La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
DIEGO AMARAL / Curating an archive: Looted and Hidden and the quest for stolen memories

DIEGO AMARAL / Curating an archive: Looted and Hidden and the quest for stolen memories

“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change […] into time as we know it.” 

Hannah Arendt

A Campsite flashes on the screen. On the soundtrack, instrumental music sets a tone of estrangement. Surrounded by tents, children play Duck, Duck, Goose. In this scenario, the camera floats around depicting clothes hanging amidst lines of tents, debris and sand. A sense of improvisation and hope permeate the images. Not long later, a lettering pops up: “The film is composed mainly of movies and footage taken as booty by Israeli soldiers from Palestinian film archives in Beirut in 1982 and other looted materials buried in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives”. The text clarifies that the images will be shown for the first time in their “original Palestinian” contexts, and “trace the central figures whose work is connected to the archives”. The sequences above present Looted and Hidden (Israel 2017) an Israeli documentary film produced and directed by Rona Sela after a search in the IDF Archives (henceforth IDFA).

Beyond the opening promise, the film is an attempt of a Jewish woman to reconcile with her personal history and social identity. The personal dimension of this quest, however, is put into perspective by the structure, built around four narrators. Each of them is directly involved with the archive and describe their experiences with the images presented in the documentary. 

Leading part one, Rona Sela offers her testimony as a visual historian and curator coming from a family of migrants. She presents her experience both as a professional in a quest for relevant historical documents and as an individual seeking to understand her origins. It is thus, the point of view of the person who rediscovers the documents (photos and footages) and connects them to historical characters. As the lettering suggests, hers is but one out of many testimonies. Yet she is also the film´s author, responsible for the opening and closure of this intricate memory work. 

From Amman, Khadijeh Habashneh speaks in the capacity of researcher and filmmaker. She was director and manager of the Palestinian Cinema Institution (PCI) archive and cinematheque. Khadijeh’s deposal is the main thread for the second part and fourth parts of the film. As someone directly involved in the building of the Palestinian Film Entity, she offers the point of view of an archivist who contributed to gathering those images. Interestingly, many of the documents presented in the documentary were gathered by Khadijeh and looted by the Israeli army during the invasion of the PLO headquarters in Beirut in 1982. Functioning as a Palestinian counterpart for Rona, Khadijeh also narrates two pieces of the film, providing some balance to the narrative centred in the researcher´s personal quest.

The third key deposal comes from Sabri Jiryis, “director of the PLO Research Center, Beirut (1976-1982) and East Jerusalem (1994-2001)”. He speaks from Fassuta, (currently) in the north of Israel. Having experienced the traumatic expulsion of the Palestinians from the territory that is now Israel, Jiryis organizes his testimony around the Nakba and the Palestinian struggle for liberation and preservation of their historical memory. 

The fourth character, an unidentified former Israeli soldier, talks about his experience during the invasion of Lebanon. The soldier represents the thread responsible for the pillage of the archives. He is both a victim of the State, in the sense that he is traumatised by the war, and part of the group of perpetrators. On the one hand, he was an 18-year-old kid obeying orders, on the other hand, he was part of the military group which ravaged Southern Lebanon (in 1982) and committed genocide in a Palestinian village. Each of them will provide their testimony which, in its turn, functions as the guiding perspective for each part of the documentary[1]

With the support of other punctual participations, these four key-characters unveil different dimensions of documents retrieved by Sela from the IDFA. Linking the testimonies with historical footages and photos, Looted and Hidden acknowledges the entangled relationship between personal and national memories. The relationship between each testimony and the documents is dialectical. As in any case of remembrance, it is difficult to tell in what extent these are characters influenced by this new contact with the materials from the archive.

The first act commences with a greeting from Rona Sela to “Khadijeh” who subsequently, in part II, will also open her testimony with a “dear” Rona. The treatment on a first name basis suggests affection and intimacy in the narration, even though in her deposal Sela admits to having met Khadijeh “face to face only once”. The word choice suggests a remote communication which is incorporated into the film as part of a relatively linear narration accompanied by archive photos and footages on the Palestinian revolution. In this exchange, Rona and Khadijeh find themselves imbricated in the memories of their own territories. The text expresses the uncertainty of acquaintances who slowly unveil a shared affective territory. 

