Al Ahram Weekly 1 – 7 November 2001, Issue No.558
|FOUR HOURS IN CHATILA|
… of all the Palestine-inspired fare, no gesture in the direction of the ongoing Intifada could have hit the nail on the head with greater precision than the Swiss filmmaker Richard Dino’s Genet à Chatila, a Panorama screening.
The film is a long, audiovisual document of Jean Genet’s experience of the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon and Jordan in the early and mid-1970s, and again in 1982, when the aging Genet, already a well- known supporter of the Palestinian cause and now accompanied to Beirut by Leila Shahid (the Palestinian ambassador to France, then a university student in Paris), witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Chatila massacre just outside Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist militia, under the direction of the Israeli army, had undertaken a “barbaric feast,” and Genet couldn’t help but revel in it in his way: “A photograph can’t capture the flies,” he states, “nor the thick white smell of death, nor can it show how you have to jump when you go from one body to another.”
This was, so Shahid tells us, a phenomenal encounter, which compelled Genet to start writing after almost 20 years of reticence. The pages Genet worked on in silence in Beirut, just after his four-hour stroll through the Chatila camp, were to grow into Prisoner of Love, his last book, from which Dino’s work takes its cue. Reviewing, in merciless detail, the excellent work General Sharon (otherwise known as the current Israeli prime minister) achieved in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, Genet à Chatila moves back in time, into the minds and houses of the feda’iyeen lurking in the Jordanian desert, further away from the facts of the resistance (of which no trace remains at the time of filming), and deeper into the realm of Genet’s poetic genius, to which the book bears ample testimony: “These trees come back to me,” he recalls, referring to his two-year stay with the feda’iyeen, while an empty expanse of desert, punctuated by the trees in question, implants its likeness into the mind of the viewer. The words are more than evocative: their power of suggestion is such they imbue the images with a larger-than-life, not-as-boring-as-it-seems, multi-dimensional reality. “I haven’t said enough of their fragility. Everything was trees.” At the time of writing, Genet listened constantly to Mozart’s (ultimately unfinished) Requiem, which provides a large part of the soundtrack, then he too died while correcting the proofs, Shahid supplies meaningfully.
| Chatila Refugee Camp, Beirut 1982
She is standing in a typically nondescript hotel room in Paris, which was Genet’s last home. He died, as he so often described himself, a stranger among strangers, terminally tired of hunting down the superficially trivial memories from which he forged his own mythology. In one of many passages recited, with a dogged repetitiveness, through the journey, Genet wonders offhandedly, “Why talk about this revolution? It too resembles a long drawn out burial, with me following the funeral procession from afar.”
And yet revolution “is the happiest time of life,” the viewer is persuasively informed. “The feda’iyeen didn’t want power, they had freedom,” and “the death of a favourite fada’iye” paradoxically seemed to cheer them up, give them more determination. Their life, “in a Muslim country, where the woman is far away,” was an almost indelible “celebration.” Reflecting on the subsequent fate of his doomed companions, Genet insists, “It must be stated… that hundreds of years are not enough for the final destruction of a people.” In the light of current affairs, this is a salutary assertion indeed.
So much for affirmation: even here, Genet cannot help being subversive; and his position as a lone European among Palestinians is perpetually brought into focus. It was as if, living in a dark dungeon, the feda’iyeen’s heart’s desire was merely to intensify the darkness, to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Helpless and without hope: this is how Genet seems to like his Palestinians; that, in being part of the revolution he felt he was living “in his own memory” is the core of his sympathy, unconditional and ultimately of no use. He was a Frenchman, he says, but he could only find himself “amongst the oppressed risen against the whites.” The struggle of the Palestinians was “right,” not necessarily good or objectively justified. They were right simply because he loved them, and he wonders whether such love would have been possible had injustice not turned them into nomads. It is this distance, his self-awareness, that makes Genet’s account of the revolution so relevant: neither patriotism nor reason is brought into play; only the “incredible fact” of his being among them, like a shadow, colours his awareness of their suffering.
In reenacting his journey — at first she appears to be impersonating the young Shahid, but eventually she seeks out Genet’s surviving friends or their relations, spends a night in the desert with a cheerful band of former feda’iyeen, reads and recites Prisoner of Love, listens to the Requiem and steps pointlessly into the scene of the massacres, the killings, the simple acts of courage and kindness that enthralled Genet — Mounia Raoui, a young Algerian Frenchwoman, seems to be underlining the emptiness to which Genet alludes. It is true that her conversations with survivors and other Palestinians illuminate their plight in an incomparably immediate way — such, many would say, is the mark of a successful documentary — but it is her outrage at the lack of any record, in present-day reality, of what Genet reported, that makes her presence indispensable. Mounia is Dino’s counterpart for Genet’s writing, “the silent face” that makes up his account of the revolution: “So many words to say this is my Palestinian revolution,” which, to Genet at least, is not quite the same thing. Yet no one, “nothing, no narrative [or, by extension, cinematic] technique could ever describe” the real Palestinian revolution.
It has been buried, along with Mozart and Genet; and, like the graves of Chatila’s victims, its burying places have never been marked with tombstones. Genet was right, however, for, even as General- Prime Minister Sharon’s broad grin gives off the thick white smell of death, we know the final destruction of the Palestinian people is not nearly about to take place.