In his now legendary painting, Women of Algiers in their Apartment/Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834, oil on canvas), Eugene Delacroix captured something so provocative, so elemental, about Arab and Muslim women at the height of the European Orientalist painting that a century-and-a-half later the eminent Algerian novelist, artist, and feminist Assia Djebar (1936-2015), used the very same title for her groundbreaking collection of short stories, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment(1980), turning the Delacroix painting upside down and celebrating the beauty and resilience of Algerian (Arab) women in face of multiple tyrannies.
Before Assia Djebar, the master Egyptian artist Inji Aflatoun (1924-1989) had used her own experiences as a Marxist feminist revolutionary painter jailed by Nasser for four years (1959-1963) to produce some of her masterpieces depicting women in prison cells. The aesthetic genealogy and political power of Aflatoun’s work partook in an entirely different universe than what Delacroix had inspired in Djebar.
Decades after both Aflatoun and Djebar, the eminent Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli made her exquisite masterpiece, The Silences of the Palace/Samt el Qusur (1994), in which she expanded upon Aflatoun’s and Djebar’s pioneering work and investigated much deeper into the trials and tribulations of two generations of Tunisian women domestic workers at the palace of a rich and abusive family at the height of Tunisian anticolonial struggles.
Doyen of Palestinian cinema
These and similar works of art have just been given a powerful new twist by the doyen of Palestinian cinema, Mai Masri, whose career as a documentary filmmaker expands for over 40 years, and now, in her first feature film, she ups the ante in telling the story of Palestinian women in Israeli prisons.
On April 25, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University was privileged to host the New York premiere of Masri’s new feature film, 3000 Nights (2015).
A Beirut-based Palestinian, Masri’s distinguished career as a filmmaker began in the early in the1980s with her pioneering documentary, Under the Rubble (1983), and has continued apace until today when she has directed her first feature film.
Premiered internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival, and based on a true story, “3000 Nights” chronicles the life of Layal (as interpreted masterfully with unsurpassed poise and grace by Maisa Abd Elhadi) who was sentenced to eight years of prison by the Israeli military court, falsely accused of aiding and abetting with what the European settler colony calls “terrorism”.
The incarceration of human beings inside the confinements of a prison has been the subject of many philosophical, poetic, literary and cinematic reflections across many cultures and conditions.
Masri's cinematic engagement with the subject places the location of women imprisonments squarely in the context of the Israeli colonial conquest of Palestine ...
From Plato’s Crito (360 BC) that takes place inside Socrates’ prison cell, to the legendary prison poems of Masud Sa’d Salman (1046-1121) to Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon (1816) to Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption (1994), we are witness to myriad of attempts to understand the nature of incarceration on human soul.
Most recently, in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the French social historian Michel Foucault investigated the penal code as integral to the disciplinary formations of European modernity.
Masri’s cinematic engagement with the subject places the location of women imprisonments squarely in the context of the Israeli colonial conquest of Palestine – in the framework of what the distinguished Palestinian sociologist Elia Zureik, extending Foucault’s insights, has studied in detail in his most recent book, Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine: Brutal Pursuit (2016).
In this book, Zureik studies in detail the tripartite trajectory of the Zionist colonial conquest of Palestine: violence, territory, and population control, which he analyses as a specific form of what he calls “racialist discourse”.
While Zureik has advanced the Foucauldian frame of reference of surveillance and governmentality much deeper into the domain of racialised violence and settler colonialism, Masri’s “3,000 Nights” offers a number of crucial twists on such theoretical insights into the nature of Israeli settler colonialism.
By concentrating on women prisons she successfully genders the politics of penitentiary violence and occasions a much needed and necessary full-bodied encounter with the horrors of a surveillance state in its full violent operation.
Masri’s mastery of her cinematic craft enables a vision of colonial incarceration that no mere critical thinking can do.
The genre of prison in cinema challenges the visionary gifts of a filmmaker to the maximum for she (or he) has to tell a long story almost entirely through interior shots, limited in space, mise en scene, camera movements, choice of lenses, options for lighting, and the very physicality of acting to a bare minimum.
Masri comes to her first feature film from an extended documentary background, mostly shot in the open air of urban settings and refugee camps she knows like the proverbial palm of her hand.
Here she and her director of photography Gilles Porte and editor Michele Tyan are at their professional best to be able to tell a full-bodied story within the confinements of a few adjacent cells, a hallway, and a small courtyard (the film was shot in a military prison in Jordan).
Because of this exquisite cinematic feat that Masri and her colleagues have achieved, it is no longer necessary to belabour the point and insist on how powerful the entire metaphoric choice of the central character of the story Layal is to keep her child when she realises she was incarcerated while pregnant, give birth in an Israeli prison, and raise her beautiful boy she names Nour/Light in the midst of this dark misery.
What the continued Zionist thievery, murder, and mayhem in Palestine face is the effervescent power of Palestinian people to give birth (just like Layal to Nour while in an Israeli jail) new force and vision to the single most atrocious colonial carnage of our time.
The Israeli propaganda has convinced itself that it has sold its lies to the world at large when it labels the defiance of the nation it has conquered as “terrorism”.
All it takes is one ingenious cinematic gem by a Palestinian master filmmaker to dismantle the entire house of cards that it keeps mounting around itself.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.