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Panel discusses solidarity, activism at Palestinian film screening

A still from “R21 AKA Restoring Solidarity” is pictured. The film from Palestinian filmmaker Mohanad Yaqubi was screened in Royce Hall and followed by a panel discussion with UCLA professors Monday. (Courtesy of Idioms Film)

By Ana Camila Burquez

April 23, 2024 4:30 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Saree Makdisi's name in a sentence.

This post was updated April 24 at 3:13 p.m.

UCLA faculty and students spent an evening in search of the meaning of solidarity through film.

This Monday, in Royce Hall, the UCLA Department of English & Comparative Literature hosted a screening and discussion of the film “R21 AKA Restoring Solidarity” by Palestinian filmmaker Mohanad Yaqubi. The movie presents a collection of films from around the world, dubbed and screened in Japan, centering on the Palestinian struggle for liberation between 1960 and 1980. The subsequent discussion, with professors Saree Makdisi, Robin Kelley and Shannon Speed as panelists, incorporated their opinions as well as audience inquiries, maintaining a theme of solidarity throughout the conversation.

[Related: Student-created short film centers on humanizing the Syrian refugee crisis]

The event started with professor Makdisi’s introduction to the film, providing the audience with context about the film’s background and contents, as well as Yaqubi’s past works. Makdisi concluded his introduction with reflective questions, allowing the audience to analyze the forthcoming film in the context of current events.

“In retrospect, perhaps most importantly, is to ask how we imagine our own present will look like from some future vantage point,” Makdisi said. “What does an act of solidarity in one place have to do with the political struggle taking place somewhere else? Is solidarity an effective form of political expression? Is solidarity an art form?”

After the film screening, the discussion was initiated by Makdisi, who introduced himself and the rest of the panelists. Makdisi went on to share what struck him most about the film and said he found the production to be deeply personal due to its inclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, which he experienced firsthand as a child.

Similarly, Speed shared personal connections she was able to draw while rewatching the film. She said it was striking to see the constant cycle of displacement and violence presented in the film, something she said was easy to connect to her background as a Native American woman, with similarities between this form of displacement to the displacement of Native Americans in the United States. Through this connection, Speed also introduced her perspective of solidarity, describing it as a collective experience.

“(I) believed in solidarity as a shared struggle because (I) believed both that we are stronger together and also that none of us are liberated until we are all liberated,” Speed said.

From this introduction of solidarity, Kelley added a more technical analysis of the film. He pointed out the layers of translations found in the subtitles, from English to Japanese and then back to English, which he said made him wonder if this was an intentional choice in order to create a deeper sense of solidarity. To this, Speed added that Kelley’s inquiry made her question the extent of solidarity and wonder how it extends beyond the local activism.

Makdisi then shifted the conversation to the power of images. Makdisi said as scholars who work with words, images such as the ones in the film can be striking due to their communication of things that would be impossible to represent through writing. In the context of the film, he said he believed the impact of these images, specifically those of violence, was greater due to their constant repetition. On the other hand, Kelley connected the repetition of the images of violence beyond the film and said this type of violence is still repeated to this day, but now to a greater extent.

Once the conversation opened to the audience, an attendee asked about the lack of solidarity among professors at different universities regarding the present Israel-Hamas war. To answer this, Speed said there are faculty who deeply care about this issue and put in sizable effort to support the cause. She also said it is important to remember that like students, faculty are also subject to harassment for voicing their opinions, which inherently makes people start focusing more on defending themselves rather than talking about the cause. Makdisi also added that not everyone has to be an activist, but it is important to not forget about those who are struggling.

“The thing that’s bothered me the most, in a way, has been everybody just going about their lives like everything’s totally normal,” Makdisi said. “Not everybody has to be an activist, but at least don’t act like this is normal, because it’s not.”

[Related: Emmys 2024: Alumnus Jerry Henry shares his experience working on ‘The 1619 Project’ docuseries]

As the questions continued, another member of the audience asked the panelists about their opinion on “conditional solidarity,” to which Speed responded that although this depends on the context, some sort of solidarity is often better than none. Speed said she would prefer people give some sort of acknowledgment because this could help bring awareness to issues people may not know about.

Adding to Speed’s answer, Kelley also provided his own definition of solidarity. He said that in his perspective, solidarity means unconditional support, even when collaborating with people who don’t share one’s opinions. He said solidarity shouldn’t be conditioned to receiving something in return, or only to those we get along with, but rather, because it’s the right thing to do. Kelley also said that people shouldn’t provide solidarity out of empathy, because to empathize means to identify the struggle through your lens instead of allowing those struggling to teach about their situation, Kelley said.

Still with much more to discuss, the panelists’ conversation drew to an end due to a lack of time at 7 p.m. However, Makdisi provided one concluding thought about maintaining awareness that media coverage such as film, through the power of words, can misinterpret current situations, turning false information into “reality.”

“It certainly becomes a reality of its own,” Makdisi said. ‘It’s like a different universe – different universes that exist in words.”

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Ana Camila Burquez
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