Review of Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad’s film “This is My Picture When I Was Dead”

"This is My Picture When I Was Dead" by Mahmoud al-Massad

Father and 4 year-old son are giggling in a car’s front seat. At a red light, masked motorcyclist fires bullets into the car and both father and son are declared dead. Yet, three hours later, the little one is miraculously brought back to life. The father is PLO fighter Mamoun Mraish who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1983.  Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad follows the life of Mraish’s now 32 year-old son Bashir who is following in the footsteps of his father. However, instead of taking up arms, Bashir paints political caricatures.

A touching film story with a title (This is my picture when I was dead) that grabs you by the collar and brings you into the cinema. The stunning opening scene – a video of Israel’s phosphorus bombs lighting the sky of Gaza like fireworks accompanied by an ironic Christmas song- will glue your eyes to the screen.

Yet your initial enthusiasm for the beautifully shot film might be soon dampened. Massad does not delve into Bashir’s character. He gives us little more than what anyone of us might get in a polite chit chat with the man in a formal meeting.  Massad also chooses to go through key events in Mamoun and Palestine’s history, yet deters from giving us more than snapshots that would probably leave viewers who are less familiar with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict confused.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX international documentary film festival’s gazette. 

Interview with Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker Sandra Madi

Sandra Madi

When Madi was a little girl she dreamed of studying international law, but she ended up specializing in athletics. It wasn’t long before she left the stadium behind, though, to enter the world of theatre, quickly becoming a well-known stage actress in Jordan. After receiving several prizes, Madi switched careers again. This time, the restless Madi studied creative documentary cinema in the Arab Institute of Film and quickly became a promising Jordanian filmmaker.

You’ve tried your hand at several professions before entering the world of cinema. Why did you ultimately choose filmmaking?

That’s right. I’ve loved theatre since my childhood and somehow I regard my turning to cinema as an extension to my artistic career. Furthermore, I even benefit from my seriousness and experience in theater and its human aspect in my cinematic work. Although theatre is a different artistic form, completely independent of cinema, many professionals who had been working for years in theatre ended up as filmmakers. One such director is the exceptional Tunisian filmmaker Abdullatif Kashesh, who began his career as a stage actor, then moved to theatre directing and has become now a well-established filmmaker. As to why I chose cinema, I haven’t got a definite answer! However, I can tell you that cinema gives me bigger space to express my ideas!

When you chose cinema, you chose documentary filmmaking in general and creative documentaries in particular. Why?

Creative documentaries are artistically and intellectually challenging! They are a condensation of life and reality from the filmmaker’s point of view. So are all films, not just documentaries. But the difference between them is that the latter is a “real” tale, while a fiction film is no more than an illusion that fascinates viewers for an hour or so.

Palestinian themes appear frequently in your works. In your films we meet a Palestinian boxer whose refusal to play with an Israeli sportsman ruins his career. We also find out about the fate of the guerilla fighters of the PLO. Why did you choose the Palestinian  Condition as the main subject of your films? Are you a fan of committed art?

All my topics are Palestinian. And it’s not only because the Palestinian case is undoubtedly a momentous and very compelling subject. What attracts me more are the vast memories of Palestinians that are yet to be told.

I think that growing up with a deep sense of loss – like all the Palestinians in the diaspora who were expelled forcibly from their homes – and not having the privilege of living in a homeland I could call my own, is strongly present in both my consciousness and subconscious.  This has inevitably affected the choice of my films. Of course, the stories that I highlighted in my films originate from my surroundings. From the refugee camp that I see and  about which I constantly heard stories even though I didn’t grow up in it. On the other hand, some of those freedom fighters that were literally discharged by their Palestinian leadership live here in Jordan… That’s what I see, that’s what surrounds me, and it is part of the Palestinian memory that hasn’t melted away in the course of time. It’s important because it forms a part of the Palestinian memory as a whole; it is like a mosaic piece. Each one of us has his own piece – his story – and this is what frightens the occupiers most, that the memory stays alive.

