When Cinema History Needs a Life Guard
- WHEN CINEMA HISTORY NEEDS A LIFE GUARD
By Hazim Bitar
A few years ago, I found myself embroiled in brouhaha confronting an injustice against a fellow independent filmmaker. I had never met the filmmaker. I only knew of him through his film. It was a special film named Struggle in Jarash directed by Wassef Elshikh Yassin.
This film was made special by the fact it was Jordanâs first feature film ever, produced in 1958 by a crew of passionate filmmakers who never received any formal education in filmmaking and who had no funding other than their personal savings.
When measured by prevailing standards of Arab cinema productions at that time, their film measured up. And it deserved the honor of being Jordanâs first feature film. It was simply a factual statement.
In 2007, and 20 or so feature films later, the Jordanian government rallied local and international resources to help produce a feature film titled Captain Abu Raed by young Jordanian director Amin Matalqa. The film was a success we are all proud of. So far so good.
But someone somewhere at a high level decided that Captain Abu Raed should be marketed as Jordanâs first feature film. Just like that. And what about Struggle in Jarash? What about the other 20+ feature films made in Jordan before it? Well, that was a minor technicality not to be bothered with.
Soon thereafter, official press releases were issued about Captain Abu Raed as the first Jordanian feature film. Interviews and publicity material repeated the same misinformation with dogged persistence, impervious to protestations by local independent filmmakers, led by truly yours.
The Jordanian government was sending another message to Jordanian indie filmmakers: it had no place for independent Jordanian cinema in the annals of official memory.
Worst of all, the misinformation was broadcast in full view of the surviving members of the cast and crew of the real first Jordanian feature film Struggle in Jarash.
The cruelty of it did not escape the attention of the Jordanian indie filmmaking community and people of conscience in the realm of Jordanian culture.
Then, renowned film critic Mr. Adnan Madanat jumped into the fray with a column that set the record straight, leaving little room for misunderstandings. Mr. Madanatâs article was titled Struggle in Jarash is the First Jordanian Feature Film. It was poetic justice.
I translated Mr. Madantâs article into English and circulated internationally. By 2009, the Royal Film Commission, the government entity which circulated the inaccuracies initially, held a special ceremony honoring the remaining members of the cast and crew of Struggle in Jarash. On their website, The Royal Film Commission officially listed Struggle in Jarash as the first Jordanian feature film.
It was a happy ending for the team of the first future film. But it was the start of my troubles.
Since that time, the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative (which I had founded in 2003 and continue to administer) had been subjected to a slow but determined campaign of liquidation.
Talented filmmakers who graduated from my free filmmaking workshops and whose films I have produced and distributed to festivals and others whose names I even associated with my films to help boost their CVs have been literally enticed with cash rewards in the form of âresearch contractsâ and other carrots with business names just to empty the Cooperative and in some cases to generate negative publicity about the Cooperative.
The pressure on many Cooperative filmmakers who wanted to move up in their filmmaking careers was tremendous. To not be in the good graces of the government meant closed doors, not only locally, but at festivals with strong ties to the local establishment.
I never realized how costly standing up for historical truth shall be.
Recently, when I came across an article in Jordanâs official paper, Al-Rai, I knew it was my turn to taste the same bitter medicine the crew and cast of Struggle in Jarash had tasted before.
The article in the official paper was about two student filmmakers who met each other in my filmmaking workshops, whose passion for filmmaking united them in holy matrimony. They went on to co-direct films together, with my technical and creative supervision and assistance.
The article spoke about their passion for filmmaking, and how they started their journey into filmmaking together (with no mention of the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative who brought them together and launched their filmmaking careers), and praised their films (with no mention of the creative and technical and distribution support by the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative). And so on and so forth.
This was not the first time Iâve read such columns and interviews in official papers. But the pervasiveness of omissions is unprecedented.
As we speak, I am being erased from official memory, in a Kafkaesque manner.
I sympathize with those Cooperative filmmakers who found themselves compelled to choose, and in some cases to show proof of loyalty.
In a normal environment, none of the filmmakers interviewed nor the government journalists writing the interview should find themselves worried about (or enticed to drop) any mention of the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative, lest their chances for moving ahead diminish.
As for me, so long as Mr. Adnan Madanat guards Jordanâs cinema history, I know I am in good hands. I just hope someone will stand up for both of us when neither of us is around.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hazim Bitar is an award-winning Jordanian-Palestinian filmmaker/writer and director of the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative. Since 2003, The Cooperative had produced over 50 short films at no cost to filmmakers, and held free filmmaking workshops for hundreds of students, mostly in marginalized Jordanian communities and in Palestinian refugee camps. http://JordanianFilms.com
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