In 1895, the French brothers Louis and August Lumiere “invented cinema”.
Their pursuit began as a simple novelty, but the gargantuan cultural impact of their inventions – a revolutionary camera and projector – has proven to be anything but a short-lasting gimmick.
Soon after their inventions, the brothers began sending cameramen to various corners of the world to shoot what we now recognise as documentaries.
These short films covered subject matters that were simple, commonplace: the aftermaths of earthquakes and fires, perhaps, or famous marketplaces and archeological sites.
But they also included some of the first ever depictions of Palestine on film.
By 1896, the cameramen landed in Palestine – Jerusalem, to be exact. Only two of their films from that time remain today.
The first, titled ‘Arrivée d'un train à Perrache’ (1896) – a train arrives at Perrache station – has a reported runtime of just 1 minute, though in actuality, it’s only seconds-long.
In it, director Louis Lumiere installs a camera on the station’s platform to capture a train’s safe arrival, along with the debarking of passengers and their loved ones waiting nearby.
In another, “Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer” (1987) – leaving Jerusalem by railway – the Lumiere brothers shoot from inside the train, setting up in the last locomotive and capturing passersby and the surrounding area.
A train slowly trudges along, as the camera captures men and women on the platform, waiting for another train or bidding a companion farewell.
If we watch closely, we see no kippahs or other signs of Jewish affiliation. We only witness the typical Palestinian Arab dress and Turkish fez headdresses.
Propaganda, politics and sensationalism
At first, cinema might seem like a distant, insignificant relative of the 1948 Nakba. How does film relate to the catastrophic displacement of Palestinians that still ripples through the diaspora today?
But it’s crucial to note that the circumstances which precede, and follow, a historical event are inextricably tied to the event itself.
The presence of Palestinians on their own land – often reduced by Israeli politicians and leaders to no more than uncivilised desert tribes – is blatantly clear in documentaries of the time, even in films that promoted the establishment of the state of Israel.
Nonetheless, Palestinians failed to utilise cinema and its exceptional powers of persuasion to support their cause. All the while, Zionists employed cinema – both before and after the Nakba – to propagate their vision.
Since then, no decade has passed without the release of films that focus on the Palestinian cause and Israeli occupation.
But such films often fall short of effectively conveying their message to the masses.
For its part, the Israeli propaganda machine relied on two key elements in promoting its “testimonies” and narrative.
Firstly, the presence of Jewish cinematographers across the Western world, who could produce films that served the Zionist agenda.
This included portrayals of the Holocaust to discussions of the Promised Land and the right to establish a Jewish nation. Secondly, Hollywood itself, of its own volition, was making films that promoted that Jewish “right”, as seen in titles such as Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” (1960) and George Sherman’s “Sword in the Desert” (1949).
Both films were politically motivated. In their own ways, they attempted to depict the conditions of post-Nakba Palestine in a manner that justifies the usurpation of land from a religious perspective.
Like any form of propaganda, such films might seem disconnected from their political agendas at first. Upon closer inspection, however, their intentions become patently clear: to convince viewers, westerners especially, that the existence of the state of Israel is an undeniable truth.