Susan Sontag, Promised Lands. Poland/France, 1974.
Groupe Cinéma Vincennes, L’Olivier. France/Palestine, 1976.
Mike Hoolboom, Lacan Palestine. Canada, 2012.
In 1973, Susan Sontag, the visual critic and essayist, traveled to the Middle East to film in Israel, just before the end of the October War that saw Egypt and Syria uniting to launch a surprise attack in retaliation for the colossal losses of the 1967 war. To watch Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands in April 2012 as part of the London Palestine Film Festival, playing to a full house, is a testament to the changing mode of representing Israel in western cultural capitals. It is also probably an entirely different aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional experience than viewing the film when it first premiered in 1974 in New York City. It is impossible to engage this film today, along with others such as L’Olivier (1976) and Lacan Palestine (2012) that were shown at the same festival, without contextualizing them against the backdrop of the shifting dynamics of representation.
Against Interpretation? The Politics and Poetics of Israeli Trauma
Upon its release in 1974, Promised Lands was banned in Israel. This ban was not a result of a fear of the Palestinian perspective, for there is hardly any of this in the film. Sontag was more interested in capturing the vulnerability of Israel, as she and her liberal New York intellectual cohort understood it, during the period from the foundation of the state in 1948 to 1974, when the film was released. This was a period when the “Palestinian,” and the very idea of “Palestine,” was either non-existent or simply a synonym for “terrorist” in mainstream Western (especially American) society. Through a collage of images of a fearful, traumatized, and insecure nation, Promised Lands could be read as an early attempt to uncover the young Israeli state’s narrative of a heroic national liberation. This was a narrative resting on a deep belief—ironically held by many supporters of anti-colonial nationalist struggles prominent in the leftist intellectual New York circles of the 1960s and 1970s—that a civilized and western Jewish state was liberated from Arabs by Holocaust survivors against all odds, rather than forcefully expelled by colonial settlers armed with the latest in European military technology and racist ideology. Read more