Arafat documentary paints intimate portrait of late leader
Published Thursday 19/07/2012 (updated) 27/07/2012 14:54
A mural of Yasser Arafat at the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah.
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- He has been called a terrorist, a freedom fighter and the founding father of the Palestinian nation - and in Richard Symons' and Joanna Natasegara's documentary, he becomes a husband, father and friend as well.
The first film in a twelve-part series on leadership, "the Price of Kings," the documentary spans Arafat's long history as a leader of the Palestinians, beginning with his time as a student in Cairo through his final days in Paris.
"I think you get that rare insight into the humanity of the leader," said Symons last week in an interview with Ma'an. "It shows you stuff you haven't thought of before, seen before, or heard before."
Most prominent in the film is Suha Arafat, the late president's wife, who gave the first extended interview since her husband's death to the filmmakers. Suha spent three days with Symons and Natasegara, giving a rare personal insight into one of the world's most controversial figures.
The purpose of the series, say the filmmakers, is not to judge the character of the leaders it profiles, but to show their leadership styles.
While most viewers go into the film with strong preconceptions about Arafat, Natasegara and Symons maintain a close eye on his major decisions, but avoid the political rhetoric that usually accompany his legacy.
"One of the things we discovered in the series is that when you're a leader and the buck stops there, it's a very lonely place to be," said Symons. "You're the only person who can see everything, has complete overview, and has to make that decision."
Arafat's six-decade career lends itself well in addressing these issues of character, which resonate beyond his specific context in the Middle East. He became a symbol for movements throughout the world.
"You think of any major world leader, many major decisions, at some point they link back to Arafat," Natasegara said.
"Some of the stuff we didn’t include in the film because it wasn’t related directly [to Arafat's leadership], but Carter-Reagan, Carlos the Jackal, all sorts of stuff - they all knew Arafat, they all dealt with Arafat, and Israel/Palestine affected these other major, historical decisions. "
Though Symons and Natasegara interviewed everyone who visited Arafat during his final hours in Paris in 2004, the film avoids conspiracy theories about its subject. Arafat's death has received new attention in recent weeks after a Swiss laboratory team found a radioactive element in Arafat's clothes.
"Despite all the Palestinian leadership believing he was assassinated," Symons said, "they kept it quiet and didn't push for an autopsy, because they thought it could jeopardize the peace process."
That elusive quest for peace frames the film, with interviews from militants like Bassam Abu Sharif, who participated in the 1970 Dawson's Field hijackings, alongside Israeli politicians.
The film on Arafat was followed by a documentary about Israeli President Shimon Peres, and a third focused on Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who brokered peace in neighboring Central American countries in the 1980s.
"Between the three films you see the importance of leadership, and political will as a driving force," said Symons.
In the film on Arafat, "political will" is applied to his role in negotiations, as well as his leadership of Palestinian resistance.
The message of the film is placed at the beginning, with a quote from Israeli diplomat Uri Savir. "Some people think there are three options: peace, war, and the status quo," Savir says. "Real leaders know there are only two options: peace and war."
Symons' and Natasengara's film portrays Arafat at war and Arafat working toward peace, but at no point in the film is Arafat a man satisfied with the status quo.