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James Schamus — screenwriter, professor and Focus Features CEO — travelled to Ramallah last month with philosopher Slavoj Zizek to give a series of talks to young filmmakers and students, including those from the Jenin Freedom Theater. At Guernica, Schamus writes about the event, including his use of Adorno as a teaching tool and a visit to a rehearsal of the Freedom Theater’s upcoming open-air production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Here’s Schamus’s opening for the piece, titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or Adorno in Ramallah.”

A Friday afternoon in the village of Bil’in is quite an experience, especially if, like me, you’ve spent the previous couple of days hanging out in Tel Aviv talking about movies. Basically, the villagers and a hundred or two additional Israeli supporters and internationals have gathered every Friday for the past six years. They walk down to the edge of the village and into a small valley that has now been fenced in by Israel, which appropriated about 60 percent of the village’s farmland for “security” purposes and then built a city of 20,000 people over the hill. It all usually follows a pattern, but the Israeli army can break up the usual at any time.

Read the complete piece at the link. Highly recommended.

After you read this piece, check out the long account of the Schamus/Zizek talks at Haaretz. It discusses the seminar itself, as well as the vision of the Freedom Theater’s founder, filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was murdered last month and who, with film director Udi Aloni, conceived the event.

From the piece:

Whereas Zizek tries — successfully — to insult three minority groups within 30 seconds, Schamus steers between his Jewish identity and his ties with Israel — his mother’s second husband is an Israeli — and his trenchant criticism of the occupation regime. The differences between the two thinkers are sharply etched minutes after the start of the meeting in Ramallah. Zizek delivers a long monologue about the intellectual’s need to take a stand and not remain “objective” — “In 1930s Germany, you could not say that you understood both the Nazis and the Jews: You had to take the side of the Jews.”

Schamus, for his part, asks those present to move the chairs in the crowded classroom into a circle. This done, he asks the participants to pair off and try to choose a film that one of them hated and the other loved, ideologically. The choices are varied: from “Avatar” to “Pulp Fiction.” In the wake of this brief discussion of cinema, Zizek explains to the students that the greatest danger lurking for them is to fall into the commercial trap and make films “for the West.” That, he adds passionately, is “why I loathe the Yugoslav filmmaker Emir Kusturica. A film like ‘Underground’” ? a surreal comedy set in Belgrade during the Second World War — “is a cliche of war that is intended for Western eyes.”

One of the students intervenes: “But our problem is not what films to make but how to create cinema under occupation. You know, in Ramallah there is only one movie theater and there are no budgets at all.” Another participant adds: “It’s also not clear whether we are obliged to tell our personal story or the Palestinian narrative. Who do I actually represent?” she asks. “There are so many stories.”

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