This video essay compares the use of flag colors in Palestinian narrative cinema, specifically in three films: Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005), When I Saw You (Annemarie Jacir, 2012), and 3000 Nights (Mai Masri, 2015). To tease out the multiple motivations for the flag colors device across Palestinian cinema we compare nine other Palestinian films and seven global flag films to our three primary cases. The comparison is guided by Kristin Thompson’s neoformalist typology of device motivations, augmented by Barthes’s attention to ‘the rhetoric of the image’ (Thompson 1988; Barthes 1977).
The initial motivation for flag compositions in Palestinian film is nationalist and rhetorical – a creative response to the efforts of the colonial state to erase the Palestinians as a people and the specific legal prohibition of flag colors in the Occupied Territories before 1993. Such nationalist motifs in film testify to the world, and reassure Palestinian audiences, of the persistence of the Palestinian people against all efforts at their erasure. We compare the rhetorical nationalist use of flag colors in When I Saw You and Paradise Now to flag motifs in paintings and political posters, and to the frequent identity crop images – sabr cactus, citrus fruit, olive trees, and poppies – in Palestinian films.
Secondly, we compare artistic motivations for the flag device in films by Godard, Kieslowski, and Mehta to Palestinian film. Elia Suleiman’s ironic flag motivations engage in a similar form of artistic defamiliarization to Godard’s satire of banal French nationalism from the new wave. Like Kieslowski and Mehta, Najwa Najjar employs flag colors as the dominant device for mood and style in her Pomegranates and Myrrh (2009). These colors likewise style Abu-Assad’s and Jacir’s films, but the flag also structures their rhythm and stories.
We argue that the richest uses of embedded flag colors are compositionally motivated. We follow Eisenstein who wrote 'The theme expressed in color leit-motifs can, through its color score and its own means, unfold an inner drama, weaving its own pattern in the contrapuntal whole, crossing and recrossing the course of the action…' (1970). In fiction film, color motifs can be patterned to structure or support the overall narrative and the filmmakers’ central political points. We build this argument with expositions of the flag shots and scenes in Abu-Assad’s, Jacir’s, and Masri’s works, all of which center single mothers and their sons.
The political and artistic point of Paradise Now, shot during the Second Intifada, is to explicate a suicide bombing artistically without endorsing it. The most pronounced flag compositions attach to two characters, the would-be bomber’s mother, and his love interest. Variants on Israeli blue encroach in Palestinian flag compositions enmeshing most characters’ actions and choices in the occupation. Only Said’s mother is surrounded just by red, green, black, and white, making a visual argument for active steadfastness or sumud against self-destruction.
When I Saw You uses flag compositions to celebrate the agency and idealism of Palestinian freedom fighters in contrast to the living death of the refugee camp. However, in respectfully suggesting the armed struggle was doomed, and having a mother and son’s clothing recombine flag colors in their run for Palestine, Jacir’s film participates in the search for a nonviolent, perhaps women-centered, means to struggle for a homeland.
Lastly, 3000 Nights portrays the gradual transformation of a scared, isolated prisoner into an active agent in the struggle for the women prisoners’ political rights. Layal Asfour’s psychological transformation is rendered without dialog in solitary confinement with her toddler dressed in Palestinian flag colors. Masri’s artistic and political point is that everyone, particularly women civilians, has a role to play in the struggle for national self-determination. Like Abu-Assad and Jacir, she tacitly critiques the failings of patriarchal nationalism and the Palestinian Authority.
This project began as a study of Paradise Now by Kenji Takada and Niall Ó Murchú. In lockdown, it grew into a comparison of the three primary films with identity crop motifs in Palestinian movies and with global flag films. Latterly, it has become a framework for comparing the frequent presence of flag colors across Palestinian movies. Many have nurtured this video but special thanks to my collaborators Kevin Snyder and Mark Miller for specialist editing. My prose article on this topic was recently published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, and I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for their enormous indirect contributions to this video. Our greatest debts are to the Palestinian filmmakers who began rhetorically using their national colors to signal their nation’s persistence and discovered ways to use flag colors to tell visual stories of peoplehood. We hope that anyone who enjoys our video will watch and support more Palestinian film.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. 'Rhetoric of the Image', in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill & Wang.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1970 . 'Colour Film', in Notes of a Film Director. Dover.
Ó Murchú, Niall. 2023. 'Coloring Palestine: The Flag Device and Cinematic Motivations in Narrative Movies', Journal of Palestine Studies (52.1): 21–42. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0377919X.2023.2174039
Thompson, Kristin. 1988. Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton University Press.
Niall Ó Murchú is professor of global studies and political economy at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University (WWU). He has published across disciplines in Comparative Politics, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Irish Political Studies, International Journal of the Sociology of the Family, The Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, and The Journal of Palestine Studies. Earlier video essays 'A Place in the Nation' and (co-created with Sikata Banerjee and Rachel Malia Newkirk) 'Muscular Nationalism, the Female Body, and Sports in India' were published in [In]Transition (5.2 and 7.3). His current audiovisual research focuses on conceptual blending in Palestinian film and nationalist affect in Irish films.
Kevin Snyder graduated from Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University with dual majors in English (Creative Writing) and Interdisciplinary Studies in 2021. He works as an independent writer.
Mark Miller is Information Technology Manager at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, WWU. He teaches digital video editing in Western’s Department of Communications Studies and Fairhaven.