Mohanad Yaqubi’s new film Off Frame A.K.A. Revolution Until Victory screened for the first time in France last week at the Cinéma du réel documentary film festival in Paris. To my mind, the film was probably the most conceptually interesting work to screen amongst the spate of new releases at the festival, and one of the more nuanced reflections on the cinematic archive and image making that I can recall from recent years. It also raised some trenchant questions about an era of politically engaged filmmaking whose methods and rhetoric seem to be an increasingly distant memory today.
Off Frame is composed for the most part of footage taken from older films from both Palestine and abroad that date back to the Palestinian revolutionary period of the late 1960s and 1970s. The breadth of documents that Yaqubi brings together — which range from militant films from the PLO-backed Palestine Film Unit to British colonial reportage — speak not just to the international scope of this struggle, but also the importance of the Palestinian question to a generation of filmmakers. One of the great strengths of Off Frame is that we are introduced to such a wide array of co-existing and often contradictory voices, all competing to paint an image of Palestine in a period where it struggled for visibility. Yaqubi lets these documents speak for themselves, withholding voiceover commentary in an attempt to preserve the polyphony of history.
Off Frame places itself firmly in the tradition of archival documentary that dates back to Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) and continues through to the sound period with the likes of Nicole Védrès’ Paris 1900 (1947) and Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1977). Like these films, Off Frame is a work that is unavoidably steeped in questions of the past but doubly functions as a reflection on our position as spectators “looking back” at history. With this distance comes the chance not just for comprehension of what has come before us, but also an opportunity to question our relationship to this history today.
I spoke to Mohanad Yaqubi after the screening of Off Frame about his film, the image of Palestine throughout history, and the past, present and future of political filmmaking.
First of all, thank you Mohanad for speaking to us. Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of your film Off Frame and how you got started on this project?
It wasn’t my idea at the beginning to make a film like this… I was doing a course in London when I was doing my Masters and one of the courses was about Third Cinema. One of my teachers asked me: “Do you know Mustafa Abu Ali? He’s an old director who lives in Ramallah.” I told her, “Yes I know him.” She said, “So tell us about him,” and I didn’t know anything about him! Then she started to describe this whole notion of political filmmaking within revolutions and the international movement around Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and how the Palestinian films during the revolutionary period were significant in terms of this accumulation of aesthetics. So it was a whole journey into that history and I came out of that class feeling of course proud that I was a Palestinian who had that part of film history but also surprised and kind of annoyed that I didn’t know [more] about it.
That’s basically what pushed me to continue researching about this period, thinking, “So why don’t I know about that? What is keeping this memory hidden from our knowledge? Why don’t we study it? How do we teach it?” All of these kinds of questions really pushed me to continue looking. The more I looked, the more material I found. It was so astonishing to see the real big input [of these films] on our understanding today — not just as a Palestinian but of independent filmmaking and the mechanisms involved in making it. So yeah, the film is kind of a combination of ideas around images, of here and there.
So it seems like the initial starting point was kind of engaging with this Palestinian film history that was a little bit unknown to you.
Yes, it was too much unknown actually. For us, we study film history and it starts in the ’80s with directors that made feature films like Michel Khleifi and Rashid Masharawi. Nobody was mentioning the period before as part of Palestinian history or Palestinian cinematic history as well. But after seven years working on this [film], I can say that now we are talking about Palestinian cinema starting from the ’60s, which I think is a big advance. It’s what should be happening: preserving and engaging with that memory, even if it’s a political and militant memory.
Well it’s good to see that there’s been a change in that aspect. You talked very briefly in the Q&A after the screening of Off Frame about accessing footage that would appear in the film. Could you describe that process?
There is nothing existing in Ramallah, where I’m based. There is no film archive or library. After reading some texts, I found that for each film, 60 to 70 copies were made and sent around to universities, student unions, workers unions, political parties, cultural centres, festivals and so on, and from there I started. I went to work through the audiovisual archives of the French and Italian Communist parties and from there I started to find my material.
We even found films in Australia! There was one great film that was made by Newsreel, the American film group that Robert Kramer was part of, and when we checked with Newsreel they didn’t know about it. But we found a document that said that a copy was sent to the Iranian student union in Australia in Sydney.
So that’s how you found the film?
We found this film that had only screened once in 1983 in Sydney and never screened after that! We got that copy, scanned it — it’s this amazing film called Revolution Until Victory! And that’s just one film. We used maybe 36 films in Off Frame, and each film has a story like that, like [we found it] in Denmark, in Berlin, London. It’s all really scattered; it’s a kind of memory that existed and suddenly exploded into fragments. I felt that my work in a way was to put those fragments together, not into their original form of course but into a kind of dialectic with our present somehow.
