Ana María Hurtado’s film, ‘Palestine in the South’ (2008), documents the treatment of diasporic Palestinians in the small town of La Calera, Chile, and the bizarrely welcoming nature of these Chileans supported by none other than their ex-president, Michelle Bachelet. Conceptually, the story is an interesting one; we rarely hear about what happens to Palestinian refugees or diasporic Palestinians, and the idea that a town in Chile would be a specific destination is somewhat surprising.

The documentary focuses on a twenty-something Chilean-Palestinian girl who, as a result of what she claims to be the heightened sense of her Palestinian self manifested in her interest in stuffed vine leaves and belly dance alongside her empathy towards Palestinians, is chosen to coordinate a Palestinian integration project.

Her story then merges with that of an incoming family of Palestinian refugees from Iraq, persecuted and forced into exile after the ‘war’ as a result of their ethnicity. The documentary follows Basem and his family from La Calera where Basem tries and fails to be a successful baker in such a small town, to Santiago and his financial success.

Initially, the spectator is confronted with an admirable level of sympathy and action from La Calera; the sight of children at a Chilean school (‘The Palestine School’) first singing the Palestinian national anthem and then making Palestinian flags so that the “pain” of the Palestinian children is turned into “love” is quite moving. This is continued and perhaps intensified somewhat in the segment in which Chileans are filmed chasing a bus of Palestinian refugees waving Palestinian flags, again an emotional moment. This portrayal of unadulterated empathy is compromised, however, once the refugees actually appear on screen: the camera focuses on their expressions, and their discomfort is evident in the face of this overwhelming display of hospitality, understandable once the reasons for their arrival to La Calera is considered.

Throughout the duration of the fifty-minute long documentary, Achille Mbembe’s declaration that postcolonial studies must lose its sense of victimhood in order to overcome binary treatments of coloniser/colonised, East/West, resonates. This sense of victimhood permeates throughout the film; the sporadic interruptions of news-footage presenting scenes of destruction in Gaza and in Iraq are set against footage of interviews with Basem and his wife.  Despite long shots of, for example, their daughter Miriam’s birthday party and the La Calerans’ generosity, Basem is filmed bemoaning the price of rent and bills, stating “We came here adrift to a country we didn’t know,” implying an untruth in what he was told to financially anticipate. The continuous presentation of growing dissatisfaction is difficult to watch: the spectator gradually loses the sympathy felt towards Basem, described as “enterprising”, and it is now that Mbembe’s disregard for this sense of victimhood, manifested in something of a sense of entitlement, becomes pertinent. The fact, however, that the film keeps the spectator at a distance means that we are unable to judge the situation of the refugees and La Calerans in general and are left only with the character of Basem as a representation of financial, social and diasporic discontent.

The absurd intensity of the townspeople’s emotion and energy focused upon Palestinian refugees is, to give the director and the cinematographer Miguel Cuitiño some credit, clearly reflected within the absurdity of the film itself: the sporadic outbursts of carnivalesque music and lingering shots, for example of the children on the roundabout, are both confusing and eerie. The footage of the La Calerans’ celebration of football victory again set against news footage is simply confusing rather than significant. Either the ensuing confusion is Cuitiño’s intention, or, as I believe, the film is poorly put together and a shallow portrayal of what has the potential to be a fairly interesting story.

Reem Abu-Hayyeh

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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