Leila Khaled: Hijacker

I remember how disappointed and confused I was the first time I read a biography about someone whose political work I admired.

When I was twenty years old I went through a period of listening primarily to 60s political folk music and had developed a love of Phil Ochs. By the time I had finished his biography, I could barely listen to his songs anymore. That summer I read five other biographies. Each brought the same sinking feeling. After reading Che Guevara’s biography and his treatment of women, I decided never to hang his image anywhere again.

Those books not only strengthened my analysis of sexism–since they were almost all about men–but they also forced me to learn a much needed revelation to continue in life: the complexity of being human. Everyone has their strengths. But they are nothing more than that. Everyone also has those juicy, difficult places where they become weak to do the work.

When I first started watching Lina Makboul’s Leila Khaled: Hijacker I thought of that summer of biographies and expected a similar story arc: a Palestinian-Swedish woman researches her childhood hero and is let down to discover that the hero is no longer a radical and does not stand by her previous actions.

Instead, Makboul takes the viewer into a riveting and unexpected story. And when I say riveting, I really mean it. I first watched the film while jurying for the Black Lily Women’s Film Festival. We had to pause the film half-way through and marvel at the well-paced editing, music and narrative structure of the film and the feelings it was bringing up for us.

When the viewer finally meets Leila Khaled, she is in a quaint middle-class home in Egypt. Makboul spends hours sitting around with her, smoking cigarettes together into the night. In this intimate setting, Makboul poses questions to Khaled that she has been grappling with in the process of idolizing her: Was the violence justified? To what extent is she, Makboul, willing to fight for a free Palestine? What does a free Palestine actually mean?

Even though we see Khaled in seemingly domesticated scenes–in her pajamas vaccuming, serving dinner to her family in biofocals–she still is every bit committed to the struggle for liberation.

Makboul does not make the same mistake I did years ago when I was delving into those biographies: she approaches her hero with an understanding and openness to complexity full established. There is little to no idealism, and as a result, no disappointment. Only more questions. Ones that I found to be fascinating.

One key thing I learned in this film is that these Palestinian activists never injured a single person in any of the hijackings. They were clear that that was never their intention. The only fatality on any of the flights they took over was a flight attendant that was accidentally shot by a security guard on the flight.

At the time, this group of Palestinians felt they had no other means of getting the world’s attention. What was marked as terrorism became their PR tool.

It’s interesting to contrast the initial and subsequent framing of the occupation of Palestine with the reports on the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese government. The orientalist notions of the Tibetan population being made up of peaceful, innocent monks has set a completely different tone for the western coverage of that occupation. One of the difficult questions that Makboul poses in Leila Khaled is whether her hero forever marred the image of Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general. Did she create the role, or take advantage of the only one offered to her at the time?


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