Subversive Film
Resounding Archives: Researching Militant Filmmaking and Revolution in the Palestinian Context


Els Roelandt: Between 2010 and 2021, you (Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi) both worked on an archival project called Subversive Film. Can you introduce us to Subversive Film and also tell us a bit about yourselves?

Subversive Film: It’s interesting you call Subversive Film a project, since we formally define it as a cinema research and production collective, but in actuality it is an ongoing collective practice of questioning and deconstructing archives, what is considered archival material, and archives’ political, social, and historical context. We call the overarching conceptual framework the Imperfect Archive. This collective practice began with three members: Nick Denes, and the two of us, Mohanad Yaqubi and Reem Shilleh. Currently Nick is busy with other projects. The impulse with which the collective was first created in 2011 was the question of how to bring Palestinian revolutionary or militant cinema, its history and work, back into circulation. Through separate research strands, the three of us came across films, documents, and more importantly people and their memories of that specific forgotten period of political filmmaking in the Palestinian revolutionary time of 1968–82. Soon the methodology we adopted was that of redistribution, rethinking ways of distributing material that had been dormant since the 1980s. We’ve experimented with several presentation formats. We show the films in curated and thematized film programs, producing translation and subtitling as well as publications that acted as carriers of information for further research—film catalogues and booklets. We also work with film montage and editing as a mode of redistribution.

Over the years these methodologies led us to look at the overarching mechanism of work, or the conceptual framework of what we do as the Imperfect Archive, which proposes to consider the archive as multiplicity, not a single hegemonic construct but a multitude of possibilities for archive-making.

ER: I understand that a research and production collective is hardly just a project and because you pointed this out to me, I could not help myself from looking up Boris Groys’ essay The Loneliness of the Project (1) and his comments about what “a project” can really imply. Groys also comments on documentation:

But the conventional question that comes to mind is to what extent documentation, including art documentation, can actually represent life itself? All documentation is under general suspicion of inexorably adulterating life. For each act of documentation and archiving presupposed a certain choice of things and circumstances. Yet, such a selection is determined by criteria and values which are always questionable, and necessarily remain so. Furthermore, the process of documenting something always opens up a disparity between the document itself and the documented events, a divergence that can neither be bridged nor erased. But even if we managed to develop a procedure capable of reproducing life in its entirety and with total authenticity, we would again ultimately end up not with life itself, but with life’s death mask, for it is the very uniqueness of life that constitutes its vitality. It is for this reason that our culture today is marked by a deep malaise towards documentation and the archive, and even by vociferous protest against the archive in the name of life. The archivists and bureaucrats in charge of documentation are widely regarded as the enemies of true life, favoring the compilation and administration of dead documents over the direct experience of life. In particular, the bureaucrat is viewed as an agent of death who wields the chilling power of documentation to render life grey, monotonous, uneventful and bloodless—in brief, deathlike. Similarly, once the artist too starts to become involved with documentation, he runs the risk of being associated with the bureaucrat, under suspicion as a new agent of death.

Starting from this remark, could you tell us something about what you call “the archive as multiplicity, as a multitude of possibilities,” about your specific methodology of distribution and redistribution? How does your artistic practice interfere with both the methodology and the output of the archive?

SF: Thank you for sharing Groys’ The Loneliness of the Project with us—we never read it before. And we exchanged so many glances and smirks while reading aloud together, simply because we identified with so much of the loneliness he speaks of. We do very often feel lonely when we are inside our projects, and yet so also impregnated with potential—i.e. the future. But the text falls short at certain points, especially around the passage you cited here, in relation to certain forms of archival practices in the arts. We do bear in mind that what Groys is really concerned with is an entirely different type of documentation, and archiving especially perhaps in relation to art institutions.

We see the loneliness as a symptom of a post-liberal economy, but we don't complain about it because the type of material we are dealing with calls for participation. Since the beginning of our “practice,” inclusivity has been a pillar—we anticipate talking to others about the recognition of a gesture in a film, communicating a narrative, getting feedback, editing text, or translating a subtitle. Though it deals with documents as working material, ours is not a practice of documentation in any way. If archiving by way of documentation is a moment of death, as suggested by Groys, the archives and acts of archiving we work with absolutely insist on life. At the very basic level, our work deals with films and other documents that were made as anticolonial acts, insisting on the voices of those who have been dispossessed, and more importantly exposed to aggressive acts of erasure. That’s how and why the films were made. They belong to a period during which global networks of solidarity with emancipatory struggles allowed for extensive circulation, but once those networks and struggles were extinguished by a politics driven by neoliberal economy, the films fell almost entirely out of circulation and found their resting place in archives.

