On silencing of the Palestinian experience and sensing the unspoken through cinema
A conversation with Pary El-Qalqili
Interview by Timur Vorkul
After 10 years since the film “The Turtle’s Rage” was created, what is your perspective as a film director? If you happen to watch it, what do you feel?
I still relate to my cinematic decisions regarding the visual language. For example, to the stage-like space where my father and I were talking to each other, or to the decisions we took in the editing process of working with a fragmentary montage when jumping from one place to another. And yet, I feel strangely alienated to the way I confronted my father in the film. Although I knew little about our family history, his experiences of violence had a strong impact on me. When I look back at the film now, I am amazed that I was able to find a cinematic language that allowed me to express the silences regarding his traumatic past and the gaps in his story-telling.
When you were making the film and were asking all these urgent questions, did you actually get all the answers you needed from your father?
You can see in the film that I am not getting all the answers to my questions from my father. He felt irritated that I knew so little about our family history. At the same time, he was the one who didn’t share that story. The cinematic narrative thrives from the conflict between father and daughter. The tension you feel makes you realize that many things related to traumatic experiences remain unspoken. I often wondered if he genuinely forgot his traumatic past of expulsion and experience of torture, or if he decided consciously not to go to that place of memory. For me, the beauty of filmmaking is creating a space where you deeply sense the unspoken without having to articulate it directly. Cinema lets you feel the pain of the other through the senses. Families, in a way, share similar dynamics to those between lovers: things remain unspoken, but the desire to understand each other persists. I wonder how it’s possible to love someone when you can’t even speak with each other. I believe that the act of making this film, asking questions, misunderstanding each other, hurting each other, but continuing to try to understand each other, each other’s story, and each other’s suffering, is an act of love.
That’s a beautiful definition of love. And even if your film is about the specific history of your father and your relationship, I still could relate with my personal experiences and this parent and child dynamic. What kind of impact did the film have on your relationship with your father?
For my father, the making of the film meant that someone would finally listen to his life story. It is a human need to be heard and listened to. Yet, it is a collective Palestinian experience of not being recognized as a people who suffered expulsion, dispossession and structural violence until today. Palestinians in Germany are silenced and experience discursive violence because of Germany’s biased memory politics. I don’t want to over-romanticize the making of the film. Nevertheless, watching the film with an audience in the cinema gave him at least at that specific moment, at that specific time, the impression that people were finally listening to his life story and showing empathy.
You got straight to the point I wanted to talk about next. Anti-Palestinian racism is a new term used by Palestinian activists. The speakers of a workshop I participated in explained that this concept is especially informed by Germans’ inability to overcome their fault complexes about the Holocaust and instead project them on Palestinians. Does this resonate with you?
I would also agree with that relatively new term anti-Palestinian racism. The question is what makes it different from other forms of racism. And indeed, Palestinians in Germany encounter a specific form of racism due to German memory politics. Despite the violations of international law that the state of Israel is committing against Palestinians, Angela Merkel stated that loyalty to the state of Israel is the German reason of state, the raison d’être. Anti-Palestinian racism also changed over time. Following the attack on Olympia in 1972, all Palestinian organizations and parties were forbidden. Hundreds of Palestinians were illegally deported overnight. Other than that, Palestinians were persecuted and interrogated by the German Secret Service. The 70s were a particularly harsh period of repression for the Palestinian resistance and for any form of Palestinian political activism. I can’t encompass here all the different waves of anti-Palestinian racism in Germany, but we can say for sure that it exists in many forms. For example, this year we wanted to commemorate the day of the Nakba on the 15th of May. Several courts in Berlin made an official prohibition of the commemorations in public space. The police declaration argued that young Palestinians are known for their aggressive and violent behavior on demonstrations. What happened here was a kind of condemnation that comes before the actual act, “vorauseilende Verurteilung” as we call it in German. Before the demonstrations even happened, the Palestinians were already told that Palestinians in general are always aggressive and violent. This is how the racist trope of lumping diverse people together to a homogeneous group works. This is one sign of how anti-Palestinian racism works in Germany.
Given all the very heavy and difficult circumstances and Germany’s silencing of the Palestinian experience, may I ask what your relationship is to Germany?
Well, I grew up only with the German language. I attended German schools, a German university. Furthermore, I have my professional life established here. I’m strongly connected to Germany. At the same time, I have experienced the silencing of Palestinian narratives and history and discrimination against me as a Palestinian woman, a woman of color and a Muslim woman. These experiences do, in fact, create an alienation. Nevertheless, Berlin remains my home. My everyday challenge is how to create spaces and relationships that feel like home despite the feeling of alienation I have.
How do you deal with the traumatic pain of your father’s displacement, which you probably also experience?
There definitely is the intergenerational trauma. Even if you didn’t experience the trauma yourself, you experience the pain of the trauma by growing up with the traumatized person, and living with his/her silences and inabilities to relate with you as a child. So I do have a bond to that wound of my father. How do I deal with it? I am writing and making films about it.
Let’s talk about the reception of the film. How was the film received in Palestine?
We showed it twice. Once in a cinema in Ramallah and once in a cinema in Jenin. I felt the reception was certainly different from other places in the world. From a few questions and feedback from the audience, I felt that they couldn’t really relate to my father’s experience of exile and his suffering in exile. Of course, the violence on the ground in Palestine under military occupation is incredibly brutal. The nightly raids by the soldiers, and the fact that you can get arrested without having committed a crime. You can be incarcerated under administrative detention without even getting to know the cause for your arrest. Then, the arbitrary killing of children, or anyone else, by the Israeli military under military occupation. The degree of structural violence is extreme. In Gaza, the degree of violence the people are suffering from the attacks of the state of Israel is severe. There’s no space for a life in dignity in Gaza anymore. Still, the pain which Palestinians experience in exile is another kind of pain. The oppression of Palestinians in German exile is executed on another level. It also goes into your body and your psyche. How do you compare these kinds of suffering or pain? It’s impossible to create hierarchies of pain. There are also Palestinians in Lebanon who are living in undignified conditions in refugee camps for generations without citizenship and full rights as a person.
So how was the film received in the Palestinian community in Germany and also in the wider German mainstream society?
We received very positive feedback. Similar to what you said earlier, many people, even though they were not Palestinians and came from another context, were still able to connect to the conflicts and the unspoken things and the miscommunication within a family. That is something many people can relate to. There were, for instance, elderly German people who were born around the 40s who could identify with my character. They said, “you are asking questions as a daughter I would have liked to ask my parents, but I never did”. It’s always interesting to see who was identifying with whom. Even people who are younger, but who have a migrant history, could relate to my father’s feelings of being an outsider in Germany. Within the Palestinian community, there were many people of my generation who also came from a similar constellation, having a Palestinian father and a German mother. They could relate a lot to the way power dynamics worked within the family and to how the fathers couldn’t communicate their story to the children.
Before we finish, what projects are you currently working on?
I am working on a new essay film which is about the visual representation of Palestinians in Germany. I can only say that for now.
I am very much looking forward to it. Thank you for this great interview!
The Turtle’s Rage
A tragicomedy that tells the trauma of displacement through the confrontation between father and daughter.