It’s interesting that you bring up how these films have been dispersed. What I wanted to ask you about was just this variety of images that we see in Off Frame. We see militant films from the Palestine Film Unit, others from politically engaged filmmakers from elsewhere like Godard and Johan van der Keuken, and we have something resembling the more traditional expository documentary forms with the British and American films. Can you talk a little about this variety of sources and why that was important to you in the film?
For me, the Palestinian revolution came a little bit late. It was 1968/69, most of the anti-colonial and civil rights struggles were already over and there was already a whole film heritage based around these kinds of struggles. The Palestinian revolution started to attract international attention, and people started to ask, “Who are these people who managed to stand in front of the most modern army in the region?” And that’s where the idea of fedayeen — freedom fighters — came in. So suddenly filmmakers used that experience they had in making an image of people and they used this image of the fedayeen as a hero [in these films].
This is very important because 1948 marks not only the establishment of the state of Israel and not just the occupation of Palestine, but also the disappearance of Palestinian people from any international registry, from the media, from everywhere. There is a total disappearance. For somebody who has disappeared, the camera would be the weapon.1 From that perspective we can see the whole struggle — it’s not a struggle of liberation, it’s not a civil rights struggle, it’s a struggle of visibility. How to be again, how can you see yourself again, whether in the media or in front of yourself. And you can see how international filmmakers were part of [forming] that perspective. Everybody comes and presents their images or understanding of how to tell your story and how to show that reflection. It was a really big movement, and you can see how there were already mechanisms of film production for creating this kind of aesthetic thanks to political parties and their funding. They also distributed and screened the films.
I think it’s surprising today, like the media coming out of [the] Cinéma du Réel [film festival] celebrating the fact that there were two Palestinian films shown for the first time in however long… I was thinking that in the ’70s, strikers, workers would watch Palestinian films as part of their daily political education somehow. We’re not talking about intellectuals or people working in culture, we’re talking about the base, the people: workers, students, anyone, they could see these films. These kinds of films were not meant to be screened in big commercial cinemas. They used the 16mm format and 16mm projectors, which were easy to move and to put into classrooms and into public squares. I think it was very important to show the international movement, and I wanted to show that strongly because it’s not our image only, it’s how the world saw us as well.
Talking about those modes of distribution for these films, do you think that an alternative circuit where these more marginal films are distributed still exists today in the same way? Or is that network less established than it was in that period?
Of course, it kind of disappeared. That whole format of politically engaged filmmaking has disappeared with the rise of TV. With TV documentaries, the accessibility [means that] anyone can know anything at any moment. There was no need to make these kinds of films… But I think it’s not about the films so much as it is about the practice. And also the practice of distributing.
Today I think it’s coming back. I see more of a need to go outside of this entertainment circuit of filmmaking and also to use film as part of a process of political engagement. We can see that happening in many of the struggles or revolts in the Arab world and other places that are going back to the traditions of political cinema and building up that network of distribution again. It’s happening today, you can see more and more independent small screenings here and there. But it’s not organised, because [that distribution] in the ’60s and ’70s was more organised, politically and ideologically. There were more alternative sources of support. Today, everything is monetised somehow and with distribution, it’s all based around the state or private money. There are no political parties or social movements that are [involved] in that. I can’t generalise, of course there are trials and efforts happening, whether in Egypt or Palestine — like taking movies around on small caravans. It ‘s coming but I can’t see it, it’s not the same heritage. It’s not the daughter of that period. It’s something new.
I saw your film at a film festival. Where do you see film festivals in this network?
It was funny that the film was screened at Cinéma du réel because some of these movies [from the ’60s and ’70s] screened there in the ’70s. I think film festivals are the place to show these films now, not to have a chance to distribute them — they’re very hard to distribute today — but I think it is a kind of place where we can discuss them. That’s what’s interesting about watching Off Frame at festivals… We had a screening in Ramallah yesterday, the first screening of the film. It’s there [for people] to discuss, to talk. To talk about their own personal knowledge and to connect it to film practices, and I think that is what [screening] Off Frame is for me, whether at a festival or elsewhere. It’s a beginning of a discussion. To take us somewhere to discuss notions of our production and of our own image and how to produce it. What does it mean when you’re screening your own image? All of these questions are the questions in the film.
