Director John Halaka’s film, The Presence of Absence in the Ruins of Kafr Bir’im is a historical narrative about the Palestinian village Kafr Bir’im; and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine during the 1948 Catastrophe.
Shot on location amid Kafr Bir’im’s ruins and cemetery, located in Northern Galilee, Halaka interviews Ibrahim Essa, an elder Palestinian man and poet, who survived Al-Nakba, the Arabic word for the Great Catastrophe.
At the age of fourteen, Essa, his family and over 800,000 Palestinians from 531 Palestinian villages were forced to flee their homes by European Zionist forces. The 1,050 Palestinians from Kafr Bir’im fled to cities such as Nablus, Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem; and they fled to neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
After months of seeking refuge throughout the region, the Essa Family traveled back to a village called Jish, which is near Kafr Bir’im. The villagers who tried to force their return to Kafr Bir’im were sent to jail, fined in Israeli court and expelled to a refugee camp called Jenin. In 1953, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the 1,050 Palestinian villagers had the right to return to Kafr Bir’im, but Israeli forces barred the people from entering by declaring the area a military zone. A few days later, Israeli forces destroyed the village.
Halaka focuses on the stone ruins of houses, wild grass, flowers, shrubs, and bushes that sway in the wind. When he confesses that the stone ruins and the trees spoke to him, his footage brings this feeling home. The ruins are evidence of a people and their village society once alive. The phrase, “the presence of absence,” is about villages such as Kafr Bir’im, but it is a symbol for the feelings of Al-Nakba survivors and generations thereafter.
Every Palestinian family has an Al-Nakba life experience that they share with their children and grandchildren. Essa tells Halaka that his family came to Kafir Bir’im around 700 years ago. Together the village members cultivated the land with fruit trees and crops, such as lentils, beans and wheat. The Essa Family’s goats and cows grazed the land.
Today, only Israelis yield the fruits from the trees and grow crops in kibbutz nurseries. The cows that graze the land belong to Israelis. As for Palestinian-Israelis, they are barred from rebuilding and living in their native village. Although European Zionists claimed the British Mandate of Palestine as barren, Halaka’s use of numerous, archival photographs in a slideshow format, along with Essa’s life experiences, prove this Zionist claim untrue.
As narrator, Halaka shares extensive historical, political, social, and cultural background information about Palestine. For example he explains the Romans forced the Jews dispersion from their land approximately 2,000 years ago (also known as the first Jewish-Roman War, or The Great Revolt). After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, Halaka demonstrates how Israeli law (for example, Absent Property Law established in 1950), overlapped with the ethnic cleansing of the Arab population by Israeli forces. As a result, the occupation of Israeli forces and the implementation of Israeli law that discriminated against the Palestinians and favored colonialism for Jewish settlers facilitated the Judaization of the land.
Another interesting fact is prior to the European Zionist invasion, Palestinian Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together as a diverse society in Palestine. Essa recalls the history of Palestinian families dividing land plots in Kafr Bir’im, which was predominantly a Christian community. Families helped newcomers marry. However, he did not talk about the different economic classes of people within Palestinian society, such as landowners and farm workers. The overall, life changing event for all Palestinians was the European Zionist invasion.
A photo of a Palestinian family standing in front of a barbed-wire fence that prevents them from returning to their home illustrates the impact of Israel’s War of Independence upon the indigenous population.
The British Mandate did not end until May 15, 1948. The Brits declared their intentions to end the mandate in May 1947. Their declaration initiated the UN commission that led to UN Resolution 181, which was announced on November 29, 1947. A few days later, the Jewish Military Forces began the carefully-planned, ethnic cleansing campaign. By December 1948, the campaign completed the ethnic cleansing of the Galilee.
In the film it was unclear what the outcome was of the UN resolution, but it was clear that the indigenous population was driven out of Palestine. They sought refuge in neighboring or distant countries, or they remained internally displaced.
Halaka utilizes quotes by the late Edward W. Said (1935 – 2003) and Father Elias Chacour to summarize the Palestinian perspective and the consequences of the State of Israel on the Palestinians. A photograph of a Palestinian man carrying an elderly woman on his back while traveling over a bridge speaks thousands of words.
Essa recites his poetry about Kafr Bir’im and here are a few lines: “My longing brings me to you. My only love and all of my hope is the return to your precious soil that wrapped us and cradled us nightly. We are your people.”
Halaka’s film is informative, insightful and moving. Whether viewers are new to learning about the Israel-Palestine conflict; or they are avid experts from either side, this film is worth seeing.
“Even if the homes are ruined, they are dear to our heart,” Essa said, because for many Palestinians, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora, the presence of absence is alive.