Ibrahim Serhan: A Pioneer of Palestinian Cinema

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The projector is started up as Palestinians and foreigners gather at Cinema Jenin during its inauguration and the start of a three day film festival in Jenin in August 2010. (Photo: AFP - Saif Dahlah)

By: Alaa el-Ali

Published Friday, September 16, 2011

Contemporary Palestinian cinema has made it to the world stage with the works of Eli Sulieman and Hany Abu Assad. But Palestinian filmmaking dates all the way back to pre-Nakba days with the pioneering work of Ibrahim Serhan.

Zionist propaganda films depicting the period before the Nakba show the land as largely empty, except for Bedouins and nomads. They portray Jewish settlers as white westerners rolling up their sleeves to cultivate the beautiful but neglected land — land promised to them by a holy book. On the other hand, there is hardly any Palestinian or Arab documentation of Palestine before the Nakba. The few existing pieces are of critical importance but largely forgotten. These include the pioneering work of Ibrahim Hassan Serhan who was born in Jaffa in 1915 and died in 1987.

Serhan became interested in cinema through personal curiosity and a sense of adventure. His first film contains rare scenes of Palestine, a reportage shot with the black and white technology of the time. An example of his work was a recording of Saudi king Abdel Aziz al-Saud during his visit to Palestine in 1935. The camera Serhan used at the time cost him a mere fifty Palestinian guineas.

But Serhan’s adventures began years before the King’s visit. His son Mohammed told al-Akhbar about his father’s love of photography, which predated his discovery of cinema. Mohammed remembers his father's story of reading instructional books before buying the camera to record a 22 minute movie of the King’s visit and encounter with Palestinian notable Amin al-Husseini, filmed between the towns of Lodd and Jaffa.

During the following decade, Serhan made several documentaries, including a film of the visit of Basha Ahmad Hilmi, member of the Higher Arab Commission. He filmed three hours of the visit and impressed the envoy which gave him 300 Palestinian guineas in return. The money allowed Serhan to further pursue his dreams. Using the money he earned, he managed to open Studio Palestine in Jaffa in front of the French hospital. It was there that he personally built a rudimentary table for editing. His son Mohammad recalls how his father’s dream grew and how his father tried to produce a feature film tentatively titled Storm in a Home. Serhan did not have enough funds to film the feature, so he published an advertisement in a newspaper announcing Studio Palestine’s opening and his search for cinema actors. He received thousands of letters of support and in each of them a nominal amount of money, totalling 2,000 Palestinian guineas. He was then joined by a partner, the journalist Zouheir al Saqa, but disagreements between the two ‘producers’ prevented completion of the film. Serhan continued shooting documentary and propaganda films until 1948.

Renowned Palestinian director Elie Sulieman receiving the Black Pearl award for best Middle Eastern narrative film during the third annual Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi. (Photo: AFP - Karim Sahib)

The Palestinian cinematographer left his country during the Nakba, traveling between Jordan and Beirut. According to an interview conducted with the Iraqi director Kassem Hawal, Serhan shot another film in Jordan in 1958 entitled Struggle in Jarash, which is the first Jordanian feature length narrative. The interview with Hawal published in 1976 is thought to be his only interview, and is frequently referenced in literature on Palestinian cinema.

As for Serhan, these texts note that he lived in Sabra until 1976, the date of the interview’s publication. Other sources say he died in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, but his son dates his death to 1987. Buried during a time of conflict and civil war, Serhan’s funeral procession was restricted to his wife and daughter.

The historical and archival value of Serhan’s films are superior to similar films from other Arab countries, not only in terms of content — they depict lifestyle, clothing, and architecture from the period — but also as cinematic material showing Palestine before the Nakba.

In his interview with Hawal, Serhan speaks about the constructed narrative the Zionist movement relied on in producing their ‘documentary’ propaganda films. They proceeded by representing empty locations in the wilderness, followed by the filming of a child in one of the poor villages. Or they would focus on the filming of shepherds and their herds or some camels in locations close to the desert. It was important that the land seem empty of people. Then they would show the ‘pioneer’ youth, the original occupiers, men and women hand in hand, constructing settlements in available lands. This was all to generate sympathy for these ‘brave souls,’ supporting Zionist propaganda asserting that Palestine, as a land without a people, for a people without a land, was ready to receive the Jews of the world. Serhan also described how before the Nakba, the Zionist movement tried to exploit his artistic talents. He refused to cooperate with them, citing an awareness fostered by Arab national movements at the time.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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