One thing that really interested me in Off Frame is that you start not with an excerpt from a film, but with a series of photographs — another technology for the capture of images. Can you tell us about the photographs at the start of the film?
Definitely. I didn’t give these photographs too much time at the beginning, but really [they’re there] to understand the meaning of people producing their own image. And it’s very important to see what other people have produced about them. It’s interesting to know that the Palestinian has disappeared since the beginning of photography. When they started to do photography — especially missionaries and orientalists — Palestine always seemed to be the place that they’d come! When the Lumière brothers discovered the camera, they filmed some stuff in France, and the second place they went to was Palestine. So the photographers were [put there] to see that entire heritage of photography and to see how much we have disappeared and how much we are unable to speak and to present ourselves.
[These photographs] show the importance of such a period, the first time a Palestinian held a camera and had the ability to present and represent themselves through the image. It wasn’t only about film, it was images, which included photography and even texts and anything that was used to describe or to show. So I used them not only at the beginning, but also towards the end. It’s more a kind of chronology of how the images of the Palestinian developed. That’s why it stopped in 1982, because what happens after that, it’s another era, another history I would say. That era is kind of not related to that [prior period], that’s the discussion we had yesterday [in Ramallah]. People asked, “Why didn’t you mention what happened after ’82?” I told them, there were different rules of image production after that — perhaps another film to speak about. So basically, it’s giving a chronology of that history, and of how much Palestine existed from an outside perspective. It was really surprising to see all of these British colonial film or video archives that are focused on Palestine. Today you can find all of that. With Palestinian films, we [see them] reinventing again this whole notion of “What is Palestine?”, though this process is less than 100 years old.
I think that’s one of the things I liked the most about the film. You get this feeling that it’s a survey or an observation of different modes of representation and even different physical supports that have been used towards this process: celluloid, photography, microfilms of newspaper archives, digital film. It seems like you’re testing or showing different attempts to represent the same historical subject.
Definitely, trying all of the modes and the representation and checking them, and seeing how they are reflecting us as well. But also, this kind of material is very much heavy loaded with ideas. It really took me seven years of struggling to peel the layers around these images and to try to go to their core — which is the people, shapes, colours, and the sound — and to go beyond what they represent. Somehow it produced another presentation of a history of the way we see ourselves.
It’s interesting as well to see how people are reacting to it now. I spent a long time working on Off Frame myself, and now I’m seeing the film connecting with other people and seeing how they question the images they know of Palestine.
In Off Frame, you’re working mostly with an archive of existing images, but you’re also doing interesting things in post-production with sound that maybe changes our perception of what’s going on. Could you describe your process of working with images and sound?
Initially, I’d been trying to edit in different formats and with different cuts. There was a big transition from past to present, and I was trying to highlight these contrasts and to understand them in light of the way we produce images today. But I felt that this approach [of highlighting contrasts] was contradicting the meaning of the film. The meaning was to open a window into history using the mechanism that cinema offers us, which prints reality onto celluloid. It preserves time, somehow, and I saw these films as a time capsule that contained reality, a time capsule for us. So I tried to make the audience go as close as they could to that period and that also meant creating and recreating the soundscape. Of course, most of these images were shot without sound because when they were editing these films they were adding a soundtrack on top — music, commentary about mobilising the people. So when I removed the sound from these films, suddenly I started to see.
That’s what made me able to add my own sound on these images: trying to get as close to the moment in which things were happening. That kind of freed the characters, the people, the elements that in the images came from a certain perspective… These images have their own subjectivity that can tell us what is inside them, not just what we want them to tell us. So the sound was about that. Political cinema and militant filmmaking are all about sound. When you start to play with the sound, what happens? That was the interesting part. We went to the sound designer, who did a really great job, and we recreated these soundscapes and played around with them — nothing is in the same place. We created this notion of time travelling. When we turn down the lights [in the cinema], people tell us they feel like they are in the ’70s now, they’re not here. That’s what I wanted, to let them think in the mindset from that period, not from the mindset of today.
Speaking of sound, I wanted to ask you about Jean-Luc Godard, a director for whom sound is exceptionally important. He’s a recurring figure in Off Frame: we see excerpts from Notre musique (2004) and also from his earlier film Here and Elsewhere (1976), as well as footage from his American tour in 1970. What has his work meant to you as a filmmaker?