Our attempts of redistribution examine all the potentials for presenting the archived material today and invoke (and inevitably challenge) a certain collective memory of the Palestinian liberation struggle towards which these works were made. Our curated film programs bring up specific questions and aspects of militant filmmaking. In our work with producing publications, we mimic the means of distribution methods used in the 1960s and 70s—especially since we’ve encountered many of these during our research and they are resources for much of our work. Very often we present the films and relevant documents (images, publications, posters) in their raw form, speaking for themselves as much as that is possible considering they have our questions looming over them as curatorial statements. But there is also the filmic aspect of our work, direct interventions in the moving image—extracting, editing, and manipulating segments of the films to produce our own narratively woven film form.

To return to Groys’ text, we believe that the loneliness that he describes comes from working with archival material without dismantling the power structures, including that of the host institute, that contribute toward positioning a certain piece of archive within a narrative. Going beyond the physicality of the archive and its space, we look for narratives that manifest power structures (of archives as institutions). Circulation and redistribution is part of reclaiming agency over these narratives. In our case, images and sounds of people in a struggle represent a collective memory that is not owned but rather saved by people themselves.

ER: Can you give some examples of people whose voices you bring back to life in your archive?

SF: Since the beginning of Subversive Film, we were dealing with the interviews we have been making as text—transcribed, corrected, footnoted—and they provided us with directions, hints and bridges that allowed us to delve deeper into researching film and revolution in the Palestinian context. Eventually we felt that by only reading, we were bypassing the voices—we were not listening to the knowledge, the emotions, or the memory that the voice itself holds.

Many times during these interviews we missed the point, and the people we were meeting were kind to ignore our illusions and misconceptions, and continue with their thoughts and stories. It took us time to realize that what we are looking for is not an archival body of Palestinian cinema, but the imprint of the breadth of transnational solidarity. We finally understood that the only way militant film and emancipatory politics can be subversive is if they are made in and about solidarity.

The voices in our current podcast series Resounding Archives arrive from different places, geographically and politically, and from different temporalities. Not only do they come from the past ten years of interviews we made, but also from films made in the 1970s long before us. These films were either made by our conversation partners, as is the case with Monica Maurer (The Fifth War, 1980), Nils Vest (An Oppressed People is Always Right, 1976), Masao Adachi (Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War, 1971), and Serge Le Péron (L’Olivier, 1976), or have touched the lives of our friends, like those by Khadijeh Habashneh, Akram Zaatari, Issam Nassar, Alan Bernstein, Ivan Strasburg, Lokman Slim and Sten Walegren. The interviews are made with minimal editing and intervention from our end. They also archive us, as a collective—they archive ambiances, backgrounds, and languages. It feels as if we are searching for the voice, rather than making a podcast or producing an artwork.

Most of the people we interviewed in the past decade have made films, been involved in their making, have been in them, or appear in their afterlives (as researchers, archivists, writers, etc.). Our conversations usually begin with questions about filmographies, descriptions of the films, the conditions of production, and the reactions of the audiences of those times. We meander into other places, political positions and internal fractures, ideological differences, the dysfunctionality of the revolution, but we always wind back to the films, where things seem so much more possible.

ER: In the interviews you speak with many people speaking from different times, as you say. You assemble these multiple voices and in doing so create a kind of “socio-poetics,” a place where aesthetics and social structures are bridged. I am here referring to Sylvia Wynter, who offers socio-poetics in response to Edouard Glissant’s ethno-poetics (2). You as interviewers and those being interviewed are doing active work together—co-conspiring, thinking with each other across different generations, across historical divides. How do you experience differences, even if small, in generations?

SF: The generational gap reflects how modernity has transformed social structures over the last century, and that the ability to transport and transform is now dictated by capitalism and the logic of resource ownership. How do we think of memory production and preservation within these parameters? In modern governed countries these mechanisms are translated into institutions such as museums, archives, research centers, and academia, but this is something that we in Palestine and in most other Arab countries don't have. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any institutions or structures, but the lack of this capitalist formation for the circulation of resources and capital creates ground for decentralized practices of cultural and memory formation.