The apparent banality of this exchange, however, shall not be misguiding. Beyond the exchange of pleasantries, the conversation points at the process of remembrance as part of mundane activity, as opposed to a strictly introspective reflection. In other words, to remember is to be affected by materials and other subjects. After all, it is impossible to differentiate the original “memory” from the sparks which emerge in the contact with the world.

As “curator” Sela identifies connections, resemblances and tensions in a set of objects which can be regarded as worthy as an ensemble, objects capable of triggering memories and affections. A curator finds similarities in organizing heterogeneity into a collection. It is an exercise of the right to look, which should respect the objects within their mode of existence so that these particularities can emerge. Nevertheless, the film´s author tacitly acknowledges the impossibility of looking alone as she incorporates other perspectives in the narration.

Such operation contrasts with that of an archivist as a legislator, a figure of authority who catalogues according to a general rule, and an archive as a place of law and beginnings (Derrida 1995). According to his line of argumentation, the archive would be contaminated by a sense of accumulation and repetition, given that the documents are organized according to a ruling (nomological) principle. In this repetition, lies the principle to what Derrida will describe as “archive fever” (mal d´archive), referring to the archive´s self-destructiveness, and of memory itself (Derrida 1995).

The notion of curatorship is henceforth presented as an alternative form of archive building. Navigating the archive, the author acknowledges her position in the world. A visual culture professor, curator, Jewish woman based in Tel Aviv. She also speaks as the daughter of a mother who had to “escape a tragedy”. Aware of the collective dimension of memory, Sela presents a film where historical footage and her memories are intermingled. The sense of intimacy, however, does not disguise the estrangement when she meets parts of her ancestral past kept obscure.

In this regard, the opening sequence is emblematic. There, a voiceover addresses her speech to a woman in the following statement: “Dear Khadijeh, we met face to face, only once. But your image accompanies me ever since. Sometimes clear, sometimes elusive. I am writing. The mourning of a hot, sultry day. Hotel, a meeting”. Addressing Khadijeh, the author suggests that she is not looking at those images alone. It is a declaration on the fact that even a monologue on personal memories is filled by the presence of others. 

The dialogical principle can also be applied to the film´s montage. Despite the linear structure suggested by the monologue, the images develop their own agenda. Displayed in a kaleidoscopic fashion, they react to each spectator. Fragments of a broken nation, the photographs and footages reveal aspects of a lacunar history – and is there any other kind? In the impossibility of synthesis, the account of such history is made by a complex set of visual documents. These files point at different historical moments before, during and after the Nakba (the 1930s, 1960s, 1980s) intermingled with interviews conducted during the film production. 

Rona´s letter continues: “you asked why I was in a quest for lost Palestinian archives. I am turning back the wheels of time”. Here, the author suggests that time can be navigated. Looking at the images she shares with the spectator, the author dives in the past. The narration continues with the following statement: “National pictures are woven in my life in a surprising manner” (emphasis added). The nation is Israel, and yet Palestine, with its land and people, is there. Ingrained in images of Jewish settlers who work in the recently acquired land, Palestine appears as a phantasmatic presence. Unlike other scenes where it appears in the form of smoke and fire, Palestine, at this point, is a striking absence. 

The image of a shipwreck at a seashore on the screen is emblematic. Firstly, ships and the sea are evocative of the Palestinian tragedy (the Nakba), their eviction from the homeland, as well as pointing at the arrival of the Jewish people in Israel. In either case, the elements are emblematic of a shared relation. Secondly, the fact that this ship has sunk underlines the authors’ recognition of a failed project, or yet, the intention of announcing the tragedy that will unfold in the events to be narrated. 

