Statistics can tell a bleak story. There are 3,500 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon today. There are still 1,500 people in Shatila camp. There, one night in 1982, 2,800 men, women and children were slaughtered by the Lebanese Forces. But it’s all too easy for the numbers to run off you, unnoticed amidst the daily media shower of facts and figures. It’s the role of documentary film to give the statistics a face and a voice. A well-made documentary will not impress you with statistics, but by telling you a story from life that is more powerful than fiction. This is what Mai Masri accomplishes with “Children of Shatila”.
Since its May 15 debut in commemoration of the nakba, “Children of Shatilia” has received an unusually wide audience for a Lebanese documentary. It’s been televised in Britain, France, Portugal and Morocco, and even had some U.S. screenings. The audience response has been remarkably favorable both overseas and in Shatila. Recently it has been nominated for the 1998 Amnesty International Award. This provides a hint of the political weight of the film, but it says nothing about the quiet optimism of its vision.
“Children” tells the story of those Palestinian refugees forced to flee to Lebanon after 1948. They originate from Israel proper not the territories occupied after 1967, which are the focus of today’s mean-spirited negotiations. As the film’s title suggests, its perspective is that of the third generation of Palestinians to live in exile. Two children provide the focus of the film, 13-year-old Issa and 11-year-old Farah. The great success of the piece lies in its allowing the children to tell their own stories, and the director insists that staging was kept to a minimum. Issa and Farah ask the people of Shatila about their lives in and out of Palestine: they hold the camera in their own hands, recreating the effect of oral history upon them. This technique underlines the optimism of these “residual people”. They may have been forgotten by the world (including their political leadership) but they haven’t lost themselves. They have forgotten neither their homes nor their hope in the future.
Ms. Masri would rather talk about the people in her film than their grim political realities and she’s very optimistic about the future.
“The conditions facing the Palestinians in Lebanon right now is extremely difficult,” she concedes. “The dream to return home persists, though it’s a constant battle to resist despair. But the situation was even worse in 1948. Shatila isn’t a ghetto. It’s still a community with a strong social and political cohesion, and a strong belief in education.”
The opening words of the film are not Ms. Masri’s but those of one of the children. The director places herself in her work but very briefly, while giving the basic statistics on Shatila and noting that she was in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. Detractors of traditional documentary criticize its efforts to make the film maker invisible, because it creates the illusion of objectivity.
“I’m not going to pretend that I have no stake in the issues in this film,” she responds. “I just don’t believe in having lots of narration in a documentary. It’s clumsy and unnecessary. People can tell their own stories ... I guess I just assumed that people would realize I’m Palestinian from the content.
“I’m very excited about the possibilities of documentary film,” she continues. “Not traditional documentary but some kind of hybrid with feature film, docu-drama perhaps. In feature film you’re always trying to imitate reality. But the stories already exist in people’s everyday reality and the technology exists to tap into that reality very naturally.”
The desire to tell one’s own story echoes throughout much recently produced Lebanese film. Cameras are on film as much as they are behind the scenes, like a metaphor for the film makers’ trying to reclaim their own history from the western media. For Ms. Masri this is a truism.
“The story of the civil war has already been told. Putting cameras in the hands of the people is a new way to tell the story. A new way to ask questions, and to answer them.”
The idea of giving cameras to Issa and Farah grew out of an independent project at the Arab Research Center for Popular Arts, which sponsors arts oriented training programs for local youth. It was practical to put cameras in their hands because Masri’s team made use of the latest in digital camera technology to shoot the film.
“The film was experimental in that we tried to capture the children’s eye as well as their words. This is where the new technology was so important. Digital film cameras are light, easy to use and cheap, so they make film-making more accessible to more people, not just the elite club that it’s been up to now.”
“Children of Shatila” will be shown on Nov. 9 at 8 P.M. in the West Hall of AUB