“For an Invisible People, the Camera Would be Their Weapon” – Lecture and discussion with Mohannad Yaqubi and Irit Neidhardt

As part of the ALFILM special on 70 years of Nakba, a lecture took place on Tuesday at Wolf Cinema’s studio. Director and producer Mohannad Yaqubi gave an insight into the disappearance of the Palestinian people in his lecture with the working title “Chronology of Dissapearence”. Political scientist Irit Neidhardt spoke in her lecture “On Solidarity and Dependency – The Beginnings of PLO-DDR Filmmaking in the 1970s” on the relationship of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the DDR (East Germany). Artistic Director of the ALFILM Festival Fadi Abdelnour warmly welcomed them and gave a brief introduction to the topic before the two speakers began.


© Emelie Kucharzik


According to Mohannad Yaqubi, the beginning of the gradual disappearance of the Palestinians marks the establishment of Jerusalem as the center of the Christian world. To illustrate this, he showed the public the well-known image of the Christian theologian Heinrich Bünting from 1581, in which the world is depicted as a shamrock, the center of which is the holy city of Jerusalem.

A first cinematographic recording was made in 1896 by the Lumière Brothers, who filmed a train leaving Jerusalem. A crucial role in the process of bringing Palestine to the screen was played by the church. It had tried to reinvigorate its aged image by producing film and photography – the holy land was a frequent motif.

According to Yaqubi, the most significant influence on the disappearance of the Palestinian people from the screen was the presence of modern technologies in the country. For many people from the West, these modern machines (such as motor cars) would not have fit in with the supposedly romantic illusion of historical, biblical Palestine. Yaqubi exemplifies this with the French writer Pierre Loti, whose anachronistic, orientalist conception of Palestine ran completely counter to that of a country with an abundance of motor cars. Essentially, modern technologies and western clothing worn and used by the Palestinians on film and television caused great confusion among Western audiences. Although a modern society was evident, it was simply ignored.

1948 had evidently represented a turning point for the Palestinians. For the most part, even today, there are only memories of the pre-1948 or post-1948 period – but the memories of 1948 itself, and the trauma that ocurred, are only dimly present. In 1948, the disappearance of the Palestinians reached its sad culminating point. In many media was even not even more talk of Palestinians, but only by Arab refugees.

To regenerate a Palestinian narrative and resist, the camera became a weapon. The image of the Fida’is, a Palestinian resistance fighter, soon developed into a popular motif. The Times newspaper wrote an article: “Who are the Palestinians?”. The image of the corresponding newspaper was a veiled Palestinian, which again contributed to a certain mystification of the Palestinian people. Meanwhile, in Palestine and the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, the image of the Fida’i (a Palestinian fighter) became a popular dress-up costume. Visitors to the area would frequently be photographed dressed up in this costume to keep as a souvenir.

In conclusion, Yaqubi states that today the Palestinian people face the same question as in 1948 – who are we? To answer this question, Yaqubi says, a complete chronology, a holistic narrative, is indispensable.

Irit Neidhardt reported in her lecture on the relations of the PLO and the DDR in the 1970s. The PLO had been founded in the 1960s by the Arab League, in 1974 by the United Nations and shortly afterwards recognized by about 100 states as the official representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO was now able to act for and represent the Palestinians on an international level. The PLO functioned as a kind of umbrella organization, which had adopted quasi-state structures in the form of taxation and pension insurance. There were structures which resembled a state, without actually having a state. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was well organized and found a significant partner in the DDR. This partnership would have been bolstered by certain analogies between DDR and PLO, says Neidhardt. The DDR was not been fully recognized, isolated and marginalized internationally. West Germany saw it as an affront if other states signed agreements with the hostile DDR and threatened to withdraw all financial support in these cases. Nonetheless, 5 states broke with the so-called Hallstein doctrine: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria and the Congo. Around 100 more states also recognized the DDR, which finally received a seat in the United Nations in 1973. The DDR urgently needed cooperations or agreements that could have made them appear stronger an international level. The DDR maintained close relations with Syria in particular. At the same time, the headquarters of the DFLP and the Ministry of Culture and Information of the PLO established themselves in Syria. The latter had, among other things, the responsibility for film exchange and television. The chairman of this ministry was Abdullah Hurani, a member of the Baath Party. Since Hurani was familiar structures of the DDR through his work in Syria, he was one of the main people responsible for the tightly restricted relations between the DDR and the PLO. He knew exactly what the DDR needed – money in the form of dollars.

Fortunately for the DDR, the culture ministry of the PLO was led at that time by the Marxist-Leninist party, which also supported the relationship. Soon after, a Palestinian delegation arrived in Berlin and pursued two main interests: they wanted a co-production agreement and they wanted to open their own film studios – these were never actually built. The first resulting film was an archive compilation whose images had come from the state film archive of the DDR. The PLO, through its treaty with the DDR, had access to material previously denied to all other Palestinian organizations. This gave the PLO the opportunity to finally create its own Palestinian narrative through film. For its part, the DDR received payments from the PLO, which it badly needed – this broadened the relationship with the PLO, as well as relations with many other Arab states. Cooperation between the PLO and the DDR did not limit itself to film. For example, during the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, the DDR even played a crucial role as a mediator between the various PLO factions.

To conclude, Irit Neidhardt presented a German-Palestinian documentary film from the 1970s, which arose from cooperation between the DDR and the PLO. In 1975 he won the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival for his work.