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James Schamus: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or Adorno in Ramallah

July 14, 2011

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Screenwriter and professor James Schamus was invited to the West Bank to teach a class for Israelis and Palestinians on the role of film and art in times of crisis. Here is his report.

By **James Schamus**


engelhardt_photo.jpgA Friday afternoon in the village of Bil’in is quite an experience, especially if, like me, you’ve spent the previous couple of days hanging out in Tel Aviv talking about movies. Basically, the villagers and a hundred or two additional Israeli supporters and internationals have gathered every Friday for the past six years. They walk down to the edge of the village and into a small valley that has now been fenced in by Israel, which appropriated about 60 percent of the village’s farmland for “security” purposes and then built a city of 20,000 people over the hill. It all usually follows a pattern, but the Israeli army can break up the usual at any time.

First, when the initial group of people get near the fence the army pulls up a tank filled with chemical “sewage” water and sprays anyone within about 150 feet. You smell literally like shit for a few days after it touches you, and you either have to burn your clothes or soak them for many days in salt water. Then, within a minute or two, the army starts lobbing tear gas grenades. If they are feeling particularly annoyed, they just shoot the tear gas canisters directly at the protestors. If they’re in a really bad mood, they open up with rubber bullets and chase people up the hill, though this has apparently gotten rarer over the years—it still happens with some regularity, however. This all goes on for half an hour or more, during which the ambulances drive up and down from the top of the hill a few times to pick up injured people, and then the crowd decides the demonstration is done and goes back to the village to chat and drink tea and check in on who’s been hurt. At this point or a bit earlier the village kids sometimes come down and throw rocks over the fence (not encouraged by the organizers, who want the demonstrations to be totally non-violent), and the rubber bullets really start flying, and that pretty much ends the afternoon’s activities.

I began by asking the students to complete a phrase pulled (in somewhat mangled form) from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: “Art can only say what it has to say by…”

I came to Bil’in to watch the students from the Jenin Freedom Theater, who decided to perform an open rehearsal of their version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which they are preparing to open later this summer. They decided to put on Godot after the murder last month of the theater’s founder, Juliano Mer Khamis. Juliano was a major inspiration for the non-violent movement—his mother was a Jewish Israeli and his father a Palestinian, and he worked a lot both in Israel and in Palestine. He and Udi Aloni, an Israeli filmmaker and artist, had invited me and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek to come teach at the theater for a few days. It is located in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp, and Udi had set up a film program. After Juliano’s murder, Slavoj and I both re-committed to come and teach, but the classes were moved to the French-German Cultural Center in Ramallah, with support from the Ford Foundation, and the kids from Jenin were joined by young filmmakers and students from within both Israel and Palestine.

As you can see in the video, when the Freedom Theater students went down into the valley and started performing, the firing stopped for a couple of minutes, but then the troops decided to start shooting canisters again—the young actor you see who got put into the ambulance fainted from tear gas inhalation, but he recovered after about half an hour. Just five days after this demonstration the military began moving the fence and wall around Bil’in in accord with an Israeli High Court order dating back to 2007, so the village will get the use of some of its land back.

The seminars and talks in Ramallah were extraordinarily engaged and exciting—at least for me. The title the organizers gave the event was “When Hollywood Meets Jenin,” which was, I pointed out in my introduction to Slavoj Zizek’s public lecture at the Al Kasaba Theater, a meeting that clearly was not happening in Jenin, and probably not in Hollywood either. But it is a meeting that certainly takes place in Zizek’s work. The lecture, attended by hundreds, was wildly entertaining, and ended with a lively debate about the institution-building project of the current Palestinian Authority leadership.

For the seminars with the students, Žižek and I traded off sessions. For my three seminars, I chose texts from Sergei Eisenstein, Andre Bazin, and Theodor Adorno—texts that tested the role of film art and the artist during times of struggle. I began by asking the students to complete a phrase pulled (in somewhat mangled form) from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: “Art can only say what it has to say by…” Everyone shared their answers, which ranged from “being provocative” to “being truthful” to “being critical of itself.” I then shared how Adorno finished the sentence: “Art can only say what it has to say by…not saying it.” This challenge—If you have something to say, why don’t you just say it? Why make art?—was the central theme of my seminars, and the discussions it engendered were inspiring and surprising.

Between seminars, I got the chance to get to know a bit of Ramallah (the scene of a tremendous amount of NGO-funded “urban renewal”), and I visited the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem as well as the city of Hebron, trips that would have been too depressing to recount were it not for the wry humor and hopeful spirits of my hosts, both Israeli and Palestinian.

By arrangement with The Center for Palestine Studies, Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

Copyright 2011 James Schamus

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This post originally appeared at The Center for Palestine Studies, Middle East Institute at Columbia University .

James Schamus is an award-winning screenwriter (The Ice Storm) and producer (Brokeback Mountain), and is CEO of Focus Features, the motion picture production, financing, and worldwide distribution company whose films have included Lost in Translation, Milk, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Pianist, Coraline, and The Kids Are All Right. He is also Professor of Professional Practice in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches film history and theory. He is the author of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud: The Moving Word, published by the University of Washington Press. He earned his BA, MA, and Ph.D. in English from U.C. Berkeley.

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