Furthermore, the passage elicits the relationship between the embodied personal memory and national history. Looking at national pictures (of Israel), the filmmaker uses the metaphor of life as a fabric to described the way how those images connect with her personal history. At this point, the entangled relationship between collective and personal memories become evident. It is possible to visualise the images affect Sela personally — uncovering images of the Palestinian uprooting she discovers cues on her history and the history of the land.

From the voiceover, the spectator learns that Aqir was the place where the director’s mother and her family establish themselves after the expulsion of the Palestinian population. As the narration continues, the camera frames the remains of a house and, positioning the lenses behind a hole in the wall of the house, focuses on two empty beds. Incorporating the footage in the documentary, the filmmaker presents her dilemma between her family heritage as the daughter in a family of Jewish settlers and her moral assessment of the situation.

Figure 1 – Film Still, Looted and Hidden (2017)

Visuality and narration attempt to conciliate a paradox presented by the images. The Palestinians were expelled, but their presence insists in occupying a space in the visual documents. Scattered, the archive survived the fire, the enemy and oblivion. It persists telling its story. The narrator acknowledges this fact when describing, in the first person,  

The Palestinian village of Aqir, whose inhabitants fled or were expelled. And where my mother´s family were settled. Jewish immigrants on the ruins of the Palestinian entity. The photographs intend to portray the Zionist presence. But that of the Palestinians slips in unintentionally as well. (Looted and Hidden 2017, emphasis added)

The presence of the Palestinians appears in the ruins of houses and strikes any viewer who wonders about the immediate past of that territory. For instance, the photo above (Fig.1) shows a settlement where the newcomers, who occupy the centre of the image, are sitting over debris. Interestingly, debris and smoke are some of the most common visual elements in the film, suggesting a land permeated by fire and destruction. 

In the frame, the option for a frontal shot and the fact that the settlers are facing the photographer suggests a concern with the mise-en-scène, a pact on what is supposed to be shown and seen. Nonetheless, the margins of the photograph seem to denounce the lasting presence from those who were forced to leave. Telling its own story, the wreckage suggests a ravaged land where the children lay their sticks. The intricate relationship between the land, the images, and the author is unfolded by each scene. While the footage displays running water on the screen, the voiceover shares a confession: “the archive acquires a new dimension in my life”. Further ahead, she admits that “[…the archive] enters slowly, settles in, meandering and twisting”. A text illustrated by the flow of water over a rock, an ancient relation that runs deep in history and patiently shapes the land. 

Such a set of images, collected and structured as a film, plays the role of the malleable, yet insistent, water shaping a the rock. With its movement – “meandering and twisting” – and consistency, the images become part of the author’s Self. The figurative metaphor also suggests a relationship between the hard materiality of the land and the abstract fluidity of memory flowing over the territory where, despite its slow effects, it leaves indelible marks. 

Memories travel from the screen to her consciousness and are never still, cannot be captured, touched or detained altogether. Translucent and malleable, the water becomes part of the terrain it is running over. Such image, then, functions as a reminder that what is seen, cannot be detached from the author’s own body and, albeit that, the water and the archive, shall not be confused with the medium on which they are operating. The archive thus, as the collection and the film, are assemblages based on their singular components.

Water, memories, rocks, feelings, and the human body are part of a network that embodies time and through which it flows. The water, as the archive, acts through a slow but consistent movement. Their effects are barely visible, but fundamental to configure the landscape. In a film based in the curatorship of fugacious, at times incomplete, images, movement is the glue connecting each piece of this audio-visual archive. In the feverish progression of clips mediated by the authors’ personal memories and feelings the transitions, blinks and lacunas left by the movement of images leave cues, and lines, for the spectator to patch this kaleidoscopic archive together. 

In this way, Looted and Hidden operates through twofold tactics. On the one hand, the Rona Sela shares her experiences looking and talking about the Zionist archives. On the other hand, the images collected by Sela offer a mesmerising glimpse on the first years of the late sixties and early seventies in Israel and Palestine. The images affect Sela in ways she could not predict. Through this process, the contradictions inherent to a colonial occupation are represented.

