"The Balance of Power Needs to Be Shifted," Sarah Friedland Talks About her Experience in Lyd in Exile
At the end of last semester, Amanda Peckler and I had the opportunity to interview documentary filmmaker and media artist Sarah Friedland about her upcoming documentary Lyd in Exile. The Director of MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute, a special five week program offered in June for documentarians, Skidmore faculty and students alike, offered crucial insights into storytelling, film making, and its many challenges.
Passionate, energetic and dedicated, Friedland has been involved in different projects on campus, most importantly the Palestinian Voices series, which occurred throughout last semester. She opened the conversation by discussing how her interest in Lyd started after hearing a little about the Nakba, catastrophe in Arabic, which is also known as the Israeli Independence in 1948. Throughout growing up, she says that the history of the Nakba was completely missing from her education regarding the founding of the State of Israel. Wanting to know more about the absent narrative, specifically in the city of Lyd, Friedland applied for a grant that was sponsored by LABA, a Jewish art organization. Upon the acceptance of her proposal, she met Rami Younis, through mutual connections. Younis, a Palestinian journalist, activist and writer who grew up in Lyd, co-directed Lyd in Exile and is Friedland’s collaborator.
Lyd, the center of the documentary, is a city currently located in Israel. Lyd was a part of historical Palestine that once connected it to the rest of the world. However, the city was forever altered when it fell under siege by Zionist soldiers in 1948. Lyd was bombarded heavily, and around 49,000 residents were forcibly expelled from the city. Hence, the film’s title is a reference to that expulsion and how it fractured the Palestinian community and the city itself.
On her partnership with Younis, Friedland said, “There is a trust on both ends that I think works really well.” Their different backgrounds- her Jewish American and him Palestinian- fostered distinctive dynamics to their relationships, but ultimately they have similar goals. “We want the film to work for both audiences”. She further added: “I want this film to be challenging for Jewish Americans and the story we have been told”. Younis, on the other hands, wants the film to provide a nuanced Palestinian lived experience unlike the common stereotypical and limiting representations.
Being inclusive to Palestinian narratives and the importance of representation was a common theme throughout Lyd in Exile and the Palestinian Voices Series, a series of events on campus which was organized and co-sponsored by the John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS), The Tang Teaching Museum the Environmental Studies and Sciences Program, International Affairs, Media and Film Studies, Art History, History, Hayat, and the Skidmore College Dean’s Office. Illinois State University Professor Issam Nassar, who came to Skidmore to talk about the history of photography last February, emphasized the importance of decolonizing the image when representing the Palestinian narrative. Friedland expressed similar sentiments, “Storytelling needs to be decolonized”. She continues, “decolonizing storytelling is more about making space for everybody to tell their own stories and talk about their own realities.” However, she still thinks there is a place for the outsider points of view in storytelling. “Without it we would have a very myopic view of a global world where the lines between insider and outsider are increasingly blurred by forced migration and imperialism, but the balance of power needs to be shifted and politics of solidarity are really important”.
The film explores the different realities of Palestinians in the city, for example, Friedland mentioned that the film includes upper class Palestinian women who own British passports, which give them the ability to return to their ancestral home. Their experience showcases a different image of Palestinian refugees that, very often, are portrayed as agent-less individuals stuck in refugee camps. On the other hand, these women still have no home. The last section, and perhaps the most unique, is a fictionalized look into an “alternative present” when the expulsion never happened. “This part of the documentary will focus on reconstructing the city which Friedland described “as colonized by this moment”. In this timeline, the signs on the street, the old buildings and the town’s square will look completely different. Even the nearby villages, which are mostly farmlands at the moment will be re-imagined in this alternative narrative.
The last portion of our interview was dedicated to discussing last semester's Palestinian Voices series and Friedland’s involvement in its inception. She talked about her collaboration with Professor Nurcan Atalan Helicke from the Environmental Studies and their decision to focus on Israel-Palestine this year in conjunction with This Place exhibit which was in the Tang Teaching Museum last spring. Sarah has also done a lot of her work through The Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), an institution which strengthens connection between American, Palestinian and foreign scholars and academics. She became actively engaged with different media artists, allowing her to obtain connections with academics like Professor Issam Nassar. As for the Palestinian students films series, she has worked with a colleague of hers from Duke University, Nancy Kallow, on the project which has been already been shown in five different colleges.
Friedland concluded the interview by describing how grateful she is for the Skidmore’s community open and perceptive response to the series. Skidmore community is also thankful to have a member like Sarah Friedland, an artist and educator with incredible energy and passion to expand the campus-wide conversation about Israel-Palestine and challenge the narratives presented to us.
*Photo retrieved from Lyd in Exile’s website