“Today, I’m going to talk about land,” Malek Rasamny began his talk at this year’s Harvard Arab Weekend. “I’m going to talk about the way land is governed, I’m going to talk about the history of certain pieces of land, and I’m going to talk about the communities that often live and struggle invisibly on those lands.”
Rasamny is a Lebanese-American filmmaker and researcher whose current multimedia project is entitled The Native and the Refugee. The project is a portrait and in-depth exploration of overlooked spaces, specifically the Palestinian refugee camp and the Native American reservation, that have been fraught with tremendous historical and political memory, the result of decades and even centuries of theft, displacement, and state violence.
The idea for the project came when Rasamny met Matt Peterson, a fellow filmmaker and now the project’s co-director/producer, when they were both members of the Red Channels film collective in New York City, a political media project that organized screenings and discussions around documentary films. In 2014, Peterson completed a film about the Tunisian insurrection, Scenes from a Revolt Sustained, his first project related to the Middle East. Since Rasamny had lived and worked in Beirut, the idea of collaborating on a film about Lebanon seemed like a good fit.
As they discussed their project, Rasamny and Peterson began to draw parallels between the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and native reservations in the United States. They were fascinated by the similar histories of the two populations, but even more so by the physical spaces that they inhabited – spaces that are rarely, if ever, visited by outsiders. These spaces are characterized and shaped by histories of physical, structural, and environmental violence.
As Peterson tells me, unpacking these places raises questions about the institutions and systems that helped create this reality:
After both Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, people started to think more about the question of autonomy and what that means, and they also started to pay attention to the environmental crisis that’s been happening. And within North America, it was mostly Native Americans who were most active in resisting extractive or harmful environmental practices, like building dams or pipelines or power grids or drilling or mining for oil or various minerals. For a long time, Native Americans were at the forefront of these struggles, and that opened us to thinking and wanting to learn more about why and how, and realizing also that their own kind of forms of resistance to settler colonialism or liberalism or capitalism were kind of enlightened or helped us think through our own situations. So that was kind of interesting for us here within the North American context, to get to know what was happening on native territories better, and then through that to think through the comparison within the Palestinian refugee camps.
About a year ago, the pair began working on the multimedia project – part film, part research, part interactive exhibition – traveling to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and the West Bank, as well as to various reservations throughout North America. Along the way, they created short videos and organized screenings in the places they visited. Their hope was to thereby foster greater understanding of these “invisible” communities and spark important conversations about the systems that have created and perpetuated these spaces.
In a Skype interview, the two filmmakers explained to me the motivations behind their project (which will eventually be a full-length feature documentary), the process of accessing these insular, “invisible” spaces, and what they learned and hope to accomplish from their work.
You describe The Native and the Refugee as a multimedia research project. Explain to me what you mean by that and why it is important.
Matt: It’s a documentary film project, but it’s also a multimedia research project, to incorporate various artistic practices or media practices but also to emphasize the political and theoretical dynamic of all of it. We don’t want the political or theoretical work we’re doing on the subject of reservations and refugee camps to take a backseat to us as filmmakers per se. We’re trying to use our role as filmmakers or artists to do this work and to gain access to the camps and reservations, because part of the way we’re able to gain access at all is as documentarians or journalists. But there’s a lot of political work we want to do out of it, both for the refugees and native populations, but also to use their experiences or situations as a way to talk about the failure of the nation-state model, to think about questions of sovereignty or citizenship or autonomy.
It’s not just about the refugee itself, as you see with the Syrian refugees – it leads to this existential crisis of borders, of nation states, etc. And the Palestinians are the most extreme example of this, who have been refugees in this purgatory gray zone for 60 years. Similarly with the natives, their role or relationship to the United States opens up large questions of the United States’ background as a settler colonial state. So are natives citizens within the US? Are they sovereign nations, are they treated like their own nation? Are their territories sovereign or are they part of the US? So by going to these spaces you learn not just about the natives but also about the US itself, or Lebanon itself. All of these questions kind of open up and unfold from there.