      As the film suggests, it might be difficult to witness such events from a neutral perspective, if only that was even possible. The connection between personal histories and events that marked the memories of Palestinians, Israelis, and the Western world are still imbricated. Interestingly, the director does not narrate the images. Despite sparse attempts to explain or describe a few images, overall, the voiceover brings a reaction to the archive where she is immersed. Trying to make sense of the found footages she confesses the impact of 

…The uprooting, the tragedy. Before my mother died I asked her with increasing urgency about her past. I didn’t ask her about Aqir… if that reminded her of the tragedy that her family experienced. Was I afraid to confront the answer due to the process of separating from her? (Looted and Hidden, 2017)

Memories are entangled. The narrator mentions the “tragedy her family experienced”, presumably the holocaust. Interestingly, the event is evoked as an immensely painful memory revived in the Palestinian uprooting. Intertwined tragedies that meet at the same territory. The film progresses with the author’s confession of a sense of imprisonment in her relationship with the archive.

I am cloistered in the Zionist archive. Looking for Palestinian photographs. Captions capture my eye. The store where these photographs were taken and from where they were pilfered. Imprisoned photographs. Photograph taken from the pocket of a dead Arab. Palestinian archives that were looted or taken as booty. (Looted and Hidden, 2017, my emphasis)

The physicality of her involvement is noteworthy. And so is the distancing from the Zionist project. The author claims to be “cloistered in the Zionist archive” which suggests that her full body is surrounded by the atmosphere of the archive. Moreover, she decides not to speak about it as the Israeli Army´s Archive, but rather point at it as the institutional manifestation of a specific ideological project. Acknowledging the agency of the elements in the archive, she states that the “captions” have captured her eye. Her attention now is localised; it is not the full body but the “eye” that is involved — captured by the object. Then, we learn that the image in question was taken as looting and outlived its owner, referred to as a “dead Arab”. In its trajectory, a photograph which belonged once to an unidentified Arab man went to an Israeli archive and from there to online video platforms and film festivals. 

The narration suggests that these are “imprisoned photographs”, images that had their agency denied. Yet, the same voice acknowledges that the documents captured their “eye”. Are they really “imprisoned photographs”? Albeit “looted and hidden”, they seem to have found their way out of the siege through the eyes of a settler. The photographs within the Zionist archive managed to capture the beholder and be spread outside its confinement. The photographs are at one time prisoners, testimony´s and tools of the violence perpetrated. After all, their possession nurtures the IDF´s power over part of Palestinian history. 

Where does the notion of imprisonment come from then? Is it not from the author’s own gaze? One might admit that by stepping into the “Zionist archives” of the Israeli Defense Forces, where the photographs were, Sela is thrown into the abyss of her ancestry. As expressive as the images might be, in the context of the narration, they also say a lot about the author, which performs a mnemonic exercise with analytical purposes. In this case, however, instead of performing for herself, or to an analyst, she travels through memory lane through an act directed both to herself and to an audience.

What might have been once part of a personal collection of memories, an extension of the living memory, a supplement, becomes an essential piece of quotidian life in Palestine. The dead Arab from whose pocket the photograph was stolen is also a brutal allegory of the process of plunder, violation and systematic stealth operated against the Palestinian culture. 

A dead body, if Palestinian, is worthless. This idea is confirmed by an interview published by the same Rona Sela: “[Soldier]: ‘Indeed, I took these photographs from the pocket of a dead Arab, killed in Bab Al-Wad at the beginning of May 1948. I was commander of the squad and we were looking for intelligence”. Commenting on the interview, she underlines that “The photographs – depicting the dead and wounded as well as protests and riots – were donated by Rashkes to the Haganah Archive, a pre-state Israeli military archive. The macabre circumstances – a dead person, who was not photographed, represented unwittingly by other documented bodies – were not even considered by Rashkes (Sela 2013, online)[4]. Conducted before the film production, the interview and the photo, reappear in Looted and Hidden. The fact that Sela decided to incorporate this material in the production endorses the idea of an extended journey that culminates in the film production.

