid South Africa, to point out the double standard.

“Spaces of Exception” a new documentary feature directed by Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, places the Palestinian experience alongside a different settler-colonial history, that of the First Nations people of North America.

Shot in Arizona, New Mexico, New York and South Dakota, the occupied West Bank and Lebanon from 2014 to 2017, the 90-minute film ping-pongs between American and Middle Eastern locations.

Much of the documentary is preoccupied with testimonials on the historic injustices and contemporary frustrations First Nations people experience in the reservation system of Canada and the U.S., and Palestinians undergo in refugee camps in Palestine and Lebanon.

The two groups have several features in common, beginning with the struggle with colonizers for control over a historic homeland.

While both Palestinians and First Nations folks have known a degree of local political representation, these are necessarily proscribed by their subordination to various state jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada, Israel and Lebanon.

In practice this means colonized Palestinians and Amerindians have undergone a common experience of forced relocation, economic marginalization and dependency.

Generally stripped of sovereign control over the natural resources of their territory, economic initiatives in various sectors have been obstructed or criminalized altogether.

The want of opportunities within the reserves and refugee camps have led to emigration, a breakdown in social cohesion, varying degrees of cultural assimilation and political radicalization, as well as efforts at cultural renaissance.

“Spaces of Exception” is the most-recent (and longest) documentary that Rasamny and Peterson have released as part of the multimedia project “The Native and the Refugee,” which sets out “to profile the spaces of the Indian reservation and Palestinian refugee camp: spaces of exception whose position in the struggle for autonomy are essential.”

Elements of this project have been presented in Canada, Ecuador, the U.K., France, Guatemala, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Portugal and Syria, within refugee camps and reserves, in cinemas, galleries and universities.

The film had its world premiere earlier this month at the inaugural edition of Sharjah Film Platform.

It will have its Beirut debut Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Sursock Museum.

It’s easy to see “Spaces of Exception” as a 90-minute-long compare-contrast exercise.

During the question-and-answer session following the film’s Sharjah premiere, Peterson and Rasamny said that they weren’t interested in making comparisons between the Palestinian condition and that of the First Nations.

Their objective was instead to profile elements of both communities in parallel.

The filmmakers are wise to clarify this point, given the sometimes vast differences in these histories.

While the Nakba took place 70 years ago, the colonization of the Americas has been a complex, centurieslong process unfolding over two continents, driven by a host of political and economic actors.

Tragic and unjust as the Palestinians’ plight is, the territorial proscription and political, economic and cultural annihilation of the Americas’ indigenous peoples is on an altogether different scale.

This film does have some utility for activists. For anyone immersed in Palestinian or Amerindian narratives, the film’s switchback sketches of life in North American reserves and Arab refugee camps may provoke some new thinking on what it means to be on the wrong end of the settler-colonial stick.

The principal worth of the film, though, may be discursive.

Zionism’s success to this point has rested in large part on the material support of its overseas patrons. Rasamny and Peterson don’t explicitly say that America’s settler-colonial project has been wedded to that of its client. Viewers might observe, though, how many U.S. citizens have invested in the most-recent phase of state-subsidized settler activity in occupied Palestine.

“Spaces of Exception” will screen Saturday Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. at the Sursock Museum Auditorium. The film is in English and Arabic with English and Arabic subtitles.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2019, on page 12.

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