A Civil Contract of Documentary: Israel, Palestine, and the Political Aesthetics of Documentary Intersubjective Witnessing, 2000-2017

Date of Award

May 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Roger Hallas


bearing witness, documentary film, Israel, Palestine, politics, subjectivity

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


The years following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 have witnessed an increase in the number of documentaries engaging with individual and collective Israeli and Palestinian subjectivities. During this same period, Israeli and U.S. regimes have mobilized the exclusionary rhetoric of national “security” and the “war on terror” to justify several legislative and geographically restrictive actions, exacerbating Palestinian communities’ ongoing experiences of dislocation and fragmentation, while mainstream media outlets throughout the west tend to focus on images of explosive violence, primarily rendering Palestinians visible as perpetrators of unwarranted violence. This dissertation complicates these oversimplified and partial images of the Israeli and Palestinian “conflict” by focusing on the politics of documentary aesthetic practices—including essayistic narrative structures, the incorporation of archival documents, animation, and interactive, digital forms—in films that attempt to visualize and navigate the complex and multi-scalar articulations of Israeli and Palestinian subjectivities. To this end, I argue that expanding Ariella Azoulay’s theory of the “civil contract of photography” to documentary film provides new ways to understand the complicated natures of transnational, affective, and ethically-based intersubjective relationships between filmmakers, filmed subjects, and audiences.

The broader scholarship on subjectivity in documentary tends to apply a cultural studies lens—with an emphasis on multiculturalism and identity politics—or the “ethical turn’s” frame of affective, mutual responsibility. Azoulay’s model of the civil contract necessarily re-politicizes these conversations and the documentary as a space of intersubjective encounter. More specifically, recontextualizing and redefining “citizenship” within a visual experience of bearing witness pushes back against the universalization of U.S. and European understandings of politics in nationalist terms of “choice.” As such, this dissertation traces a trajectory from films that engage more explicitly with territorialized expressions of national identity, to online projects and apps that navigate between multi-scalar, collective subjectivities via the networked capabilities of digital media technologies. These works thus articulate a spectrum of Palestinian national identities that are rooted in practices of rebellion and resistance rather than solely in sovereign territory.

Chapter one thus begins with an examination of Yulie Gerstel Cohen’s My Land Zion (2005), Avi Mograbi’s Avenge but One of My Two Eyes (2005), and Ibtisam Mar’ana’s Paradise Lost (2003) as first person essay films that use a meandering narrative structure—and its emphasis on subjective plurality—to anchor the filmmakers’ material and conceptual journeys of self-exploration, particularly in relation to the Israeli state’s colonialist architecture. In chapter two, I discuss Azza El-Hassan’s essayistic Kings & Extras (2004), Diana Allen’s ethnographic Still Life (2007) and Terrace of the Sea (2009), and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras (2011) as films that reframe archival documents as “haptic” experiences of reception, encouraging audiences to view the dissonant textures of Palestinian memories and subjectivities. Chapter three considers Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s The Wanted 18 (2014) and Dahna Abourahme’s Kingdom of Women (2011) and their use of animation’s evocative function to raise ethical questions about the indexical root of documentary’s truth claims and to navigate between multi-scalar Palestinian subjectivities in ways that often unsettle and destabilize audiences’ relationship to territorially-rooted and masculinist definitions of national identity. And finally, in the conclusion I briefly speculate about how interactive documentaries, apps, and games offer opportunities to consider both the limitations and potentials of documentaries about Israeli and Palestinian subjectivities and their ability to construct political, transnational relationships among the governed.


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