Moreover, the excerpt presents two interwoven events of consequence for the analysis: a. the death of a Palestinian, and the consequent stealth of his property, b. nurtured the “pre-state Israeli military archive”. The role of the photograph in the archive in question is unknown. However, it seems clear that a register produced in the context the Palestinian culture informed an Israeli archive, and therefore, became a piece of Israeli national narrative. In the grand scheme of things, the very ruin of Palestine serves as the foundation for the Zionist project. The photograph is a reminder that the accumulation which constitutes the archive operates through a rhizomatic structure. It does not repeat but rather spreads in time acquiring new meanings. 

These images and testimonies do not reinforce each other but rather deny, add to, challenge, complete, rearticulate and enhance themselves as a network. In other words, it is not repetition, as in continuation in time, but rather, multiplication. An example of this is the statement from Sabri Jyris. In the capacity of PLO´s research centre last director, he claims that he kept the most important files from the research centre. Those would be “the real archive, not what the Israeli took” (my emphasis). Such declaration contrasts with Sela´s testimony expressing sympathy for the Palestinian´s loss. The deposals thus are not complementary to each other. Instead, these are simply different perspectives.

After all, memory is a fabric whose multiple threads come together as an assemblage between the self and others. Such assemblage, however, is not only abstract but rather material. It is nurtured and materialized in a living territory, in this case, a space shared by Sela, Khadijeh Jyris and the anonymous soldier. As Halbwachs underlines, collective memory is founded on a spatial framework (1992). Sela argues that the ruination of Palestinian villages was part of a broader political project with the intent of erasing them “from public consciousness and memory” (Sela, 2009: 74). The systematic destruction of the territory, thus, is the visible layer of a process meant to reach both the physical space and the symbolic realm. 

Following this train of thought, to produce a film about historical Palestinian documents is to provide another body through which these memories might spread. Flipping the coin between collective and individual memories, the filmmaker/curator focuses on the personal experience which unveils her motivations, the methodology behind the film, and the critical perspective of a Jewish woman, whose family was part of the first Israeli settlements in formerly Palestinian land. 

Building upon a composition based on still images and footages the documentary builds upon different rhythms to mingle such diverse temporalities. From the accelerated pace of the footages of the Palestinian revolution or Jewish celebrations to the more contemplative temporality of family photos.

In this interplay of rhythms, the film provides the spectator with a myriad of time glimpses continuously rearranged. In the choice of materials to compose each section, the filmmaker chooses aesthetically, and chronologically, compatible images. Such a tactic provides the viewer with a sense of unity within the inner diversity of this constellation. Using the voiceovers to suture a fragmented story, each voice bridges multiple bodies – perspectives – and the screen images. In each chapter, one voice takes the baton from the previous one, revealing a new point-of-view. 

As the blinks of an eye, the transition between still and moving images sets the pace of time in this moving archive. Endorsing the idea of an inherently lacunar narrative, each perspective is a step that hands the story to the next one, as the turn of a kaleidoscope. In the film´s internal sequence other characters appear and provide the spectator with their point of view regarding the Palestinian exile and the invasion of Southern Lebanon. Nonetheless, the most important continuation is that of the images which outlive the film and the archive. Like stars and memories, these images keep on flashing (forward and backwards).

Diego Amaral


Derrida, J. “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”. Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 9-63. The Johns Hopkins University Press.  

Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory. University of Chicago Press.

Sela, R. (2009). Presence and Absence in ‘Abandoned’ Palestinian Villages. History of Photography, 33(1), 71-79. 

Sela, R. (2013). The archive of horror. Ibraaz. Available at <>. Access in Aug. 2020.

Sela, R. (Producer), & Sela, R. (Director). (2017). Looted and Hidden [Motion Picture]. Israel.


[1] Rona Sela and Khadijeh Habashneh narrate two parts each, in a total of six.

[2] The events are part of the Nakba (1948).

[3] This information appears in the film screen as credit for the photo and indication of the place where it was taken and year.

[4] Available at: <>