“One day I’ll tell you about the insane house saga in Damascus,” Hind Shoufani told me one morning in early March. I was at work, she was at home making coffee, and we’d been messaging intermittently for the past half an hour.
I suggested she recount the story that coming Thursday, accompanied by a punk soundtrack and a club night run by mutual friends in Dubai. “You mean screech it,” she said with a laugh, never a fan of shouted lyrics or distorted power chords.
It was gone midnight by the time she arrived and sure enough we could barely talk. The bar was loud, smokey and dingy, but we found seats and screeched at each other. She was colour correcting her film she said, or needed to, and had spent the best part of the previous year in Beirut working tirelessly on a documentary she believed no one would ever screen. It was then that I asked about Damascus.
“Ah, the book drama in Syria is quite the tale,” she said. Seventy crates of books belonging to her father – the PLO leader, academic, writer and leftist intellectual Elias Shoufani – remained stranded in Syria by war, as well as those of her mother and sister and her own childhood favourites. But that was just the beginning. Behind the books stood the story of a failed revolutionary, of an exile, of a family separated forever by war, and of a proud man who died alone in Damascus without a penny to his name. All of which she was attempting to fit into a documentary.
By the time we met in March, Hind had been in an abusive relationship with her film for the past three years. She felt battered, frequently demoralised, and tired of swimming upstream. As she had written in an article I’d commissioned a few months earlier: “Making films is so damn hard. I write this after spending 12 hours trying to render a beast of a timeline, with multiple layers on it. This is one day amongst hundreds, after years of compiling the film in five countries. Being in the final round of technical exports is still hellish. Work is done, redone, redone again, shifts, changes, is lost on some hard drive, the hands ache and the back breaks. The sheer amount of human, financial and technological resources required to make a film are so cataclysmic sometimes.”
The Oscar-nominated Palestinian director of Omar and Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad, once told me that every movie represents a different war. “Believe me,” he said. “Every movie, whether it’s under the occupation, in the US, or in Holland, is about fighting against everything to make your picture. It’s a challenge to find the money, to get the money on time, to find the right crew, the right cast, to get the organisation right; even the weather is against you. It’s a constant battle. And [then] there’s the challenge of marketing the movie, which is as difficult as making it.”
This is the challenge that Hind, a Palestinian poet and filmmaker, faces. After years of dedication and frustration, her film, Trip Along Exodus, is to receive its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival on 12 December. Excitement is tempered by fear and trepidation. How do you take an experimental art house documentary that explores the past 70 years of Palestinian politics through the prism of the life of her father to the world? How do you reconcile experimentation with critical success? How do you draw audiences to a documentary steeped in the failure of its protagonist? The answer lies in the power and pure emotion of its original content.
Trip Along Exodus gives voice to a man who opposed the mainstream policies of settlement that Yasser Arafat adopted in the early 1980s. Outspoken and forthright, Shoufani was at the forefront of a violent split within the Fatah movement that erupted in 1983, with the Syrian-backed faction attempting to end Arafat’s vice-like grip on the PLO. Joined by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian communists headquartered in Damascus, the Fatah rebels denounced Arafat’s mainstream PLO as corrupt and willing to sell out the Palestinian cause for their own gain. The rebellion led to several years of open conflict and to Shoufani’s 20-year opposition to Arafat.
Trip Along Exodus is in essence an examination of the familial and emotional cost of revolution and rebellion. It is also a daughter’s search for understanding of her own father. Who was this man who abandoned a life of academia in the Ivy League universities of the US? Why did he join the Palestinian revolution of the 1970s? Why did he make decisions that would have such a far-reaching effect on Hind and her family?
In many ways it is also a lesson in catharsis. It is a film born out of loss and sadness. It is a film, perhaps, that should also be viewed through the emotional lens of Hind herself; a strong, beautiful, outspoken women who at the same time is plagued by rootlessness, anxiety and a sometimes overbearing sense of bereavement.
She once wrote in her first book of published poetry that she cannot write when she is happy. And yet she writes all the time. A Fulbright scholar and the holder of a Master of Fine Arts from New York University, she lives “between fear and frustration, between truth and consequences, between dignity and survival. Between here and there. Between money and love”. This much I have discovered in the months since our initial conversation.
She also operates in a world where art is weighed against money and comfort is weighed against activism. It is not an easy place to inhabit, especially for an author of two volumes of candid, angry and uncensored poetry.
And yet amidst the loneliness, the love of glitter and the tantalising allure of legacy, lies a pure, if restless, spirit. One that has created a cinematic poem to her parents and an almost mythical Palestine.
It is through her that I realised how beautifully the Palestinian revolution could be told through the story of one family. How that family could represent the sacrifice and suffering of a whole people. And how the selfless dedication of one man could epitomise the failures of not only the Palestinian revolution, but of the Arab world as a whole over the course of the past 50 years.
* Trip Along Exodus is to be screened at the Dubai International Film Festival on 12 December, with a second screening taking place on 15 December