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Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said

by Makoto Sato
First Run/Icarus Films, New York, 2005
Video-DVD, 138 minutes, color
Sales, $490; rental, $150
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed byJonathan Zilberg
Jakarta Institute of the Arts (Institut Kesenian Jakarta)

jonathanzilberg@gmail.com, or jonathanzilberg@yahoo.com

Makoto Sato’s documentary film is a moving tribute to Edward Said’s life, and to the plight of the Palestinian and Israeli people. It is a beautifully made work in which Sato elevates the scenes and fuses them together through the artful integration of Said’s life, his words, and Daniel Barenboim’s music. Connecting the traces of his world and his legacy in time and space, we move back and forth from his desk in Manhattan, still with his presence, to the hills of Lebanon and the pain of Palestine.

Edward Said (1935-2003) was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Cairo, was educated at Princeton and Harvard, and found a home of sorts at Columbia University in New York. Though he is perhaps best known of as a literary critic, the man who brought colonial studies into being through his transformative work Orientalism (1978), his enduring focus was Palestine. After resigning from the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1963, he increasingly turned to music as the solution.

True to Said’s life, there is a certain magic in this film in the seamless integration of a single scene which repeats itself like a musical phrase moving us again and again from New York to the Middle East. While the following thoughts on his sense of displacement are voiced, the camera pans across his desk with notes and work in progress, the pen lying silent, the warm yellow glow of his desk light, still on. Each time the camera continues to the window and on to Lebanon.

This time we see a barge moving slowly down the Hudson in the late afternoon light and we hear his words: "I would describe my life as a series of departures and returns. But the departure is always anxious, the return is always, uncertain, precarious . . . . Bridged by his words, we then find ourselves early evening on a rainy day in Lebanon, headlights passing by, the light yet diffuse but strangely bright over Beirut and hear his words:
"Someone else is saying it’s not yours, it’s his. As his colleague William Wood recounts, Said had a wistful idea of what it would like to be to have a home and in this shared in the existential Palestinian desire — to have a home."

So Sato takes us to his erstwhile home into which he could never bring himself to enter. She poignantly plays with time and place and replays a scene of Said’s affectionate and powerful father carrying his two daughters up their home’s steps while the narrator reads the haunting words: "It was a place I took for granted with unreflecting ease." And we see him as a young boy, unsure of himself, afraid as always. Ironically enough, it was also the place Martin Buber, the displaced German Jewish author of I and Thou, would shortly thereafter come to call home — his brass name plate still there.

It is this sense of knowing the Other and of sharing a common future that makes Said constantly more important. As his daughter remembered, her father used to say that it was her mother Miriam, a Christian who reconnected him to the Arab world and after her brother recounts his father’s sense of guilt and inadequacy about not being able to do more for Palestine, the camera pans again across the desk and to the Hudson, bound by Barenboim, to his grave in Brumana. There is a warm yellow light in the room, a desk with a life’s yet unfinished work upon it, his glasses put aside, and two pens waiting, as if he had but stepped away for a while - to Lebanon - where a solitary olive tree stands silent watch, shrouding his grave in dappled shade.

Edward Said believed that the human condition is one of displacement, multiplicity, and at its best connectedness. He accepted and celebrated diverse contradictory currents which make up our identities and believed that realizing this allows one to short circuit the limitations of discourses of nationalism which keep us so violently apart. His was not a resentful spirit but a hopeful one. As he wrote towards the end of his life: "I am full of optimism despite the darkening sky and seemingly hopeless situation which engulfs." Said passionately believed that separation was no solution, that ignorance of the Other was a part of the problem, and that music offered a creative space for the divided to come together in an ever darkening world.

The film repeatedly conveys the stories of people uprooted by war. For example, a Jewish women once from Syria sadly recounts of a world gone by: "We lived together like brothers and sisters. We played with each other and gave each other gifts . . . . We shared our lives." Repeatedly the film gives voice to these displaced people, both Israelis and Palestinians, and ends by taking us once more to the largest Palestinian refugee camp of all, near Sidon, where we share a meal with a family — behind barbed wire.

There, we find, next to the television, beside the plastic sunflowers, for one cannot grow flowers in a ghetto, a large framed photograph of Nazrallah, the now famous and vastly empowered leader of Hezbolah. And in the next room, a father is putting a little girl to sleep. She is cold and asks for another blanket, which he doesn’t have. Back in Manhattan, Said’s room is suddenly cold, too, the towering bookshelves shockingly emptied, the desk utterly clean, a diffuse bright white light filling the windows.

And there the film necessarily ends on a darkening note by returning to Lebanon one last time. From Daniel Barenboim playing the profoundly beautiful eulogy

that binds these scenes and each Other together, we return forlorn to a cramped and squalid alley in a refugee camp and follow a Palestinian man walking home in the cold winter rain.



Updated 1st December 2006

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