Rona Sela’s documentary Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel gives the viewer a glimpse of Palestinian footage that, once stolen, has long been kept under Israeli lock and key. This 46-minute film comprehensively exposes the Israeli attempt to re-write the past and is a strong rebuttal, in her words, against Israel’s “biased reality”. It is a must watch for the visual evidence it brings to light.
The content of Looted and Hidden, as its name suggests, is taken from the plundered footage and photographs Sela, a visual history researcher, has uncovered in Israeli archives. Originally, before their theft, these archives were in the hands of Palestinians in Haifa, Jerusalem and Beirut; many of them, including some films made by Ismail Shammout, had been thought lost.
Apart from Sela and her poetic words on the occupation, three figures feature prominently in the documentary’s narrative: Khadijeh Habashneh, a Palestinian film director and head of the archive at the Palestinian Cinema Institute until 1982; Sabri Jiryis, a Palestinian writer and lawyer; and an unnamed Israeli soldier, who gives an eyewitness account of the IOF’s looting in Beirut in 1982.
Their words reveal their own personal experiences vis-à-vis the archives. The most powerful undoubtedly come from Habashneh and Jiryis, who both worked with some of the archives that were stolen. Habashneh talks of her world-wide search for any remnants of the Palestinian Cinema Institute’s collection, whilst Jiryis speaks of his final act as director of the PLO Research Centre (1976-1982): just before the IOF overrun Beirut, he managed to fill two suitcases with the centre’s most precious resources, thus preserving at least a portion of his archive. Stoical in the face of not just one looting, but also a second- in 2001, the archive he chaired in Jerusalem was seized- he sees the thefts as part of the “national struggle”.
Sela’s documentary is of significant importance to the visual history of Palestine. She has used her years of research, digging deep into Israeli archives, to overcome some of “the methods of control” Israel exerts over “Palestinian treasures”. Now, through her film, we can view images which have remained hidden by Israeli restrictions and censorship. Palestinian life, both pre- and post-1948, comes alive once more on screen.
The snapshots we see of the destruction of Jaffa in 1951, the suffering at Al-Karameh Refuge Centre, and other equally powerful images testify to the exile, trauma and resistance of the Palestinian people. The film suggests that Israel’s attempts to bury the truth will not succeed in the end.