On this question of access, you’re using your role as filmmakers to gain access to these spaces. What was your reception like in these respective spaces? How did people perceive what you were doing and how did they receive you?
Malek: In the reservations in particular, given the history and given the way the media has generally depicted them, there’s something called “poverty porn,” where the media has emphasized reservations in particular in a very stereotypical way as weak, as impoverished, highlighting all the social problems. Either that or portraying them as the “noble savage.” So native people in the reservations have a kind of hesitancy about letting outsiders in and cameras and all of that stuff, which is totally understandable. But what helped us, I think, in the reservations was the fact that we’re doing this comparison, so that we weren’t strictly talking about natives. That we were talking about natives AND comparing them to something in the Middle East, so we were bringing something to the table. It wasn’t just taking from them, it was, “alright we’re going to show you how people in the Middle East live, or what the Palestinian situation is, what the refugee camp situation is.”
And, of course, we were also interested in their ideas – in their ideas about, like what Matt was saying, the issues of sovereignty, citizenship, land, relationship to land, community. So the fact that we were interested in their ideas, not just their situation, but in their thoughts, their political ideology, and the fact that we were bringing this comparison, I think, helped us gain more trust, more “access,” and helped position ourselves differently from the typical white filmmaker who comes into these situations.
In the case of the camps, the issues were more just straightforward political issues. In the case of Lebanon, we wanted to go to Ain el-Helweh, which is the biggest, most interesting, most dynamic refugee camp in Lebanon. But we needed permission to film and we needed permission to bring in non-Lebanese, because only Palestinian refugees or Lebanese citizens can enter it. At the end I was forced to go in by myself, with a guide of course, but I didn’t take the rest of my crew and I hired a cameraman from inside the camp. In Jordan, another issue was, ok we could go to the camps but people were very hesitant. In Lebanon the issue was OUR security, in Jordan the issue was THEIR security. In the sense that, the refugees themselves didn’t feel comfortable being on film, they didn’t feel comfortable discussing political issues without the permission of the Jordanian government. So that kind of posed an issue.
And the West Bank was actually the easiest, surprisingly. I mean of course it was dangerous, as you saw with my detainment, but in terms of official access it wasn’t so much of a problem. And Palestinians were very willing to talk about everything that’s going on there. So in the refugee camps the issues were more political and varied from camp to camp; in the reservations it was more about a cultural sensitivity and a person-to-person dynamic.
Matt: But I think also in terms of access, especially in the native case, we had to explain our project and what we were doing and what we were looking for. We researched particular people or groups who are self-organized on the reservations, that are very active and kind of resistant to the US government or these extractive mining industries, but also their tribal councils or tribal governments which have kind of become these neocolonial puppet governments for the US state. So we specifically tried to research or reach out to groups of people who are self-organized to resist all these forms, to some extent maintain a kind of traditional identity. But also to have a warrior spirit or kind of militant identity was interesting for us.
Malek, in one of the videos, The Walls of Bethlehem, we see you get detained by the IDF, while Matt and others yell out “He’s American!” Tell me about this experience. Did it help you learn more about the daily experience of those in the refugee camps or allow you to see it in a different light?
Malek: From the second we got into the West Bank so much was happening. In the camp that we stayed at – Dheisheh refugee camp – a kid was killed the day that we got there. This is not related to my arrest, but it’s kind of the immediacy of how much is going on there and how much brutality there is in the occupation. That happened on my very first full day there. So what happened was – Aida refugee camp, which is right next to the Har Gilo settlement – there’s a giant wall, on one side is Israeli settlement suburbs and the other side is this refugee camp. Every day in the afternoon, almost like a ritual, the IDF comes out, and at least on a daily basis, younger kids come, kind of throw stones and the IDF shoots tear gas at the kids, and occasionally make arrests, usually make arrests, and occasionally sometimes kill people. It’s like that every single day.
