Following are excerpts from the interview of the Gal Hadash (New Wave) podcast team with actor and film director Muhammad Bakri, a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel, on the role of art in society and politics, the oppression of Palestinian culture in Israel, and the heavy price those who have to fight for a more just society for both peoples have to pay.
As a political artist, what is the social role of cinema and theater for you?
Art cultivates man. It helps him overcome his evil instincts and curb the violence he acquires from the environment. As men wiser than me have said, every man has two powers — good and evil. How do you make good win? Feed the good and neglect the bad. That’s the role of art. When one succeeds in defeating evil, one can reach the other.
Why did I make the movies I did? To open a window for a Jew, as he lives with me, to understand my soul; To eliminate the fear that you have, because you are cowards! Not because God created you like that, but because the Zionism and policies of the Israeli governments have always nourished your fear. You have been told that I want to throw you into the sea. I try, through art, to show that it’s a lousy lie. I do not want to throw anything into the sea! That’s why I made movies to show that you are being deceived. You are scared of, while in fact I am your chance to live in peace.
For example, the movie Beyond the Walls tries to convey a message of solidarity. I wanted to show that an Arab can be believed and “there is someone to talk to.” I did not want to make Muhammad Bakri a hero — I wanted to make Muhammad Bakri a human being to live with, and not just a symbol planted on the wall.
Beyond the Walls was received sympathetically in Israel. Later critical films, such as Jenin, Jenin, encountered a harsh response. why?
Beyond the Walls came out not long after the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. Crowds then took part in demonstrations by the Israeli left. There were four hundred thousand demonstrators in Rabin Square. There was then fertile ground for critical art because of the public shock. The images of the massacre that appeared in the media, Begin’s resignation, and the fact that Sharon was behind the massacre perpetrated by the Phalangists — aroused the average Israeli, the good man. The Israeli conscience could not stand it. The movie Beyond the Walls Bars came out at this time. The end of the film gave hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Also artistically the film was, more or less, well made. And one more thing – the film Beyond the Walls remains Israeli: the Israeli creator, the Israeli writer, the Israeli production and the protagonists — Israeli but also Palestinian. The film highlighted the positive light in the character I played, that there is a human being on the other side that can be negotiated with.
Jenin, Jenin came out twenty years later. The whole situation was different: Jenin, Jenin came out during the second intifada, when people were blown up in the streets, restaurants, cafes and buses. A great many people were killed — innocent Israelis who have no part in the occupation policy. Fear in the Israeli public grew, and the actions of the martyrs fueled their fear. The political circumstances made it difficult to accept the other in Jenin.
That’s to say because the film presented the Palestinian narrative?
The Zionist narrative has a stage everywhere, and the Palestinians did not have a stage. I gave them a stage in this poor, most film, Jenin Jenin, which no one had seen but everyone had heard of. Very few have seen it because its was strangled in its crib, to feed the lie that justifies the occupation. But there is no justification for any conquest in the world – there is not and will not be.
In recent years, government supervision and censorship of Palestinian artists has increased, as in the closing of the Al-Meidan Theater. How do you see this as a Palestinian creator?
Al-Meidan Theater was closed under the direction of Miri Regev [Israel’s then Minister of Culture]. Close the budget of the only Arab national theater in the country. From the Negev to Metula — Palestinians in Israel do not have a theater, thanks to the wonderful Ms. Miri Regev. Imagine that they would close the Habima Theater because of a show with political content. How would the Israeli public react?
As I said at the beginning of the interview – the role of art is to open a window for you to see what is inside me, so that you will not be afraid of me. So that you understand the feelings of my heart. This window was closed to me! What, I’m going to do street theater? I don’t want to do street theater.
What price did you pay for your political views?
Since “Jenin Jenin” came out 18 years ago, the film and I have been under constant attack. It’s an attempt to ruin my life professionally, which has been largely successful. I have not found a job in Israel for 18 years. The price I pay is heavy but, thank God, I have something to eat. The attack on me is meant as a warning to others, if you dare express such views, this is what will happen to you. This is gagging as intimidation, which is an inhuman and undemocratic thing.
For example, I directed a play at the Habima Theater in 2005-2004 called A Jewish-Arab Love Story. The play won first prize at the Piccolo Theater in Italy, as part of the “Love Plays Festival.” After we returned from Italy with a prize — the authorities shut down the show. They canceled a show that was a success that year, because Muhammad Bakri, a “Hater of Israel” directed it.