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The Desire to Be Visible

How 1972’s The Dupes challenged Zionist cinema

After the Nakba of 1948 and the violent implementation of an Israeli state in historic Palestine, the revolution looked to cinema. The portrayal of Palestine in cinema goes back to the creation of cinema itself, in 1896; the creation of sound cinema posed a grave threat to burgeoning Zionist activities. Organizations like the Jewish National Fund and Histadrut (General Federation of Laborers) rounded up major financial and political support to back film productions that expanded the propaganda apparatus locally and abroad. As a consequence, as Ella Shohat notes in Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, “very few narrative features were produced until the early sixties, while documentary practice in Palestine became virtually a synonym for Zionist propaganda films.” Dominant visual regimes were oriented toward legitimizing modern Zionism in the eyes of the West and socializing new settlers internally, often using cinematic devices such as Americans playing Israeli soldiers (Paul Newman in Exodus) or the exotic Arab women-victim trope (Dina Doron in Clouds Over Israel) making these movies little more than vessels for paternalist, revisionist narratives and the advancement of Israeli nation-building.

In 1968, Palestinian cinema reemerged as part of the liberation movement, which believed in the power of film to cultivate solidarity in the Arab region and internationally. Recently restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, The Dupes (1972), directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh, resurfaces in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks of October 7 and Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. At the time of its release, the film was one of the first narrative Arab films to confront the Zionist cinematic propaganda machine by centering the tragic history of the Nakba, or or “catastrophe,” which had been purposely omitted from Israeli cinema. As Edward Said writes, “The whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.”

In The Dupes, Saleh subverts humanitarian records to make visible the collective traumatic suffering resulting from Israel’s militaristic and political policies.

The film is set in 1958, ten years after the Nakba, which refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Zionist land theft, and the near-total destruction of Palestinian society in 1948. The Dupes opens with the imagery of death, a close-up of a human skeleton decaying under the harsh rays of the desert sun, and a warning: “A man without a country will have no grave in the earth.” Saleh’s film makes it known from the beginning that Palestinian diasporic conditions are necropolitical. The film begins by introducing Abu Qais (Mohamed Kheir-Halouani) the eldest central character and a peasant. After the Nakba, his family was forcibly displaced into a refugee camp with inadequate resources, resulting in starvation. While all the central characters are seeking escape from the horrors of Israeli occupation, Abu Qais is the only character who experiences the so-called life of the refugee camps.

Under the guise of conflict, refugee camps are poised as humanitarian despite their inhabitants being reduced to bare life, divested from citizenship and political status, and, in the case of Occupied Palestine, the constant target of warfare. Since the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949, photography and documentary image-making produced by UNRWA worked as an apparatus for humanitarian imperialism to illicit sympathies from donors in the Global North. Visual depictions of Palestinian refugeehood, such as vast tent encampments, food rations, basic supplies, health care, and education were depoliticized. The portrayal of Palestinian dispossession from the context of Israel’s abhorrent acts of violence conceived of refugees as eternal wanders. Paradoxically, the portraiture of life in the refugee camp is one of the earliest to appear in Palestinian cultural production. In The Dupes, Saleh subverts humanitarian records to make visible the collective traumatic suffering resulting from Israel’s militaristic and political policies. He experiments with the boundaries of cinematic genre by splicing fiction storytelling with a documentary montage that depicts the carceral, claustrophobic, and impoverished conditions of the Nabatieh refugee camp. Similarly, Mustafa Abu Ali’s They Do Not Exist (1974) uses archival footage and survivor testimonies from the 1974 Israeli air raids on the same camp to connect the collective suffering of Palestinians to anti-imperialist struggles in Vietnam and Mozambique. The Dupes incorporates many cinematic characteristics from Third Cinema, such as documentary aesthetics and news footage as a method of truth-telling—confronting the Zionist erasures that bury the lived realities of forced containment and land theft.

Assad (Bassam Lotfi Abu-Ghazala) is a young activist who is on the run from the Jordanian police and the marital obligations of his family. Marwan (Saleh Kholoki) is a teenager who quits school after his father abandons his family and hopes to find employment in Kuwait. These characters, in particular, reflect the lack of mobility and opportunities for the younger generations in the occupied territories as well as the suppression of youth radicalization against the colonial forces. Unsurprisingly, familial obligations and notions of masculine honor are driving forces behind their decisions to put their bodies and lives at grave risk. Saleh uses flashbacks and narrative fragments to tell the backstories of the three men, often switching between past and present to show the moments that lead them to meet Abu Khaizuran, the smuggler who eventually leads them to their demise. Casting ordinary people in these roles emphasizes the Palestinian experience of occupation, exile, and dispossession as quotidian; throughout the film, Saleh leans into close-ups of the refugee’s facial expressions on their dangerous journey through the infernal heat, and hovering over every scene is a haunting mood of exhaustion. The film’s realism and jarring editing style provide an unpolished and gritty look reminiscent of Italian neorealism, and their high-risk road trip is slow and excruciatingly painful to watch knowing they will not make it to the end.

While strangers at the offset, Abu, Marwan, and Assad’s paths converge in their search for an affordable smuggler. Abu Khaizuran, a former Palestinian resistance fighter who was castrated by a piece of shrapnel from an Israeli bomb during the Nakba, offers them a discount provided that the three men are willing to hide in a water tank that rises to scorching temperatures during the middle of the day. Haunted by the memory of his castration, Abu has lost his sense of national identity, neatly allegorizing Arab complicity in Palestinian suffering. In an internal monologue scene, he states, “What good did patriotism do you? You spend your life in an adventure, and now you are incapable of sleeping with a woman! Let the dead bury their dead. I only want more money now, more money.” Abu’s impotence satirizes the promise of a united pan-Arab state which was, in the words of Partha Chatterjee, “followed by the crisis of the third-world-state, and the culture wars became identified with chauvinism, ethnic hatred, and cynically manipulative and corrupt regimes.”