As for committed art, I don’t understand what it really means. What I understand is that any film that achieves artistic or intellectual distinction deserves to be seen. I don’t think that we could categorize films into “committed” and “non-committed” films according to their subjects. Of course by virtue of our emotion or sympathy, we are driven to believe that a film that is talking about Iraq or Palestine for example, or other issues of particular importance to us, is more important than other films, but this is not accurate at all.

You cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s MBC group in producing your last creative documentary, “perforated memory.” What is the nature of this cooperation, and how do you value your experience as a writer and director cooperating with Arab television?

Our cooperation was limited to production only. I submitted my project to a contest designed for independent Arab filmmakers by the MBC group and I won the first prize and thus I made a short version of the film for the television. However, it is the long version that participated in the festivals.

It’s good to have Arab televisions producing documentaries in collaboration with independent filmmakers. However, it is necessary to regulate the relationship between the producer and the director so that Arab filmmakers can have significant local support instead of having to turn to European producers most of the time.

But I think this is inaccessible for many reasons, most notably the lack of vision by those in power and the lack of specialists who can truly appreciate the importance of cooperating with independent filmmakers and supporting creative documentaries. It’s no secret that one of the main reasons behind the lack of support for documentaries is purely political. It’s because these films are mostly critical and require a high level of freedom of expression. When will we be ready to face all this? I don’t know and I am not optimistic.

Have you faced any technical or social difficulties as a woman filmmaker in Jordan?

I haven’t faced any gender-based difficulties or real obstacles, or at least not until this moment. The main obstacle I’m facing is a cultural one. It’s the widespread ignorance about documentaries in Jordan. Commercial cinema productions -mainly American films or the derivatives of them by Arabs or foreigners, like the Turkish soap operas for example – are all the rage in Jordan and the rest of the Arab countries. It’s this kind of film that investors want. This is drawing a false image of Arab societies, their culture and causes.

You said in a former interview with journalist Sarah Alqudat: “in order to alter the consciousness of others, we need a great deal of freedom of expression without internal or external censorship”.  To what extent can you get rid of these censorships?

It seems I was remarkably optimistic at that time. First of all, I don’t think we can alter the collective consciousness for the time being, or even just get close to that. Awareness accumulates, it doesn’t happen suddenly. Therefore, one, or even ten films can’t build the audience’s awareness. However, it might contribute to the creation of a critical approach at the best. But this also requires a viewer who is fond of cinema and seeks these films at film festivals. I don’t mean here Arab film festivals, which are held mainly for political propaganda and networking, or the mere duplication of International festivals. I mean a film festival that resembles people and addresses them. As for censorship, it is easy to get around it. Under these totalitarian regimes we try hard to avoid clashes with censorship. I am not very optimistic about changing this, because there will be no change unless these regimes change, or at least the mentality of those who run them changes, because they always level accusations against any artist who tells the truth. These regimes are fragile; they oppress their natives who perhaps love their homeland more than they do.

As a young director from Jordan, what changes do you want to see in the Jordanian cinema scene?

To talk about the cinema scene in Jordan, we need to understand the complex structure of Jordanian society and its social, cultural and political context which is, in my opinion, very special and worth looking into it. I’m saying this because I believe that for local cinema to be successful and outstanding, it needs to convey the local culture and the real features of the society it comes from. We still need a lot to achieve this. Of course, one cannot demand a lot, the scene is still developing. There are serious attempts by individuals that I hope will continue and garner support. Of course both The Royal Film Commission and The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA) play a major role in developing the infrastructure for a Jordanian film industry relying on local groups. In my opinion this is very important, but I hope they will be able to complete their projects and won’t hit up against the bitter reality of Arab film production that the majority of Arab filmmakers suffer from.

What is your next film project?

At present I’m preparing a long documentary entitled “Gaza Gaza.” I’m also writing my first fiction film project.

Filmmaker Sandra Madi answered my questions in writing.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.