Next week marks four years since the passing of pioneer Palestinian filmmaker Mustafa Abu Ali. Born in 1940 in Mahila, Palestine, Abu Ali attended UC Berkeley before studying film in London. He was a founder of the PLO’s film division first in Jordan and then in Lebanon where the organization re-located after Black September.
One of Ali’s most well-known films, They Do Not Exist (Laysa Lahum Wujud), is a haunting portrayal of the 1974 Israeli destruction of the Nabatiya refugee camp.
The film, which was produced in 1974, is a response to Golda Meir’s famous statement in an interview with the Sunday Times on June 15, 1969 in which she said, “There were no such things as the Palestinians… They did not exist.”
Sarah Wood, writing for the Guardian in 2009, describes the film:
They Do Not Exist mixes drama (acted by non-actors) with documentary footage; the film’s use of music and silence is finely balanced. There is a layering of narratives: the intimacy of a little girl writing a letter on a sunlit table; the power of fighter planes taking off to a Bach soundtrack; a man remembering the little girl. Scenes from the destruction of a refugee camp are followed by footage of the press conference afterwards. The film shows us how no one image or narrative can fully convey the politics of war.
The film was assumed to have been lost after the PLO’s cultural heritage collections disappeared following the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982. However, copies of They Do Not Exist have since been located and are currently stored at an archive in the Lebanese capital.
They Do Not Exist was screened at a film festival in Jerusalem in 2003, the first time it was ever shown in Palestine.
After forty years in exile, Abu Ali returned to Palestine after the Oslo Accords were signed. He was repeatedly denied permission to enter Jerusalem, yet managed to illegally attend the 2003 screening of his film.
Thankfully, we are now able to easily view Abu Ali’s masterpiece online:
For more context on Abu Ali, his films and his contribution to cinema, please see Annemarie Jacir’s “Coming Home: Palestinian Cinema,” Emily Jacir’s “Palestinian Revolution Cinema Comes to NYC,” and Alexander Provan’s “Requesting Permission to Narrate: Dreams of a Nation Reviewed,” all of which are available at Electronic Intifada.