So I was just there and I didn’t have a camera on me and I didn’t have a press pass. So this didn’t happen because I was filming. It happened because they thought I was a Palestinian refugee. I was with the kids, the IDF ran in, I ran into the camp, I didn’t know my way around obviously, you know how it is there, all these small alleys. I looked behind me and a soldier is chasing me, and I didn’t want to get shot. I figured he might try to shoot me, shoot me in the leg or, who knows. So I just stopped dead in my tracks and let him arrest me. I didn’t say anything, so he didn’t know I was an American or that I spoke English. So he kind of manhandled me a little bit and then took me to the settlement.
Once I got into the settlement, into the gates, then I produced my American passport and started speaking English with my American accent. The whole energy changed and shifted 180 degrees, which is really telling. They actually became apologetic, they offered me water, they tried to explain it away like, “these kids are throwing rocks at civilians, we’re protecting ourselves. Sorry, Israel’s not like that, this is not who Israel is, this is not the real face of Israel” – total change, abrupt change of environment once they realized I was an American citizen and not a Palestinian refugee.
And then they just let me go. I walked out of the gate and all of a sudden, boom, I’m back in Palestine. I’m back in an Arab country, if you will. It’s kind of quite surreal to go from one side of the gate to another. It’s like a science fiction movie. But yeah, that’s what happened. It’s like I was Palestinian for ten minutes. And then I produced my American passport and like magic it’s over. It was a very illuminating experience for me. It was rough for me for ten minutes, but that’s what Palestinians go through all the time. And had I not been American, I probably would’ve gone to prison for doing nothing at all.
Tell me about your stay with the Lakota people in South Dakota. In the video, they take great pride in their history as one of the greatest warrior tribes, and there is a strength and defiance in their speech and an intense solidarity with Palestine. One woman says, “The time of the bent over, drunk Indian is gone.” Was this the general sentiment across the board or is that specific to this population? Was any of this surprising to you?
Matt: I think we knew that these groups existed within native populations in North America, but they’re not necessarily the majority or the mainstream. In some territories or tribes this orientation will be more prominent or more organized, but the Lakota are one of the most organized or fierce, and that’s a big part of their history and legacy and identity, and as you said they’re very prideful of that – that they resisted for so long and continue to resist US colonialism or the military or police. And the Mohawk as well, who are another tribe we focused on, another territory in upstate NY, they have a similar spirit of resistance and they’re thought of as one of the most aggressive or strong bands of people who will resist US or Canadian attempts to infringe on their rights or sovereignty or autonomy or land.
We really wanted to emphasize these spaces and people because we felt like this was something that’s not widely known, within the US but also internationally. Not only are there still these large populations of native tribes, these large territories, but that there are also these people who have refused assimilation or capitulation to the US or Canada. And I think as people are increasingly resisting more and more the failed project of liberal capitalist logic within the US or Canada, or these harmful environmental practices, it can be inspiring or powerful to see these native spaces that are in some way still kind of asserting this independence. And I think there’s a lot to be learned and gained by forming these connections or alliances.
With these tribes that are resisting, have there been any kind of “victories” among these populations, have they “won” at all, on a small scale?
Matt: Within the Palestinian movement, there’s this slogan – “existence is resistance” – and I think that’s, to some extent, a victory. The fact that these peoples and tribes still exist, that their histories, their ways of thinking, their cosmologies and ontologies still exist, that they’re still proud of them, that these native territories at all still exist, is kind of a victory, I think. One recent thing is that Obama vetoed the Keystone pipeline, this pipeline project that was supposed to go from Canada through the US, largely through Lakota territory. A lot of native peoples have been really active and visible on these infrastructural projects that the US or Canada or private companies want to organize, these pipelines or dams or whatever. I think there are a lot of victories – they’re maybe not as visible as some other kinds of political formations or victories because it’s not necessarily about legislation or rights, but about defending territories, ways of life, etc. So in some ways it’s hard to kind of quantify those victories. But when you meet these peoples and go to these places and see the strength or resolve, I think this is a victory because this has been happening for centuries now, 200, 400 years depending on the tribe or territory. The fact that there still is this resistance that says “you never got us” or “ you never won” or “you never took over,” I think that’s a victory.
