Disclaimer: Still kinda biased here.
Jerusalem and the settlements are two of the most contentious issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the path toward peace, but the Right to Return is perhaps the most emotional. In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes under controversial circumstances.* The United Nations has since defined Palestinian refugees as those who fled** Palestine in 1948, and has recognized their (and their descendants’) right to return to the homes they left behind. Unlike the settlements, the right to return has a more symbolic significance in peace agreements–most Palestinian refugees living outside of Israel and Palestine today say that they would accept financial compensation and a place to live inside the West Bank or Gaza. Over time, it has become more and more obvious that it would be nigh impossible for these families to return to the exact locations they or, in most cases, their grandparents originally lived. But accountability and recognition are key pieces in any conversation about reparations between Israelis and Palestinians–the persistence of the Israeli government in denying the Palestinians’ right of return has played a heavy emotional toll on peace agreements.
There are a number of films that touch upon the Right to Return, but two of the best that I’ve seen are A World Not Ours and Salt of This Sea.
A World Not Ours is a documentary film that depicts life in one of the most populous refugee camps in Lebanon. The film aired on PBS during POV’s most recent season, and I helped POV put together the films discussion guide, which you can check out here. What’s cool about A World Not Ours is the filmmaker’s position–he’s Palestinian, but he grew up in Europe, making him more relatable to the average non-Palestinian viewer. I came away from the film with a real understanding (or as authentic an understanding as one can have from watching a documentary) of what it means to be a Palestinian refugee–with no state to call home, no right to a passport, no right to leave what was supposed to be a temporary home, no job prospects. Its themes spread further than Palestine and Lebanon, as well–there are strong themes of identity, family, and depression in the film as well as its more political overtones. A World Not Ours is a film that puts the viewer in the shoes of its subjects in a special way I haven’t seen before in a documentary feature.
Unfortunately, A World Not Ours is not available on Netflix or any free streaming sites (it may show up on POV’s website to stream for free again, but for now it’s unavailable). If you want to screen it for a public viewing though, contact POV. They lend out this film and dozens more like it for free!
Next up is a dramatic film. Salt of this Sea is about an American-born Palestinian woman who attempts to return to the homeland of her grandfather. Soraya is an interesting, truly unique female character–I don’t think I’ve seen anyone like her depicted on film. She doesn’t go through the journey typical of films like this one–the story of a naive woman who grows to be angry and political over time. No, she starts the film off angry and just gets angrier as the film goes on. Soraya is unapologetically proud of her Palestinian identity and refuses to deny it, even when it would be incredibly convenient for her to do so.
Themes of the Right to Return are very present in this film–Soraya struggles to regain money and property once held by her grandfather, and she has lengthy conversations with her Palestinian friends about what it means to be Palestinian. For her, being Palestinian has everything to do with the land. She has spent her whole life aching to return to a place she has never been.*** Her friends in Ramallah (the capital city of the West Bank), on the other hand, have spent their entire lives living under military occupation, and would give anything to leave. It’s a beautiful film, and it encourages great dialogue–it’s also a thriller that features a bank robbery and a clever getaway scheme. It’s super easy to watch, too: it’s available on Netflix.
Did you actually watch the films, or have you already seen them? Let me know what you think in the comments!
*Yes, yes this is a Wikipedia link. What did you think this was, a PoliSci paper?
**Using the word “fled,” as opposed to “left,” is a good example of my bias, and a demonstration of the minefield that is discussing this topic.
***This is an incredibly common sentiment, something that I encountered regularly when I studied abroad in Jordan (where a vast majority of the population is Palestinian). I have friends there who refer to Palestine as “home,” even though they have never been there. It’s heartbreaking. The sense of loss I witnessed in Jordan plays heavily on my own biases.