“Fighting the jihad with the pen is the same as dying for the jihad,” says Mahmoud, a young Lebanese man in a new documentary dedicated to Edward Said, the Palestinian-American intellectual and advocate for the Palestinian cause.
“Out of Place,” by veteran director Makoto Sato — which retraces the late professor’s steps through Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and the United States — is as much about Said’s life as it is about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Sato shot almost 300 hours of footage over 12 months to compile the 137-minute film, spending time on both sides of the conflict: with a Palestinian family in the Ein el-Hilweh camp in Lebanon, residents of the Kibbutz Dan in Israel, Israeli teenagers and Palestinian tobacco growers in the segregated Galilean town of Ma’alot-Tarshiha.
“I used Said’s texts as a guide for my journey through the Middle East,” Sato said in an interview in Tokyo. “But I also tried to go there without preconceptions. I felt that task was easier for me, as a Japanese, somewhat removed from the conflict.”
The result is a carefully nuanced and beautifully filmed documentary. Sato’s shot of mist rolling into the Lebanese town of Dhur Choueir — where Said spent his summers as a child — is evocative of a Chinese brush painting.
These scenes only highlight the harsh realities depicted elsewhere in the film. In one scene, Sato talks to young boys playing in a devastated section of the Palestinian city of Ramallah who talked about the wall Israel is building that will meander into the West Bank.
“This place used to be beautiful. Bulldozers came and destroyed it,” one boy says. “Once I was just sitting here and the (Israeli) army came. . . . A soldier asked, ‘How do you like the wall? Is it pretty?’ I told him, ‘It’s ugly, like your face.’ “
Perhaps because of Sato’s perceived distance from the conflict, the subjects in the film appeared to easily drop their guard — sometimes seeming to forget the film crew’s presence as they continue with their daily chores.
“We’re surrounded by fear and threats. What can we do?” Palestinian refugee Najiya Sharara-Charide tells Sato as the director visits the man’s home in the Ein el-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon.
The Charide family was displaced from a village below Mount Meron in what is now northern Israel in 1948, shortly after the Jewish state was proclaimed. The family now runs a coffee brewing business within the camp.
Sato’s film also puts a human face on the Israeli experience.
The director walks through the Kibbutz Dan near the Lebanese border with Zohar Barkai, one of the first generation to be born and raised on the collective farm. His parents immigrated there in the early 20th century. “They believed they were building a new society here,” Barkai says as he takes Sato to a play school in the kibbutz. Of his relatives who stayed in Europe — his grandparents, his parents’ siblings — all but two died in the Holocaust, he says.
“Even those who survived had experienced terrible things. They had to rebuild from scratch, to make families, to give birth. . . . In some countries, we’ve lived in one place for hundreds of years. Those were our roots. Those roots were pulled out.”
Born in 1935 in Jerusalem, then part of British-ruled Palestine, Said (pronounced sah-EED) moved to Cairo and then to the United States at age 15. He eventually received a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and launched a successful academic career, most of it as a professor of English literature at Columbia University in New York.
Said wrote passionately about the Palestinian cause, as well as on a variety of other subjects, from his academic specialty to music and culture. He won a cultish following for his polemic “Orientalism” in which he denounces a long tradition of false and romanticized images of the East in Western culture, which he claimed served to justify colonialism.
Said was also a prominent member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile for 14 years, stepping down in 1991. After the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Said criticized Yasser Arafat because he believed the PLO leader had made a bad deal for the Palestinians.
“Out of Place” quotes liberally from Said’s works, including his memoir of that name, and many of his political writings. The film also draws on interviews with a number of academics, including the outspoken critic Noam Chomsky, and members of Said’s family.
“It always made him sad that despite his writings, and despite his massive popular following, and all his admirers, he always felt kind of inadequate because he hadn’t changed things on the ground,” Said’s son, Wadie, says.
Said spent much of the last years of his life jointly running a summer workshop for young musicians from Israel and Arab countries in different parts of the world with the Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim. The musician’s rendition of Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat major haunts the last scenes of the film.
“Edward believed that a separation between people cannot be a solution to issues that separate people,” Miriam, Edward’s widow, said at a recent film launch in Tokyo. Said died of leukemia in September 2003 at age 67.
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