Reel vs. Real: Palestinian representation in the mediated public sphere

ALEXIS WHITACRE  |  29 MAY 2020  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2020

Picture of a drawing of a Palestinian man holding a camera in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem. Taken by author, July 2019.

Narratives of Palestine have historically been highly calculated, politically charged, and largely devoid of Palestinian voices. Indeed, the visibility of Palestinians in global media has wavered between hyper-visibility and complete anonymity as outside groups have sought to control the narratives being told about Palestinian reality. Much of the discourse surrounding Palestinians appears only during times of violence and unrest – as during the Intifadas – and much of the global media coverage on these events tends to lack impartiality, branding Palestinians as terrorists [1]. Until recently, global media has spoken about Palestinians, for them, but rarely to them, necessitating Palestinian interjection into the mediated public sphere [2]

 

Palestinian existence and participation in the traditional public sphere have been limited. But this traditional public sphere, described as ‘a network of communicating information and points of view’, has evolved into a largely mediated public sphere, wherein participants socialize, debate, and inform through media mediums [3]. Today, media platforms are the primary public sphere in which groups socialize and debate; now, ‘the media have become the social [and political] space where power is decided’ [4]. The mediated public sphere is primarily a communicative space, wherein social dialogues are discussed and power relations are reconstructed [5]. Unlike traditional notions of the public sphere – participation in which required physical meeting spaces and a bourgeoisie class which participated in democratic debate [6] – the mediated public sphere is more accessible, particularly to marginalized populations denied a legitimate presence in the original public sphere. This transformation of the public sphere from the institutional realm to the mediated realm was a precondition for accurate media representations of Palestinians, by Palestinians. In this new communicative space, once-excluded counter-politics, like those of Palestinians, ‘are [better] able to intervene more decisively in the new communication space’ [7].

However, even in the mediated sphere, Palestinian narratives are often discounted as illegitimate, biased, effectively barring them from participating. Even in the mediated sphere, real Palestinians have been effectively silenced, replaced by 'reel' Palestinians [8] and necessitating the creation of a Palestinian-made, mediated counter-public [9]. Recently, Palestinian media has bloomed and created new ways for Palestinians to disseminate information and reinforce a national narrative through new mediated forms [10]. The purpose of Palestinian media is to document the occupation, counter the media narrative that is dominated by Israel, and create a modern national narrative. 


 

How are Palestinians creating and publicizing this counter-narrative?


Palestinians seek to counter the dominant narratives through new media avenues. Just a few years ago, Palestinian-made media would have been impossible to produce and disseminate. Lack of accessible media infrastructures, slow internet speeds, and monopolization of coverage facilitated the erasure of Palestinian voices from many media outlets [11]. The advent of social media, however, has transformed the ways in which people interact, gather news, and entertain, and has reduced the amount of time it takes to broadcast information. Palestinians are using media platforms and technologies to draw the attention of the ill-informed public to Palestinian efforts to create a new national narrative, reassert legitimacy, and gain international attention. 

Though the notion of a cohesive Palestinian narrative is not new, the ways the narrative is portrayed has changed with the increasing popularity of using media to document the occupation, circulate information domestically, and advertise globally. Palestinian storytelling and national narratives are delivered in cinematic media and are common themes in print news media and social media as well. A Palestinian filmmaker I met while conducting fieldwork in Bethlehem discussed the goals of Palestinian media, stating ‘I just think about daily life here. All the Palestinians, all the filmmakers in the world, document what they know. Each documents a part of himself, something that shows his personality and his experiences through his work. I am always thinking about everything that happens in the camp and the effects of the occupation; the attacks, the arrests, these kinds of things. I want to document these things because it spreads the word throughout the world. But it is new that Palestinian are representing themselves in media’ [12].