Of course his old work with the Nouvelle Vague is very important and interesting. But with Here and Elsewhere, that film provided us with the mechanism in a way [for Off Frame], or another way of seeing. Here and Elsewhere doesn’t show the Palestinian revolution, but it gives us the tools or the glasses to look at the revolution, to keep the dialectical perspective. For Godard, that is the revolution — the revolution is not just the theme, the political struggle, it’s also a cinematic struggle. I love Godard’s quote: “Cinema is like Palestine: both are looking for their freedom.” And he used the Palestinian question to attack the bigger questions. Like “How much are we free to see? How much are we free to express?” And he tried that in his film.
[Here and Elsewhere] totally cut his relationship with the Palestinians: they hated it in 1976. And I totally understand that. It was the time of revolution and it didn’t represent what they wanted as propaganda, as a way to tell their story. [Instead] it showed how you are making an image. This is what I tried to do all throughout Off Frame. How do we make our own images? How can we preserve our thoughts and our revolution or our struggle through the making of the film itself? At the same time, how do we keep that sense of self-critique and dialectic? It’s part of the process. Once you believe that you are in the revolution and that you are winning, that’s the beginning of the end. That’s what he was trying to tell us, and obviously he was telling the truth and we lost [that truth] somehow.
I think the reason Here and Elsewhere is such an interesting film is because it’s an interrogation of his own means as a filmmaker. That’s also in some ways what you’re doing Off Frame. It seems to be very much about your own means and your relationship to the material.
Yeah, definitely. It was also hard for me because it’s also dismantling the history that’s left. For me as a Palestinian, I was looking at all of these images and thinking “What does the revolution mean, how can we see it? Where are the shots where we can see our own struggle?” But when you’re dealing with cinema, you are dealing with reflection. And once you realise that, there’s a kind of freedom there; it makes you disbelieve or unsettle your image of yourself and that is the process that we need. I went through it, I’m feel I’m a healthier person now! I’m not taking everything for granted, but rather analysing it. It’s the 21st century; it’s the century of images. If you control the way you create and understand images — the ways of looking at them and what they produce — you have a much more productive and interesting way of seeing the future.
At the end of the day, the film is just an example. It’s not a way, it’s not a method, it’s just an example that we can add to our list of examples of how can we proceed in filmmaking. And also in struggle. I was looking at what’s happening in the Arab revolution and was in contact with several filmmakers in Egypt and Syria and Lebanon. It always felt to me that there was something wrong. The questions that young Arab filmmakers and activists are asking are the same ones the Palestinians revolutionaries of the ’60s and ’70s were asking. We’re still there? That whole project of modernity established by the Palestinians was not only for liberating and creating Palestine again, but it was a whole project for Arab society: thinking about how to deal with gender issues, how to deal with political oppressions and economic methods. These are the same questions of today. It made me think, was the Palestinian revolution too early or too late? Were the Arab struggles too late or too early? I don’t know, man.
These are the kind of questions that come to me. I feel more confident in my ability to discuss and to think about the material I see now. It’s not only about looking things as they are, but [also] looking at them within context.
Given that we’re talking about context and about histories of political filmmaking, I wanted to ask you about Third Cinema. You dedicated Off Frame to a pioneer of Palestinian Third Cinema in Mustafa Abu Ali. A question that is circulating a lot in academic circles today is about the continuing existence or disappearance of Third Cinema. That is, whether we ought to think of it as a historically situated movement — one that existed in certain places (Palestine, Cuba, Brazil) during a particular period and responding to particular political situations — or whether it is phenomenon that still exists, an approach to a politics of filmmaking.
I think Third Cinema was the daughter of a certain era. When we were talking about Third Cinema, there was Hollywood, the Art House in Europe, and the Third Cinema was the alternative. And also [on the global scale], there was the Soviet Union and America, and there was a need for a third way to represent the other parts of the world. That term came specifically to answer the questions of that period: the unaligned movement and anti-colonial struggle etc. I think Third Cinema is not a term we can use today, because when we make movies today, I have the editor coming from France, the sound designer from Copenhagen, the money comes from Brazil… Today, it’s more about the content and how we can exist in an international [sphere]. That’s also a question of globalisation. Globalisation made us understand that we are all dealing with the same tools at the end of the day. It’s the same camera that is used here or in London.
So the questions that are facing us as humans are becoming more unified. You see the whole world was following who was going to become the US president, or now the French president. These questions become global, and I think even the cinema becomes global. I can’t really compare [the two situations] and I can’t see Third Cinema as a format today. But I can think about the aesthetics of Third Cinema and see how we can take from it. This also relates to how you create your team and how you go about making films: how you write and how you produce for example. This is totally different to the way you study film in the US, where everybody has a role in a film and that role can’t be changed. While in Third Cinema, the soundman can be the cameraman, or the cameraman can be the director. People change and people discuss their work all the time, it’s not about producing a product so much as it is about producing a context. And I think that is independent cinema today. I like to think that the heritage of the Third Cinema was adapted by the independent cinema.
