Egyptian film provides poetic and impassioned look at Palestine’s occupation

Images of the sea and its vociferous waves speak to the uncharted experiences it holds. Images of advertisement billboards in Ramallah speak to a fabricated state of normalcy.

These and some others make of Omar Robert Hamilton’s “Though I Know the River Is Dry” a film that is more than what it is actually about.

Exploring the struggle that a young Palestinian man goes through, between leaving the occupation behind to give his newborn son better chances in America and staying inside next to his brother whose activism promises a tumultuous fate, the film presents one more Palestinian plea.

But it does not end there.

In many ways, like some of the images embedded in the narrative, the film travels in the midst of multiple layers of time and space, trying to resist the fixity that occupation casts upon our imagination.

This, however, does not necessarily happen through recurrent imagery from the repertoire of occupation that persist in the film: checkpoints, queues, crossings, bombings, humiliation, wounds, screams and more. In a way, these images produce and reproduce a rather exhausted notion of occupation as we have grown to understand it, perhaps even as the occupier has driven us to visualize it.

But it is images, both literal and figurative, leaving an array of meanings behind them, which create a different lens into the nature of occupation today. The sea and the city somewhat suspending the flow of occupation, and producing confused realities, are cases in point.

The personal struggle of the protagonist is also a case in point.

As the first part of the film zooms into a personalized yet cosmic dilemma of migration as a move away from hardship, Hamilton engages us in a psychic trip where the protagonist constantly travels in his head between the burden of history and the promises of the future. This trip is most notably composed through intriguing archival relics, loaded confrontations between the protagonist and his mother, the nihilistically defeating performance of his brother and the intimate conversations with his pregnant wife.

The trip is further illustrated through the language of a highly poetic script written by Hamilton. Mostly a series of discontinued fragments rather than a classical dialogue or even monologue, the script’s power lies both in its spoken words and the silence that fills the space between them.

Like a growing repertoire of cultural production that champions the value of the personal in telling the story of the Palestinian cause, “Though I Know the River Is Dry” intimately delves into the “impossibility of living a moment free of responsibility to your cause,” as the director put it in his film statement.

The personal is perhaps quickly transcended into the broader struggle against occupation when the film ascends into the man addressing, quite straightforwardly, the occupier from the Qalandia crossing. An important face of how occupation is mainstreamed in everyday life, the Qalandia crossing is the frontier Israel has drawn between Ramallah and Jerusalem for Palestinians with mobility permits going back and forth throughout the day.

The protagonist speaks to how he hates the name Qalandia and from there moves on to exhibit the existentialist crisis that the occupation has cast over his life and others. “Qalandia. I hate the name. There is no other word. (Sound of perhaps an Israeli officer calling people crossing at the checkpoint): you made us go back to the beginning. To the naming of things (image of pregnant wife).” The crisis lies in the constructed reality that the occupation has imposed, and which, albeit resisted through the historicity of the struggle, is still mainstreamed through present everyday life.

In this existentialist moment, the protagonist questions the depths of the words “choices” and “freedom” as he fails to inhabit them in the course of his life. “You liberated us from choice. You liberated us from doubt,” he tells the occupier, in a twist of language. His words can sound as conventional language of condemnation born of a personal story used to tell a broader Palestinian story.

But these words also remain personal in how they do not repeat bigger political slogans but recognize the difficulty of commitment to the cause and its full meaning.

“Though I Know the River Is Dry” defies its own self, for even though it is a film about loss, its cinematic language at times defeats narrow conceptions about the occupation in a context where the political and the personal, the private and the public are inextricably connected.

And the very point of departure of an Egyptian English director making the film against a backlog of misconceptions in the Arab World, with cultural boycott entailing turning your back to the borders of historic Palestine, is an act of resistance. By traveling to Palestine and making this film, Hamilton actively challenges the anti-normalization stance as inherited from history books and grand political slogans. Instead, he contributes to a continuously renewed understanding of the cause of occupation through the realm of the personal.

"Though I Know the River Is Dry" will be screened on Tuesday, 26 March, at 8pm as part of the alternative arts festival Hal Badeel at the Townhouse Gallery's Factory Space, Hussein al-Ma’mar Pasha St., off Mahmoud Basiony St., downtown, Cairo. The screening is followed by Mashou3 al-Mareekh's open mic at 8:30, and a concert by Darwasha Band at 9:15.

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