I am interested in the cinematic choices you made. The way you film the landscape almost feels surreal, but also the way that images are set against a person speaking in the background. In the video about the Lakota, you have the news broadcast in the background talking about this takeover of Wounded Knee, and in the video about the history of the refugee camp in Jordan [above], you have a man speaking in the background, but you never really tell us who the person speaking is or what the context is or what the time period is. So the way it’s juxtaposed with images really keeps the viewer engaged, trying to figure out who’s speaking, trying to connect the words and images. Was this a conscious artistic choice on your part, to not tell us who is speaking?
Malek: From the beginning, it was an issue for us – how much to say. Because there’s so much specificity and specific detail for every single location, it becomes impossible to talk about it all. So we had to ask ourselves, “what exactly is our purpose here?” Is it to document the history of this location and fill you in with all the empirical facts? Or is it to provide a sense of the place and a sense of the peoples’ spirit of resistance and political sense of who they are? And we obviously opted for the latter. So on a more discursive level, we’re trying to showcase the ideas and political thoughts of the people there. But on an aesthetic level, we’re trying to provide a sense of what it’s like to be there in that space. And in that sense, maybe that’s the more poetic aspect of it – this visual, sensory feeling of physically being there which I think film can do uniquely. As opposed to, if you want to learn about something you can read a book. But if you want to feel like you’re there, or have a more visual sense of where you are, then that’s where film is appropriate. So that’s what we were trying to do on a visual level.
Matt: As we said, the native peoples or territories or Palestinian refugees have become kind of invisible and a big part of that is because people who are not native or not Palestinian refugees don’t typically go to these places, they don’t really put their bodies inside the spaces physically. So a big part for us was not just to showcase the people, but also to have some kind of evocative portrait of the place itself. As you enter, you get all this visual information, discursive, historical information, but we wanted to try to, in the editing processes, weave these things together to give some sense of immersing yourself into the space somehow.
Malek: And how these places visually look is illustrative of their history. For example, the Lebanese camps are totally overcrowded. That’s illustrative of the history – the fact that these were created under the logic of the emergency, that they were meant to go back, that they weren’t supposed to stay for 6 generations with no citizenship or official status. So the overcrowded-ness reveals the history. In the native case, it’s very beautiful but a lot of the land is un-arable, you can’t farm on the land, it’s been overused. That’s intentional. So the visual, aesthetic features of the landscape itself are illustrative or indicative of the history. So it’s not a purely aesthetic experiment. That’s why we focused on these spaces, because these spaces are defined by the political history of what happened.
There are points in the video about the Lakota where they directly talk about Palestine and solidarity with Palestinians, they draw that direct parallel. When you spoke to the Palestinian refugees, did you find that they also drew this parallel or that they were equally as aware of that joint struggle and shared history?
Malek: To be honest, in the initial phases, no. Palestinians – a lot of them, not all of them – were initially hesitant to be compared to the natives, primarily because they saw the natives, at least initially, as having failed, as having lost. So for them, the insinuation was that they are going to lose too. However, I think after we showed the “We love being Lakota” video, it changed how they see it a lot. We did a screening for the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, and one of the ladies who watched the video, who had been initially kind of skeptical, saw it and approached us afterward. She approached our cameraman, who is half Egyptian half Ajibwe (half native), afterwards and said “watching this video made me feel that there is hope for me as a Palestinian.” That was very powerful. Even when we screened those films in Jenin refugee camp, we got very positive feedback. So I think after people saw the videos, their thoughts changed, or they saw the natives in a new light, after seeing the strength of the natives. But initially they were a little bit hesitant at the comparison.