The Dupes is adapted from Ghassan Kanafani’s 1963 novella Men in the Sun. This morbid and heartbreaking text remains one of the most iconic works of “resistance literature” (the term coined by Kanafani) created in opposition to Zionist cultural warfare. Kanafani radicalized at a young age after his family was forced to join the Palestinian exodus and fled to refugee camps in Lebanon and Damascus. He earned a teaching certificate from the UNRWA and pursued a degree in Arabic literature at the University of Damascus before becoming a founding member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1967. Kanafani joined the Arab Nationalist Movement during his formative years (which also led to his expulsion from the University of Damascus). Inspired by Third World liberation struggles, Marxist literature, and pan-Arab organizing, Kanafani’s resistance literature often weaves stories of Palestinian daily life and struggle under occupation. Undergirding these tragic narratives are historical interventions of dominant systems of imperialism and colonialism which gives credence to the Zionist project.

Palestinian solidarity cinema of the 1970s signaled a continued uncompromising commitment to Palestinian resistance and liberation through experimental and militant filmmaking.

Men in the Sun was born from the ashes of a failed National Arab Front and the prospect of a pan-Arab revolution after Palestinians were effectively sidelined politically and socially by Arab states by the 1960s. Saleh built on Kanafani’s controversial critiques of Palestinian leadership and Arab complicity in abetting Palestinian suffering (which was informed by burgeoning frustration on the ground from Palestinians in refugee camps in the late 1960s). In a 1976 interview for La Palestine et le cinéma, Saleh states he added the dimension of “the betrayal of certain Arab governments” with respect to the Palestinian cause. Saleh further contextualizes Men in the Sun within the political contexts of the early 1970s—after the Arab defeat of 1967 and the defeat of the Palestinian resistance movement during the 1970 Jordanian war. In a clear reference to Black September, Saleh flashes a photo of King Hussein, just as a fida’i says, “In front of us are Zionists, and behind us there are traitors.”

Born in Alexandria, Saleh belonged to a lineage of European-educated Arab filmmakers (such as Faysal al-Yasiri and Kais al-Zubaidi) who between 1969-1974 with the aid of public sector financing sought to create a new kind of politically conscious cinema. Moreover, The Dupes is an experimental allegory of the exile experience, a product of the “Palestinian cinema of the third period, created in the 1970s in exile . . . constructing the Palestinian national narrative as part of an international revolutionary struggle.” Scholar Nadia Yaqub writes that in 1970 Saleh moved to Damascus, then considered “the gathering place for young, politically minded Arab filmmakers,” to direct a film for the Syrian General Cinema Organization (GCO). Between 1969 and 1974, filmmakers from Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon produced works that embodied Palestinian filmmakers’ cinematic aspirations to make accessible, consequential films. The Dupes was set mostly in Iraq and shot in Syria with the support of the GCO. The behind-the-scenes pan-Arab collaborative filmmaking asserts a shared political project that prioritizes Palestinian liberation and usurps this essence of anti-colonial pan-Arab consciousness-building that existed in the late fifties and sixties but was stifled and suppressed. 

Palestinian solidarity cinema of the 1970s signaled a continued uncompromising commitment to Palestinian resistance and liberation through experimental and militant filmmaking. The works of the movement creatively engaged with archival images, news footage, civilian testimonies, and Palestinian literature, often animated by sentiments oriented toward capturing moments of collective and armed struggle. An infamous example is the Dziga Vertov Group’s agitprop, Ici et ailleurs (1976), in which Jean-Luc Godard manipulated his own footage when he used a close-up to conceal the fact that a Lebanese woman, explaining how proud she was to be bearing a child that might one-day support Palestinian resistance, was not, in fact, pregnant. Here, cinema works as a counter to visual regimes’ claims of authority and power by empowering conceptions and images of collective agency. Media theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff argues in White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness that counter-visuality has taken many shapes and forms throughout history, from slave revolts and general strikes to gestures of refusal and opacity, public displays, and art forms.

The Dupes, like the novella, ends with Abu Khaizuran dumping the rigid dead bodies of Abu, Marwan, and Assad on a trash heap in the desert. “The men,” as Nadia G. Yaqub observes, “have been transformed into human waste that is not even valued for labor.” Abu Khuzayran’s last words in the novella, shouted into the desert, are: “Why didn’t they knock against the walls of the tanker? Why? Why?” However, in the film, the men are seen banging against the walls of the tank while Abu Khaizaran pleads with Kuwaiti border agents to stamp his papers. Moreover, in Saleh’s last shot, we see Abu Quais’s stiff extended hand curled, as if he died knocking. The final scene recalls the film’s epigraph—“And my father once said a man without a homeland will have no grave on the Earth and he forbade me to leave.”

Ultimately, Saleh swapped Kanafani’s ending for an ending that mirrored the revolutionary fervor of Palestinian resistance. Arguably, it is an ending that furthered Kanafani’s agential sentiments in regard to the Palestinian people and their right to all the land of historical Palestine. The image of a raised hand not only affirms the characters’ will to live but protests the conditions of exile and dispossession—rupturing Zionist dominant visual regimes that sought to bury Palestinian history and, in turn, their refusal to perish quietly beneath the engine of cultural warfare.