Film Review of "Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine"

Herb Dempsey

According to the Pierce Progressive’s Calendar, Shiloh Baptist Church was to feature a film on April 16 entitled, "Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine."  In the description the film is, "a documentary film about an African–American gospel choir that travels to Palestine to participate in a play with Palestinian actors about MLK and nonviolent resistance."

Since I have been watching news clips of the featured leaders of Israel and I really don't know much about the Middle Eastern politics of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, the film seemed like a good place to learn.  The film is an outstanding example of trying to adapt technologies in difficult circumstances.  The film is an outstanding effort to translate a complex, tension-filled and gritty environment onto the limited two-dimensional format of the screen.  Anyone who suspects there are two sides to a story should see this particular effort, when it becomes commercially available, since the copy we viewed was definitely pre-release and someplace in the just-barely-off-the-mixing-table stage.  The sound which was obviously recorded without the additional advantage of individual wireless microphones was frequently muddy and even sometimes totally indecipherable.  It's not possible to blame the filmmakers for the fact that they were frequently working in rooms which have no acoustic treatment on the bare plaster walls, but it is still uniquely annoying, when I can’t figure out what has been said.  The gospel choir that was featured in the film is probably much better than any sample we were given of their work, as we watched the film.  The camera operators, Isa Asslan, Connie Field, Ramzi Maquidisi and Hanna Abu Saad, I suspect, are not trained in reading English, which tends to read a page or a scene from left to right and from top to bottom.  Some of the pans as we looked across the scene moved right to left and that motion normally creates tension in the viewer who learned that "normal" is left to right.  The rapid visual scene changes saturated first in brown and then shifting to blue caused me to have a somewhat distorted sense of the whole.  But again, when we finally get to the published version, we can assume there will be enough tweaking of color balances to level some of this spectrum shifting.

What I did find more fascinating was that I was reliving scenes from the Stanford Prison Experiment of 40 years ago.  In that experiment, which was called off after only a few days and has never been successfully completed , a small group of psychology students got to play prison guards and a small group of college students got to play prisoners.  The experiment was conducted under conditions which eventually became impossible to manage and as they say, "all hell broke loose."  In the structure of the experiment, which was funded by the US office of Naval research, Professor Philip Zimbardo designed a test in order to induce disorientation, depersonalization and deindividualization in the prisoner participants.  Within very few days the guards were acting like guards and the prisoners had begun to resist.  The experiment was aborted.  When I saw the film, as the Israelis consolidated their power and made a greater and greater demand on the humanity of the Palestinians, it reminded me how far we have not come.  Anyone wishing to view this particular microcosm in the psychology classroom can do so at the wikipedia page for the Stanford Prison Experiment.  And this led me back to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and his work at Harvard on the stages of moral development.  If nothing else the film, "Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine" raises serious questions, as the Israelis demand more privilege and that privilege is taken directly from the Palestinians who have lived there since, as they say, sort-of-forever.

At many points in the film there is very little doubt that the current path in the conflict needed new direction.  At many points in the film there is no question that the nonviolent approach as was being taught in this play within a play is a necessary alternative.  I would highly recommend this very non-Hollywood production.

For much more on the film see the film website and the promo or visit the site of the production company, Clarity Films.