What are the parallels and/or differences that you saw between the modes of resistance of these two populations or the way they spoke about their struggle or their history? What stood out to you as being something that they shared – an attitude or a sentiment or a hope for the future – that they shared, or something that was different?
Malek: That’s an interesting question. I think in the Palestinian case, there’s a question of what kind of resistance work to do. Especially in the case of the Palestinians in Lebanon, where they’re kind of in this purgatory. And there’s this constant directive of their energy towards Israel and the right of return, which is important and is something I stand by, but it does nothing to tackle their situation within Lebanon. So then they say, “ok, lets direct our energy towards the Lebanese state,” and that’s far more concrete, but even that is still kind of a purgatorial mode. So we met with the young people in these youth committees who are working to pressure the Palestinian factions themselves and the popular committees, which govern the camp as a municipal board would, and they’re exerting lobbying pressure on them and working on different initiatives to serve the people within the camps. And they very vocally say that it’s not just about services – these are services towards the goal of returning back to our homes. But how can we have a state in our home if we can’t take care of ourselves over here? So it’s like this kind of community service work, lobbying the popular committees, but all toward this end and under the umbrella of liberating Palestine. So that was one kind of mode of resistance we saw that was interesting.
Within Palestine, of course, you have the demonstrations that occur that are usually nonviolent, but sometimes escalate into violence. But with those demonstrations, I kind of felt that they were more ritualistic in nature than anything else, there was this kind of catharsis. Like a teen will be killed by the IDF and then on Friday there will be a demonstration, but nothing changes. So there was kind of something sad about the demonstrations there. There was a pride, of course, in being able to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers, but it wasn’t towards some kind of end.
In the native cases we’ve been seeing, there’s been a lot of coordination between natives from different tribes, from different reservations, even from different countries (US and Canada), working towards, generally nonviolent (but not always) actions that are blocking these infrastructure projects. For example, there was the Oka crisis in 1990, where there was a 9-hole golf course and they wanted to expand it into an 18-hole golf course, but in doing so they wanted to take land out of a native cemetery. So that was able to mobilize natives from across Canada and the US, mainly women actually – women in native communities are often times at the forefront of these kinds of disobedience campaigns – and they were able to block the government from taking that land. Often times it does end up in a violent situation or a confrontation with the police. In some cases it’s an armed violence, even though you would think that is over, it’s not. There is still armed confrontation between natives and the police or the FBI.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned over the course of this project? You guys have done your research before, Malek I assume you were familiar with the Lebanese context and the refugee camps there. But what was something surprising that you learned that you didn’t expect or didn’t know before, about the spaces or about the people?
Malek: There’s just so much invisibility, as we were saying earlier, surrounding both the reservations and the refugee camps, I kind of didn’t know what to expect. I was really surprised by how politically layered each of the individual places are. They’re like little countries unto themselves. So, within a reservation, there will be the official tribal government sponsored by the US, but then there will be a parallel government or a parallel tribal council that’s opposed to them, and then there’s a faction that’s a split off from that. And then similarly within the refugee camps, there will be sometimes two or three popular committees that are operating in parallel from different factions. So the denseness politically and the denseness of the leadership roles in the communities. They’re literally like mini countries. In each location, that was very surprising. I didn’t know how self-enclosed those places really are, and how they do function in many ways as their own little political entity. That’s one thing.
Second, this kind of sounds cliche or lame, but how people were able to live in these kinds of conditions and still be very relaxed people. Whether you’re talking about the refugees or the reservations, this is kind of a generalization, but they’re very laid back, very proud and prideful but at the same time not stuck up. When we think of political activists in the West, we think of very serious, didactic, uptight people, and its not at all like that when you actually go to the places. They have the most reason to be upset, they have the most reason to walk around with an anger or rage, but they’re not at all like that. There’s a definite pride, there’s a definite fierceness, but it doesn’t translate into a kind of pretentiousness or rigidity. On the contrary. People are very laid back, people are cracking on each other left, right and center, jokes all the time, very funny.
