Co-Director Nick Denes on the upcoming cinema and gallery series, 'The World is With Us, Global Film and Poster Art from the Palestinian Revolution, 1968 - 1980'
"We want to capture this sense of their being 'living' media rather than artificially sacralised or displayed with a gallery-style reverence that was never their original intention, and which jars with their very nature as political ephemera, however wonderful their artistic content might be."
Some 50 years ago the Palestinian movement Fatah established a small printing press in Amman from which they produced revolutionary posters. The Palestinian revolution had begun in the refugee camps; people wanted national unity, self-reliance and they wanted to achieve it through popular, armed struggle.
The posters were designed primarily to recruit people to the cause. Many featured a gun; others the words 'freedom' and 'victory,' whilst some addressed issues such as house demolitions. At the time they were circulated around the region, pinned up in Jordanian refugee camps and hung on the walls of PLO bureaus.
Around the same time revolutionary cinema emerged. Inspired by the posters, the moving image was produced on a much smaller scale, and was less well known, but like the posters combined the aesthetic with the political. Both disciplines were looking to shake off the colonialist 'passive' refugee image and find an innovative way to represent the people.
A selection of this film footage and graphic art has been reproduced and will be on display at an upcoming exhibition this month. 'The World is With Us, Global Film and Poster Art from the Palestinian Revolution, 1968-1980' will begin at the Barbican Cinema on 16 May and continue at the Rich Mix until 14 June.
"It was a lengthy and quite difficult process choosing these posters, as there are so many striking works one might choose," says Nick Denes, Co-Director of the series. "But our aim has been - insofar as we can restrain ourselves - not to pick the 'best' or our 'favourite' works, but rather ones that were widely used or seen in their time, and, or which represent key aesthetic or thematic concerns."
The posters were selected from the Palestine Poster Project Archives, while the reproduction prints were created in the UK. The films, he explains, were sourced from attics and libraries around the world. Some were discovered by chance in people's homes and in storage facilities. Others came from state archives in Australia, Russia and Serbia.
The organisers of the series wanted to avoid a 'white cube' or 'museum' style mode of displaying the material: "it was, in its day, largely political ephemera, treated as such and distributed, displayed in a manner that reflected the immediacy and sometimes the urgency of its form and content" says Denes.
To reflect this, the exhibition space has been designed to echo cinema depictions of early PLO information bureaus, with communication technologies and walls adorned with posters and newspapers. Twenty hours of film will play alongside the 30 posters.
"Posters frequently appear within films, pasted haphazardly on office walls or pinned one on top of the last" says Denes. "We want to capture this sense of their being 'living' media rather than artificially sacralised or displayed with a gallery-style reverence that was never their original intention, and which jars with their very nature as political ephemera, however wonderful their artistic content might be."
Presenting the work in this way means viewers can recognise the work as living artefacts, which are open to reinterpretation, and "not sealed off from critical or creative encounter by virtue of their rarity – if anything, given their genesis as expressions of change, dynamism, movement, the most 'respectful' way one might engage with these radical works of the revolutionary era is to bring them into life again through reworking them, challenging their contents and form, and ultimately experiencing them anew" says Denes.
Along with songs, poetry and folk practices, film and photography formed part of the aesthetic language of the Palestinian Revolution. "As such, posters and photography were part of an image world that translated the revolution's ideals, its vision of a vital Arab nation and upright subject, into archetypes and symbols that could mobilise and instantiate the popular movement as a grassroots process, open to all, apparent and striking" says Denes.
Film, on the other hand, was and still is far less accessible, largely because it is more demanding to produce technically and financially. It grew at a much slower rate. "As such, groups including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) were initially sceptical about investing in film, preferring popular theatre and other such forms they felt more ready to engage the participation of 'the masses.'"
Still, thanks to the determination of dedicated artists and technicians, film did take root within the revolution towards the end of the 60s. Out of this process, a "creative meeting point" was established. "It brought them into contact with many other radical filmmakers from around the world who were turning to the Palestinian revolution as a vanguard and inspiration for worldwide revolutionary projects in decolonisation and socialist emancipation."
Revolutions often inspire creative initiatives; many different types of art came out of the Arab Spring, for example. But the difference in this work and that from the Palestinian Revolution, believes Denes, begins not in the artwork but in the wider social, cultural and political context in which these works operate. Whilst "the cohesion, unity, optimism and scale of the Palestinian Revolution were very much of its time," the more recent uprisings, coups and counter-coups have less cohesion.
"It's critical to remember that the Palestinian Revolution was a colossal, popular movement which united diverse classes, ideologies, backgrounds, and nationalities under the sign of armed struggle and self-reliance, and which extended over nearly two decades, with active support across the Arab world" he says.
"Conversely, recent events in Syria, or in Tunisia, Bahrain, or Egypt, are mapped out on more diverging fields of contest; there is no evident unity of method, ends, or ideological ethos. And as such, the art being produced cannot really be said to revolve around any common project or set of artistic registers. Like the struggles themselves, we are looking at far more diffuse practices, ideas, and imageries. This, in a sense, means a far more variegated and interesting set of practices. But one that bears little substantive relationship to the works produced in the context of the more cohesive and longer-term Palestinian revolutionary project."
These days, few original copies remain of the Palestinian revolutionary films, which went out of circulation in the 80s. Part of the reason was that film facilities and publishing houses were destroyed during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its liquidation of the PLO military bases.
But the real reason, says Denes, is that very few people have invested the necessary effort required to safeguard the footage, largely due to what it contains.
"I think the failure of the Palestinian political leadership, the PA ministries, and also the wealthy philanthropic elites who exert such a grip over the cultural field in Palestine today needs to be thought about in terms of what these films actually show and recall. The revolutionary films made during the 1970s, by or with the Palestinian movements – of all ideological trajectories – proudly extolled the virtues of democratic radical socialism, of overthrowing the hegemonies of an Arab bourgeoisie, and of popular armed struggle; they were unwavering in affirming the moral imperative of establishing, at any cost, a pluralistic democratic state for all its citizens in Palestine."
"I think their lack of visibility is thus partly explained by the costs, time, and effort required to obtain and restore them, but also, and perhaps more so, by what they can reveal by way of relief about the erosion and betrayal of revolutionary political ideals by those currently exercising political power over the way the past is recorded and interpreted – whether power exerted in the form of cultural philanthropy, mainstream scholarship, or direct administration. And herein perhaps lies some of the subversive power, and relevance of revisiting these films and posters today – not simply for what they show us about then, but for what they tell us about now."
Palestinians: The Right to Life, Vladimir Kopalin, 1978
Published in Middle East Monitor