Documenting Alienation in The Middle East

Published July 19th, 2022 - 08:05 GMT
The mask
A Palestinian protester wears a mask painted in the colours of the national flag in Gaza on 22 February (AFP)

Until recently, I worked a dead-end job editing videos for a millionaire. The interviews were long and self-serving, the graphics were corny, and I was depressed. I would send the videos off, indifferent to how good the editing was, stare at the wall, and wait to be paid.

They were mostly dull, but I would occasionally sense they were harming the world. There was a chasm between my sense of what is good and right and my work. I was not myself. I was alienated.
It is not just me. Alienation is everywhere; inside ourselves, between each other, and between citizens and the state. In its technical way, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines alienation as when a subject and an object cannot meet. This is not, in the poet Andrew Marvell’s words, because “fates conspire.” There are no parallel loves separated by chance that causes alienation.
Instead, alienation is the separation between a self and other when those two “properly belong together.” Between your idea of yourself and your actual self, for example. Between you and the product of your labour. Or between you and social groups to which you would typically belong. There is nothing fated about alienation. Instead, it is modernity’s effect on personal, political, and social relationships.
Things are no different in the Middle East. A recent study suggested that youth unemployment in the region is delaying adulthood for millions of young people and causing widespread feelings of alienation. As far back as the 1970s, one writer argued that alienation is “the single most important theme” in literature from the region. Samah Jabr, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, wrote that alienation is more common in Palestine than elsewhere in the world due to a sense of political powerlessness and economic deprivation.
At Sheffield DocFest last month, two new documentaries explored alienation in the Middle East. Marwan: Tomorrow’s Freedom, directed by Sophia Scott and Georgia Scott, tells the life of Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian member of parliament imprisoned by Israel in 2002. It follows Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa Barghouti, and their family as they reflect on Barghouti’s rise to politics, arrest, and hunger strike over prison conditions.

The film covers Barghouti’s trial where he was handed five life sentences over his alleged involvement in the deaths of Israeli civilians and military personnel during the Second Intifada. One expert witness interviewed in the documentary says the trial was deeply flawed; the trial should never have been held in Israel, and court transcripts suggest the judge had already decided on a verdict before the trial began.
Always in political struggle, the film suggests, there is alienation. This doesn’t have to be negative. Only by reaching a point of alienation, perhaps, can it be so necessary to create change that political action will arise. Barghouti is separated from Palestine, and Palestine is separated from him. It argues for a unifying figure capable of representing Palestinians while being open to speaking with Israel. Alienated though Palestinian citizens are from their political representatives, the election of Barghouti (who most Palestinians want to be elected as president) could lead to political unity and a way towards lasting peace.
If Marwan: Tomorrow’s Freedom offers us a glimpse of alienation caused by political oppression, My Paper Life, directed by Vida Dena, portrays subjective alienation that is tortured, knotty, and complex in a film that is, I think, genius. The film was created collaboratively between the director and a young Syrian refugee family living in Brussels.

The director met the family through an art class. Seeing that she was struggling, the father invited Dena back to the family’s home, and there she met his children, including his two adolescent daughters, who are the film's focus. Apart from one short sequence, it is shot entirely inside the family’s apartment alongside animated scenes created from drawings made by the youngsters. These sequences, which provide context and are the most moving moments in the film, are narrated by one of the young girls.
The teenagers talk about school life, the ups and downs of finding friends in a new country, the promises and difficulties of romantic love, and aspirations for their futures. Amongst these themes, there is a constant return to the family, both in how the film is shot and edited and in the dialogue. The apartment sustains them in a liminal moment, as they inhabit a culture that is starting to present itself to the teenagers whilst they are beginning to know themselves and their histories better.
One of the young girls struggles to make friends at school and dreams of a wedding and children. Her younger siblings support her. She needs more self-confidence, one of the sisters says. My Paper Life: a fragile and floating life, yes, but also a life capable of being fashioned, coloured, and shaped into a narrative to be shared with oneself and others. Alienation conquered by craft and sharing.
It is worth saying something about alienation and film festivals in the commerce of culture. Festivals, like the one at Sheffield, are mainly industry events, and films are screened to audiences to gain funding or awards (which in turn promises future funding). They are industry events in two ways: first, in the pricing model, which will typically exclude those without the capital needed to attend all the screenings or without institutional funding; and second, in the way the films are exchanged in the context of commercial industry.
Festival schedules are, to a significant extent, made up of networking sessions, drinks receptions, pitch meetings, and, my personal favorite, “meet markets.” This pun, which I enjoy whenever I hear it, neatly encompasses the relationship between filmmaker and film industry as it manifests at festivals; embracing the commodification of films and artists where the only form of value is exchange value, as opposed to the use value of a documentary that might, for example, foster solidarity or articulate a unique or universal experience.  

The effect is that the artist and audience are alienated from the artwork itself. In documentary film, where the meaning is implicitly connected to the public sharing of the subject filmed, this leads to anomie. Human relationships are reduced to buzzwords that signify little other than a token responsibility on the part of filmmakers to pay attention to the welfare of their subjects.
An attendee at film festivals enters the world of nineteenth-century European world exhibitions. Who else to turn to for clarity than Walter Benjamin, who, regarding world exhibitions, wrote: “They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted… He surrenders to its manipulation whilst enjoying his alienation from himself and others.”
Alienation in films and setting, then, at Sheffield DocFest this year. But both films convey the importance of crossing the water between alienation and meaning through political engagement and the flourishing of subjectivity.


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