“With him we couldn’t start. Without him we couldn’t conclude”; so sums up the seeming impossibility of solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more specifically the nature of the presidency of Yasser Arafat. A new documentary by Spirit Level films looks at Arafat’s presidency as part of their series, The Price of Kings.
The documentary doesn’t aim to tell the story of the middle eastern conflict as such; it aims to deconstruct the Yasser Arafat movement and bring it back to what was at its heart; a man leading his country in an incredibly difficult situation. This is done through interviews with Arafat’s friends, family, and various leading Palestinian and Israeli figures. The interviews are intercut with footage from the conflict dating back to the creation of Israel in 1948.
One of the hardest things about making a documentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict is making it original; the conflict has been explored countless times. If you want people to watch you have to offer something new. The film certainly scored a coup in that area. According to the director, this was the first time that Palestinian officials, and those close to Arafat, had come out and said that his death was probably the result of poison. As the film pointed out, at the time Arafat became ill he was relying on food and water from Israel. Every meal risked sabotage.
The justification of the Palestinian officials for not openly accusing Israel of assassination at the time was simple; they didn’t want to jeopardise the peace process, so they made a sacrifice.
As the director Richard Symons said ‘’the film is about the price you pay for doing the right thing. We’re all leaders in our own ways and we all have to make sacrifices, even if it’s something simple like sharing our food. It’s the nobility of your sacrifice that counts”.
The film also included personal interviews with Arafat’s wife, Suha, who gives her own account of being a bride to the much older Arafat. Her account provides the most personal insight into the leader’s world, but at times you wonder how close even she was able to get to Arafat. At times she calls him Arafat rather than Yasser, and as she says, he might have been her husband but he was married to the cause of the Palestinians.
Arafat comes off well on the whole, but there’s certainly some difficult moments. Bassam Abu Sharif, who was an architect of the Dawson's Field hijackings, and subsequently a senior advisor to Arafat, declares that he’s “proud to be a terrorist”, and even compares himself to Nelson Mandela. The terrorist question is one which hangs over the whole documentary; was Yasser Arafat a terrorist? Not according to Suha Arafat, who says “my husband is not a terrorist or a killer. He’s a freedom fighter”. The documentary doesn’t attempt to answer the question, which is fine because that’s not what it was designed to do.
There were a few moments in there which could have been done better. Arafat’s ‘’great charisma’’ is illustrated by showing a clip of a woman looking at him. The moment of his death is represented by the sound of a heart monitor ceasing to beep, and the films ends with a figure looking out to the open sea.
I also would have liked to have seen more clips of Arafat speaking in his own tongue. It’s hard to whip up an oratory storm when you’re speaking in broken English, with an um and an aaa every few seconds. “We will fight on the beaches” probably wouldn’t have sounded as good said in broken French, just as Arafat’s oratory really comes alive when you see him speaking at the UN in 1974, in Arabic.
However, this documentary is definitely worth a watch. It does a good job of separating the Yasser Arafat movement from Yasser Arafat the person, and it avoids being overly political. It explores the issues without being judgemental, and sheds a personal light on a controversial, but ultimately very significant, leader.
So was the price Arafat paid for what he believed in worth it? Yes, says a Palestinian official. “The sacrifice was worth it because he gave us a place to bury our dead”.
Price of Kings – Yasser Arafat will be shown at a Special Screening at the CPH:DOX Film Festival on 10th November for more information visit www.priceofkings.co.uk