As a busy Monday faded into evening on Occidental’s sleepy campus, Choi Auditorium was still wide awake with the buzz of students, faculty and community members at the kick-off of Occidental’s fall Middle East film series, “The Dispossessed: Tales of Arab Refugees and Immigrants.” The first film in the series was the documentary “A World Not Ours,” and it was sponsored by the history department and introduced by history professor Michael Gasper.
In “A World Not Ours,” writer and director Mahdi Fleifel explored the bittersweet nature of his family’s legacy as permanent refugees in Lebanon. Established as a refugee camp in 1948, Ain el-Helwen now houses generations of Palestinians. At the time of the film, Fleifel had become a Danish citizen, but visited his family annually. While Fleifel’s early footage is surprisingly lighthearted, the desperation in the community became increasingly obvious as the film progressed.
An extensive question and answer session followed the showing, delving into the cross-cultural nature of Fleifel’s story as well as the detrimental reverberations of western policy.
“The issues of oppression, what it means to being, what it means to not be an outsider … while the focus is on the Middle East in some ways I’m interested in his because I think there are a lot of trans-national connections that we need to look at and think about,” American Studies professor Amy Tahani-Bidmeshki said.
Gasper, Tahani-Bidmeshki, religious studies professor Malek Moazzam-Doutlat, Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) professors Anthony Chase and Huss Banai and French professor Hanan Elsayed developed the film series over the summer. They were inspired in part by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the United States’ increasing military engagement in Iraq against ISIS.
“People have a responsibility to know more. You can’t simply turn your head and say it doesn’t really involve you,” Gasper said.
According to Gasper, one goal of the series is for audience members to deepen and complicate their understanding of the Middle East. Many of the sponsoring faculty members are incorporating the films into their classes, with the assumption that their students have widely varying levels of prior knowledge.
“Sometimes the people who already understand themselves to know something are the people you need to reach the most,” Gasper said.
The sponsoring faculty hope to reinforce a sense of responsibility to stay informed on the region. Especially as the United States becomes more involved, Gasper argued that it is citizens’ obligation to know where and how they are represented in the world.
“It’ll be valuable for students to attend because the films both individually and cumulatively give unexpected but very tangible insights into lived realities of dispossessed peoples,” Chase said via email.
According to Gasper, the community’s enthusiasm to discuss the film after the screening and in the days following demonstrates a more than positive start to the series.
“We as teachers have a responsibility to make sure that people do have some sense of this region we are deeply involved in,” Gasper said. “We are putting it out there for people who want to come.”
Four films are scheduled throughout the fall. The next film will be screened on Oct. 6. The documentary, “Gaza Strip,” captures the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in 2001. The next film, “Free Men,” depicts an Algerian immigrant’s unexpected friendship with a Jewish man in WWII Paris and will screen Oct. 21. The final film, “Paradise Now,” is slotted for Nov. 7. It tells the story of childhood friends turned suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. In addition, another Middle East Film Series is planned for the next semester.