A fascinating and necessary nonfiction film, Off Frame: Revolution Until Victory (Kharej Al-Itar aw Thawra Hata el Nasser) looks at the struggles of the Palestinians through their own eyes. Director Mohanad Yaqubi relies on rarely seen footage from the Palestine Film Unit, a group founded in the 1960s that wanted to document the Palestinian revolution on film, and contrasts this raw material with excerpts from other sources as well as a glimpse of modern-day Palestine.
The result is a necessarily incomplete but frequently captivating essay film that gives Palestinians the opportunity to see something of their own history as captured by themselves and gives everyone else a glimpse into part of an ongoing conflict that’s been rarely documented directly from the Palestinian perspective (and even less frequently through firsthand audiovisual material). It should appeal to both general and nonfiction festivals and broadcasters.
An imperfect but fascinating time capsule.
The raison d’etre of the project is explained, onscreen, early on: “The following film tells the story of a people in search of their own image.” While this might sound pompous or come off as grandiose in most other cases, this very direct statement only highlights the fact that, indeed, the Palestinian people don’t have much of an idea of themselves in terms of direct visual material that hasn’t been filtered through outside sources, whether they are Israeli, British, French, American or come from the larger Arab World. This immediately explains the necessity of this particular project.
The core of Off Frame is a panoramic overview of some of the material shot by the Palestine Film Unit (much of what they shot was lost after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon). It consists of material relating to Palestinian fighters and their causes and actions — “I don’t like killing; I might kill or be killed but that’s for the sake of peace,” one soldier explains — but also other types of material, including a surreal, gently mocking scene in which children, dressed up as adult cliches, are used to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and why the West is so interested in the Middle East.
As a general overview of the struggle of the Palestinians during the second half of the 20th century, Yaqubi manages to be surprisingly nimble whilst covering a large range of topics. Footage of Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan thus gives way to shots of women taking literacy and political classes (the latter heavily influenced by foreign ideas of revolution from Latin American, China and Russia; this connection also pushes the film itself into Third Cinema territory).
Presented without additional commentary (though sometimes enhanced by excellent foley work), much of this footage will gain additional resonance only for audiences who have some familiarity with the situation in the Middle East over the last seven decades. The school-going adult women, for example, practically all had their heads uncovered back in the day, while old photos of Palestinian fighters of all ages show them smiling, the very opposite of the videos of the severe fighters of the Islamic State we get to see nowadays.
One of the recurring mantras, expressed by on-the-ground soldiers and all the way up to the military and political leaders, seems to be that the Palestinians don’t want to fight or conquer anyone, but that they won’t accept being driven out of their own homes either. “Love (for our country) is our motive, not hatred,” notes one of them, and variations on this are heard throughout the film.
However, since the material is edited in what appears to be a roughly chronological order but without any specific reference to when or where any of it was shot and what was and wasn’t filmed by the Palestine Film Unit, it is often hard to get a handle on the specifics of what’s presented. An interview with Yasser Arafat, for example — in which he also underlines that “we do not want to fight” — is of course a necessary piece of the puzzle, but it would have helped to know who shot it and where and when.
Some of Off Frame clearly consists of material from Western broadcasters in what looks like the 1960s and 1970s and some famous faces pop up, including Vanessa Redgrave and Jean-Luc Godard (the latter’s pro-Palestinian 1970 documentary Jusqu’a la victoire partially inspired this film’s moniker; the French filmmaker later recycled some of the material from that film for his 1976 feature Here and Elsewhere). These nuggets offer valuable contextual material but also dilute the film’s main idea, which is to try and create an image of the last six decades or so of Palestinian life and struggles using their own images. Whether Yaqubi finally succeeds in his lofty task is thus somewhat hard to assess.
The film also tries to further contextualize the historical material by showing images of Palestine today toward the end, including children at school. This image immediately creates a subterranean link to not only an earlier sequence involving school children being indoctrinated in grainy color footage — “Can we negotiate to get our homeland back?” a teacher barks; “No!” is their deafening answer — but also to a humble fighter being interviewed. The latter is asked how long he thinks the armed struggle will have to continue. “Whether it’s three or five or even 10 years, it doesn’t matter,” he says optimistically. “My children will finally profit from it.” Whether the hypothetical children of his children, who might be attending that school in contemporary Ramallah now, profit from it is one of the main unanswered questions of this imperfect but fascinating time capsule.
Production companies: Idioms Films, Monkey Bay Production, Subversive Films, Sak A DO, Tulpa Productions
Director: Mohanad Yaqubi
Screenplay: Reem Shilleh, Mohanad Yaqubi
Producers: Sami Said, Mohanad Yaqubi
Executive producers: Andre Waksman, Rasha Salti
Director of photography: Sami Said, Rami Nihawi, Sara Sea
Sales: Idioms Films
No rating, 62 minutes