Colors of Palestine

Creator's Statement

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.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1977. 'Rhetoric of the Image', in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Hill & Wang. 

Eisenstein, Sergei. 1970 [1948]. '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.

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 PoliticsEthnic and Racial StudiesIrish Political StudiesInternational Journal of the Sociology of the FamilyThe 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.

Drawing on a wide range of examples since the late 1980s, 'Colors of Palestine' offers a didactic yet visually playful analysis of the creative and aesthetic devices with which Palestinian cinema experiments to convey political messages. The authors identify the Palestinian flag (the video’s titular colors), as a key symbol around which Palestinian claims to liberation have historically been articulated. While non-cited films such as Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate (2012) and Firas Khoury’s Alam/The Flag (2022) explicitly represent the flag as a material object whose symbolic strength is tainted by its association with the crumbling state project, the video traces instead the subtle ways in which many filmmakers tacitly mobilize the colors of the flag without conjuring the object. In the video’s examples (from Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu Assad, Michel Khleifi, Annemarie Jacir, Rashid Masharawi, Mai Masri, and the Nasser brothers to Najwa Najjar), the flag’s colors can similarly function as a marker of conflicted citizenship, internal division, and disillusionment. Yet in showing the screen’s saturation with red, green, white, and black and the colors’ fusion with the landscape, the authors recognize that Palestinian imaginaries of liberation are only contingently tied to statehood, while the land indisputably remains at the center of the struggle. The video arranges a web of inter-related visual and sound motifs that enhances and complements the signification of the flag’s colors, connecting them to the materiality of the land and the various fruits it bears (the cactus, the olive tree, the poppies, the jasmine). As the beautiful analysis of Jacir’s When I Saw You’s ending reveals, the flag finds itself in constant decomposition and re-composition and gains its deeper meaning through artistic exploration. 

If the video may at times overload some color uses with signification, the play with motifs does not entertain gratuitous aesthetics. Rather, it points to a historicized iconography of resistance that has worked to circumvent the settler regime’s long-term prohibition of those colors. The mother figure as a representative of Palestine and the checkered keffiyeh enjoy a similar significance. In the video, this iconography gathers films like Najwa Najjar’s Pomegranates and Myrrh and Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You, paintings by veteran artists Sliman Mansour and Adnan al-Zubaidy, and militant cinema from the revolutionary period. Such citations are not merely formalist; they honor a broader culture of resistance and reconfigure women’s critical role in the struggle. The video demonstrates that colors are not simple brushstrokes on the surface of things; they denote the continued relevance and evolving signification of symbols in the persisting fight against colonial erasure.

Echoing current debates around the definition of world cinema, the video finally raises the daunting question of what it means to consider Palestinian cinema in the world. One implication the video emphasizes is to take the filmmakers seriously as contributors to a global community of art cinema, in close articulation with, but also in excess of, their own role as de facto ambassadors of the Palestinian struggle. The parallel that the video briefly draws between Palestinian experiments and the work of Godard, Kieslowski, and Mehta had me think about what it means to bring these various contexts and “auteurs” together on the basis of a formalist play. My first thought was, perhaps unfairly, to ask why Palestinian films should need the canon of European art cinema to validate their political use of color. Instead, a more generative take considers possible visual and political alliances, which the authors elegantly weave together to paint a potential world of global solidarity. 

'Colors of Palestine' close reads the composition of three Palestinian films, particularly their use of red, black, green, and white—the colors of the Palestinian flag.

There are three claims being made regarding filmmakers’ use of Palestinian flag colors. Firstly, the video essay contextualizes the prevalence of nationalist imagery and color in global cinema that raise questions regarding national character and belonging. Palestinian filmmakers can be understood as working in a similar vein, raising questions about who is considered Palestinian. The close reading of Paradise Now centers issues of allegiance and belonging.

Secondly, Israel’s punishment of Palestinians who display flags and flag colors can explain filmmakers’ choices. We can see the color composition of various films as a political act of resistance. In 3000 Nights, prisoner Layal’s son Nour wears red, white, and green against the bleak backdrop of the Israeli prison. The presence of the Palestinian flag colors under incarceration gestures to the enduring resistance of Palestinians.

Finally, the video essay proposes that colors of the Palestinian flag figure as a narrative device, structuring the pacing of films. This claim is supported in close reading of When I Saw You, where the flag colors are fragmented and united in various points of the film to signify displacement, identity, and return.

'Colors of Palestine' presents an important reading of nationalist cinema. By focusing on films that explicitly think through issues of Palestinian nationhood, the video essay sidesteps problematic readings of third world literature and media that reduce everything to allegory. Instead, 'Colors of Palestine' proposes that the Palestinian flag can have varying levels of significance for filmmakers, ranging from portraying political resistance to functioning as key narrative devices.