Palestinian media aims to inform, but the burgeoning practice of creating documentaries and other entertainment media is fuelling the creation of an entertainment industry. Documentaries and fiction films are made by amateur filmmakers to tell stories about real Palestine. Many of these films are inspired by true events and the characters' storylines echo those of real Palestinians. These films are fueling the creation of an informal Palestinian film industry. For example, some amateur cinematographers are submitting original films to international film festivals, like the Cannes Film Festival and the Boston Palestine Film Festival. In recent years, many Palestinian filmmakers have won awards for both narrative feature films (fiction) and documentaries. The industry is growing because ‘[n]ow there is more of a market for media consumption, more than ever before. Thousands of people are watching. This is making Palestinian media better. In a few years, Palestinian films will be something big’ [13]. Through media, Palestinians are creating spaces of sovereign power in their media and also creating moments of leisure in entertainment media. This entertainment media industry helps to better represent the political and social agency of Palestinians. A Palestinian filmmaker in Bethlehem's Aida Camp told me, ‘I show the occupation, the Palestinians, the conflict, these things. This is how [Palestinian] cinema works. It shows the reality of life but in a nice and beautiful way. We want to bring awareness to an issue, to show daily life and then to change it’ [14].

 

Palestinians have historically embodied a kind of subalternity, ‘limited in their ability to represent themselves politically and through public speech’, particularly within the traditional public sphere [15]. However, the transition of the traditional public to a largely virtual, mediated public allows Palestinians access to political and social publics wherein a uniquely Palestinian narrative can be propagated. Palestinians are forging a space within the public sphere with their newfound media industries and are reconstructing the ways in which they are seen by demanding the attention of international audiences. 


 

Notes and references

[1] See Alsuntany, Evelyn. 2012. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York: New York University Press; Peterson, Luke. 2015. Palestine-Israel in the Print News Media: Contending Discourses. New York: Routledge; Shaheen, Jack G. 2015. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, Massachusetts: Olive Branch Press.

[2] Peterson 2015; see also Alnajjar, Abeer. 2020. ‘“The Deal of the Century”: How Global Media Silenced the Palestinians’. openDemocracy, 20 February 2020; Barghouti, Mariam. 2017. ‘How Mainstream Media Gets Palestine Wrong’. Al Jazeera, 30 December 2017; and Berger, Miriam. 2019. ‘Palestinian Citizens of Israel Struggle to Tell Their Stories’. Columbia Journalism Review, 11 January 2019.

[3] Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[4] Castells, Manuel. 2007. ‘Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society’. International Journal of Communication 1, 238-66: 238.

[5] Castells 2007.

[6] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[7] Castells 2007, 238.

[8] See examples in Shaheen 2015.

[9] Fraser, Nancy. ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, in Calhoun, Craig (ed.). 1991. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 109-42.

[10] Sienkiewicz, Matt. ‘Facts in the Air: Palestinian Media Expression Since Oslo’, in Bauck, Petter, and Omer, Mohammed. 2016. The Oslo Accords: A Critical Assessment. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 213-23.

[11] Tawil-Souri, Helga. ‘Networking Palestine: The Development and Limitations of Television and Telecommunications since 1993’, in Bauck, Petter, and Omer, Mohammed. 2016. The Oslo Accords: A Critical Assessment. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 225-37.

[12] Interview with one of my interlocutors during my fieldwork in Bethlehem, June 2019.

[13] Interview with one of my interlocutors during my fieldwork in Bethlehem, June 2019.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bashara, Amahl. 2015. ‘Driving While Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank: The Politics of Disorientation and the Routes of a Subaltern Knowledge’. Journal of the American Ethnological Society, 42(1), 333-54: 335. 

Alexis Whitacre

Alexis Whitacre is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She completed a B.A. in International Studies, with a minor in Anthropology, from the University of Evansville. Her research interests include media studies and tourism in the West Bank, Palestine, where she completed summer research. Her recent thesis focused on Palestinian media counter-narratives in the global, virtual public sphere.

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