Review: Edward Said DVDs

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Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said

Edward Said: The Last Interview

The death of Edward Said (1935-2003) probably cost the world its last, best chance for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Said, whose family emigrated from the region shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, was the world’s leading Palestinian intellectual, one who could articulate the inner fears and ambitions of the Arab world better than anyone has, before or since.

As a professor at Columbia University, a prolific author, critic and a constant presence in the op-ed pages of papers on three continents, he was the point-man for a vast (and increasingly incomprehensible) Palestinian diaspora and a reliable voice of non-violence during the two catastrophic intifadas. The first began in 1987, and culminated with the ill-fated Oslo Accords; Yasser Arafat and his loyalists marginalized Said and Said, in turn, boycotted the 1993 signing ceremony at the White House. Two years later, Israel PM Yitzhak Rabin was dead, assassinated as part of his nation’s steady rightward drift, and any hope of a negotiated settlement was lost for a generation.

The corruption and fecklessness of the Arafat regime had been exposed not only to the world, but more importantly to the Palestinians themselves. By 2000, Arafat had lost almost all credibility among his own people and western elites who’d been pushing the “Peace Process” for years—most notably former President Bill Clinton, who finally gave up after Arafat rejected the best offer his people would ever get from the Israelis. He left nothing in terms of a plan for how the Palestinians would move on after his death, in hopes perhaps of making himself indispensable. That September 28, Ariel Sharon made his infamous visit to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque complex; the second intifada started the next day, and has never really ended.

It is a tragic quirk of history that Said preceded Arafat to the grave by a year, thereby denying their people the caliber of leadership they deserved. Arafat’s chosen heir, Mahmoud Abbas, was a failure from day one. Most of the Palestinians’ power, politically and in terms of civil administration, has since coalesced around Hamas and Hezbollah, violent radicals whose mere presence as de facto authority encourages radical elements in Israeli society, typified by current PM Benjamin Netanyahu. This is precisely the kind of nightmare scenario that Edward Said warned the world against.

An awesome new DVD collection serves to foster a new appreciation of not only Said’s own career, but also of the extremely complicated social and political dynamics in and around his homeland that obsessed him for all his days. The contents of the double-DVD set were created independently of each other, then wedded for commercial reasons by Icarus Films, based in Armonk, NY. Both films move along at the same measured pace, their tone perhaps dictated by their subject, Said, whose death preceded much of the work involved in bringing them to fruition.

“Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said” is not really about Said, so much as it’s about the filmmaker’s quest to situate the spirit that animated Said within the context of a continually unfolding Arab/Israel dynamic. His subject, unfortunately, is rendered almost as an afterthought; many of the Palestinians he speaks with have never even heard of him, which should maybe not be so surprising, given his relationship with Arafat. It speaks to the situation those people are in, that they could be so estranged from one of its leading public advocates and its most famous intellectuals. Among non-Arabs, only Arafat is better-known, and one presumes that is no coincidence. Arafat ruled over his people for 40 years despite compiling a blood-soaked record of dismal failure distinguished only by the occasional media spectacle—spectacles usually manufactured at the Palestinian’s expense, like his persistent collaborations with terrorists.

Director Sato Makoto spends time on both sides of the notorious “border wall” separating the Israeli and Palestinian communities, and finds two proud cultures that are both held in the vise-grip of fear and tension after all these years of conflict. His dealing with Said is simply to uneven to declare the film an unqualified success, but Makoto—who himself died, aged just  49 years, in September 2007, following Said to the other side by four years, to the month—has ably documented the sense of hopelessness that has prevailed within the Palestinian diaspora. Said would be pleased!

The perceived threat of Palestinian terror is the dominant factor in Israel’s political system; every time the moderates gain some traction, a new bombing forces the extremists back into control. Meanwhile, two entire generations of Palestinian society have withered on the vine. Infrastructure has collapsed, and Palestinian moderates exist in a total power vacuum. The rise of Hamas as the leading force in Palestinian politics effectively ensures that it will be many years before citizens of Gaza and the West Bank are able to enjoy anything remotely resembling peace, freedom or autonomy. And the more disenfranchised Arab youth feel, the more likely they are to embrace jihad, especially with the neutered, feckless Fatah as the only viable moderate outpost. In short, an extremely dangerous form of “catch-22” is the Holy Land’s status quo.

Whereas Said, the person, exists almost on the periphery of the action captured in the first film, “Edward Said: The Last Interview” is all Said, all the time. Recorded nine months before his death, Said sat down with friend Charles Glass to summarize a life and a body of work that would soon be finished; the session was recorded by Mike Dibb, and arranged by The Nation’s London correspondent, DD Guttenplan (recently the author of a fine biography of pioneering journalist IF Stone, a man with whom Said would surely have gotten along famously). Glass makes an apt interviewer, having worked the Middle East beat for decades on behalf of Newsweek, the Observer and ABC News, where he served as Chief Middle East Correspondent after covering the pivotal Arab-Israeli war of 1973, alongside the late Peter Jennings.

These are old hands, walking a well-worn, familiar beat; two lifetimes’ worth of experience and friendship, culminating in this final epic encounter. Longtime fans will be disheartened to see Said frail, tired, weakened in body and spirit by a disease he fought ferociously. He admits that illness has siphoned much of his copious mental energy from the driving issue of his life, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.

By this point, Said could see the sunset not far ahead, and it must have been a bitter experience for him to make his peace with death as that fundamental sense of dislocation that defined him remained hopelessly elusive. But anyone familiar with his output in those last couple of years has been tangibly reminded of Dylan Thomas’ famous commandment: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And so he did rage, until the very end. These DVDs, especially the second, remind us how potent this man’s vision really was, and how unfortunate we all are that it was not realized while there was still time.

sdh666@hotmail.com; November 16, 2009

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