We felt that these interviews are “resounding” because they don’t only reveal a certain history of cinematic practices but also function as a type of movement, of circulation. We ask and then we receive answers, but there is also transport, exchange, traffic of data, news, and greetings among all of us. It’s like blowing dust off of a long-forgotten object, except here we were reawakening old friendships. So we look at time not as a referential frame but as shared space, or an enclosure of the shared.

This transformation of time gains yet more momentum when thinking of Palestinian cultural memory, which is memory of transnational solidarity, part of a very extended global network of emancipatory struggles that still either reverberate or continue. Reawakening this history can provide context for today, and for how the various struggles connect now. How does Palestine, as an ongoing settler-colonial project, relate to other struggles, past and present?

ER: In each interview you ask the filmmaker: “What is a militant filmmaker?” Can you answer that question? Do you have a definition of a militant filmmaker, and does that role exist today?

SF: We’re always asking what militant cinema is because it’s a term that can't be defined within classical categorizations of film. It’s neither fiction nor documentary, nor short or feature format, it’s not commercial or independent, it can’t be classified as arthouse or Third Cinema. It can simultaneously be all of those things and none at all.

If the term militant refers to an attitude, a process and a way of life, its cinema reflects that. It's cinema that accompanies militants as a tool rather than an art form. Its aesthetics is inspired by the surrounding conditions. It's a result, an output. It mainly aims to communicate, mobilize, and preserve the struggle or culture. Militant cinema is always in motion: in a fight with the critics, with the industry, and with the enemy. It doesn't respect copyright. It's not looking for an audience as much as for believers.

In the period we are researching, the 1970s, the definition of militant cinema was much clearer, since the struggles that created it were clear. The cinema took the shape of movements, and the practice was close to the practitioners. Today a more complex chain of production and distribution keeps filmmakers distracted and distanced from the main purpose of making films. As it's more difficult to define political affiliation, it is more difficult to attach films to a political practice.

In Palestine, occupation has trapped the Palestinian consciousness in the construct of current time and space. Always being in the here and the now is a symptom of coloniality and a tool to control oppressed peoples. And so we see resistance in the attempt to move from the here and now to the then and there. Reclaiming the ability to determine time and place is a militant act, not necessarily in the language of the 1970s, but using its aesthetics to build up an imaginary of the possible.

From this point, our practice gains a different perspective. Could it be considered a militant practice, because of its insistence on perpetually rehearsing a memory not only in order to remember but to learn and be inspired, both cinematically and politically? Treating such a memory with care and precision is important, so that it becomes more inclusive and representative of a period rather than of a certain ideology. The reason for broadcasting interviews with minimum intervention, is to reflect this approach of allowing for multiple interpretations.

ER: You have chosen to air the interviews live via Radio Alhara located in Bethlehem. Can you tell us about this radio station?

SF: Since we decided to use the audio format for working with the interviews, we started thinking about their distribution. If we were to resound an archive, we needed to find a place for it. Radio Alhara started broadcasting in March 2021 as the world was coiling into lockdowns and isolation, and its epicenter was Palestine, Bethlehem and Ramallah. But it quickly grew beyond just Palestine. It was founded by five friends who are architects, artists, and designers, among other things. It started spontaneously and evolved into a tight community of contributors.

ER: How will you continue this research?

SF: The Resounding Archives project is one of the outcomes rather than the end of the research. It has been great to experience the practice of listening, which brought about many new meanings, especially around that point of disconnecting image from sound. It opened a new dimension of knowledge that we didn't quite grasp before, a certain abstraction, a flow of data that is not interrupted by colors or forms. It created a different emotion, another way of connecting.

More interviews are being made with people of the transnational solidarity network with Palestine and the wider Global South. Links are constantly emerging between the people, locations, events, and micro-ideologies of this network, rendering new understandings of the dynamics of solidarity in filmmaking and tracing the influence of the political, social, and economic conditions of the aesthetics produced.

Concretely with Resounding Archives, the next chapter is a book which contains the transcripts, translations, and visual annotations of the interviews that have aired in the past weeks, with Nils Vest, Monica Maurer, Khadija Habashneh, Serge Le Péron, Masao Adachi, Alan Bernstein, Ivan Strasburg, Akram Zaatari, Issam Nassar, Lokman Slim, and Sten Walegren.

  1. Boris Groys, The Loneliness of The Project, in The New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory, New York, 2002.
  2. Sylvia Wynter, On Being Human as Praxis, Duke University Press, 2015.