Matt: Yeah, big sense of humor. A lot of hospitality in both cases, a lot of generosity from people who have no reason to be, people in some of the worst conditions. We’re coming from New York City and people are taking us out to lunch, cooking us huge meals. It’s kind of a cliche, but when you experience it, it’s very powerful to experience these things in this environment.
It’s a way to reject the victim position or the subject position that the US has put on them. To have your own kind of logic and way of thinking or communicating is to have this sense of humor. They would make fun of us and make fun of each other and make fun of their situation in a very playful way. That’s something that’s maybe not known, because I think a lot of people in the US have this image of a very stoic native, prideful, quiet, man of few words. Which isn’t at all the case. It’s a very kind of playful, silly dynamic. I think part of that is a form of resistance or victory or something; that it’s like, you can’t deny us our playfulness or our sense of who we are.
Malek: And these people, whether it’s the natives or the refugees, they’re living there. This is their life. For them politics is deeply engrained in their daily life in a very obvious way, so it’s not something they turn on when they go to a protest or when they’re engaged in a political discussion. It’s kind of inseparable from their life, and life has to be about laughter and fun as well, otherwise it’s not worth living.
What do you hope to accomplish with this project? Who are the audiences that you have in mind and what do you envision or imagine them taking away from this project?
Matt: I think there’s this specificity of the connection or dialogue between native peoples on reservations and Palestinians in refugee camps. But broader than that, there is a lot to be learned from people who are not native or Palestinian, or who do not live in camps or reservations, about the forms of governance or control or domination that exist even in places like New York or Beirut. About these national state formations of the US or Israel or Lebanon or Jordan. To kind of rethink these structures that have created refugees or refugee camps or reservations. It’s an opportunity now to rethink some of these things. I think that’s happening to some extent, for better or worse, with the Syrian refugee crisis. To think about what is it that has formed these refugees, why are Lebanon, Jordan and Syria just trading populations of refugees back and forth? Hopefully leading to these broader questions of what is the nation, what is the nation-state, what is the refugees’ desired outcome of all this? Hopefully it’s a broader critique of governance or administration or how those things have existed in the last century or so. So its not simply to look at the native reservation, but hopefully that can help people throughout the US question the formation of the US and their role in these territories and cities or roles in power grids and infrastructures.
So I think, just as much as the natives and the Palestinians, it’s for us to understand or rethink some of these formations or dynamics that have led to these creations.
Malek: It’s many things at once. It’s to shine a light on these invisible places, it’s to praise, to support, to give attention to these communities that are struggling, that are existing in this form of resistance as communities – what it means to choose to stay on a reservation, that’s what it means to stay on a refugee camp, as opposed to living in a city. So that’s one. But then, like Matt was saying, to talk about larger issues like our relationship to the land, who’s included in a nation, who’s not included, what does it mean to be included as a citizen, what does it mean to not be included, how does it define how we relate to each other as communities, how does it define how we relate to the land that we’re on, borders, infrastructure, all of these kinds of issues.
When you look at these kind of extreme places – and both of them certainly are very extreme places, formed by a very extreme history of settler colonialism – it kind of sheds a light not only on settler colonialism in its more brutal or obvious aspects, like we can see in what happens every day in the West bank, but also the larger idea of countries and of the division of land into countries that I think is the bigger backdrop for settler colonialism, or for various methods of exclusion (of which settler colonialism is only one kind of very obvious example). In the case of Israel, you have this expansion of people coming largely from outside the territory kicking people off their land, but then when they go to another country, the fact that they’re seen as being so foreign – it might not be settler colonialism, but it is kind of an artificial, absurd reality engendered by the nation-state. The fact that a Palestinian kicked out of his land by Israel then becomes a complete alien in Lebanon, 50 km from where he was born, that’s also what we’re talking about.