Today, our fight is more on the level of independence in the production of cinema. From Laos to Japan to Chile, it’s the same questions when we go to film festivals and we go to [distribution] markets and we see the tables around us with the projects… When we have a drink, we’re always talking about Eurocentrism and about how Europeans want to see our films. How can we create a mechanism where we can work together with the help of other friends that are based in more privileged positions in Europe, for example?
Just going off that, you mentioned that Off Frame is a coproduction between a few different countries. You’re one of a small but growing number of Palestinians working in cinema while living in Palestine but producing films in a transnational coproduction framework. What have you liked or disliked about this coproduction setup?
It’s a tricky question because coproduction comes with a certain direction but it also brings talent. I was really lucky with the coproduction with France in that we got really talented people to work on the film, [and that helped] in terms of having accessibility to the archives at the INA [Institut nationale de l’audiovisuel] and the Cinémathèque française. With Off Frame, it was very important to have this coproduction because it’s not only a Palestinian question, it’s a bigger question.
Right because it’s looking at films from all over the world so you need that outside access.
Right. But it’s also a coproduction that we controlled. It was very hard to keep the delegated producers Palestinian, but we managed. We made a lot of compromises there, refusing big amounts of money. Everything that was stopping us from having our share, we wouldn’t take it. But we would ask people to help out on the project and that led to agreements. We had our Swedish coproducer who was also our sound designer. Do things for us and you can be our coproducer! We tried to do coproduction in that sense, not in the sense that it was a relation between states or as a way to organise the industry or to regulate taxes. It was more, you are a part of the film if you put your efforts in it. I think this attitude — we’re doing it with other films, with other productions — I think that’s the right way. We share in creativity, not only in money. That really enriches the films. With Infiltrators — a film we did three years ago — it was the same thing. Today we’re finishing another film about Palestine, but really the team is international.
I guess that goes back to what you were saying about the kinds of modes of production and modes of distribution that existed in the ’60s and ’70s no longer existing now.
Yes. But we have our memory of [that cinema], and that memory is what we get out of Off Frame. Yeah it happened before, there’ s a lot mistakes, but it still can happen. This is the beauty of cinema, it’s for everyone.
So I had one last question: you mentioned in the Q&A after the screening on Tuesday that you were working on a follow up to Off Frame. Could you describe that project a little for us?
Well when I started Off Frame, I wasn’t actually looking at archives. I was looking for the story behind making these kinds of films. So I met around 30-35 people who were behind them both internationally and locally, and I accumulated a kind of personal archive of interviews and visited the locations where the shooting of these films took place. But trying to include that with the montage was difficult; I was trying to edit both together to tell a story. I couldn’t finish Off Frame until I came to believe that we don’t know what we’re talking about, so let’s see what we’re talking about. The second part is about hearing what we’re seeing.
This [follow up] film focuses on the history and aesthetics of that period. It’s complementary watching: when we are watching [Off Frame], we are seeing the archives of the period. We are hearing about the period in the second film. It’s now in post-production. The main question now is what does that [period] mean for us today? How can we proceed from here? How can we progress from this moment of watching that archive? I’m thinking of redoing the interviews, asking them for their thoughts on how we can proceed today, and maybe including more younger people who didn’t live through that period but also have an experience with archival practices. But it’s funny to see, well not funny, but it’s not only particular to Palestine and Palestinians. Every place is losing its memory, our cinematic memory. It’s everywhere: in Africa, South America, even in Europe, there are a lot of filmmakers and films that were made in the ’60s and ’70s that no one knows about today. You can make Off Frame for any country.
That’s what makes it a valuable project in some ways — that impulse to preserve at the same time as redeploying these images.
And to watch them. I’m so excited about yesterday’s screening [in Ramallah]. I realised how hard it was to stay quiet in the film as the director, not to comment and describe what I’m saying in the film. To keep it for them, to keep the archive and the sound of the films from the past and to listen to what these original films are saying as well. They are the filmmakers who made these images of the revolution. It was very uncomfortable for many people because they had to deal with it themselves, not through some mediator or a filmmaker telling them what to think. But it was interesting…
Well we might leave it there. Thank you so much for talking Mohanad, I wish you all the best with your upcoming production as well.
Thank you, thanks a lot.