Rona Sela is a curator, researcher of visual history and culture and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Since 1996 she has researched the history of colonial Zionist/Israeli photography and archives, Palestinian photography, the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, colonial looting and plunder, archives under occupation, Palestinian photography and Nakba images/Palestinian visual history in Israeli archives. She examines how the visual sphere of Zionist and Israeli colonialism, as one component in a huge mechanism, has been exploited and used for political and ideological objectives since the beginning of the 20th century. Sela exposes the various means of force used by Israel to seize/loot Palestinian archives/treasurers, the way Israeli national/colonial archives have become a large reservoir of knowledge and information about the Palestinians, and Israel’s control over knowledge and the writing of history. In her work, she raises questions about the role of archives, archivists and researchers in colonial regions and zones of conflict. She deals with methods to crack colonial patterns by various means such as archival practices – building post-colonial/de-colonial archives or through activism by civil society.
Sela initiated and founded the first library dedicated to local photography at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem; she is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and the initiator and chairperson of the nonprofit Center for Research and Preservation of Local Photography. She has also lectured at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and at Hadassah College. Dr. Sela was chief curator at the Haifa City Museum, Curator of Photography at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and has curated and researched many exhibitions.


Looted & Hidden

Palestinian Archives in Israel

Film + essay
Director, script: Rona Sela
Main editors: Ran Slavin, Lev Goltser
Additional editors: Thalia Hoffman, Iris Refaeli
Original music: Ran Slavin
Sound mix: Itzik Cohen – Jungle Studio, Yuri Primenko
Participants: Khadijeh Habashneh, Sabri Jiryis, Former IDF Soldier, Rona Sela
Narration: Sheikha Helawy, Shadi Khalilian, Ran Slavin, Dalia Tsahor
Graphic Design: Yanek Iontef
Translation: Ilona Merber
The film was made possible through the generous support of Sally Stein in memory of Allan Sekula, and additional foundations.

Essay published in: Social Semiotics, 28:2, 201-229, DOI:10.1080/10350330.2017.1291140

The film Looted and Hidden deals with Palestinian archives that were looted or seized by Israel or Jewish forces during the 20th century and are controlled and buried in Israeli military archives. Based on a lengthy struggle to get access to classified materials, archival footage and images that were considered lost and interviews with key figures active in the archives and with soldiers that seized Palestinian archives, the film focuses on the treasures Israel looted in Beirut in the 1980s. The film unravels the fate of Palestinian archives, especially film and visual archives, that documented the Palestinian Revolution from late 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s, but also deals with photography archives that were looted since the 1930s. It raises questions about archival institutions in colonial countries and zones of conflict, and points to the need to dig into the hidden in order to reveal what has been erased or rewritten.

Looted and Hidden focuses on a number of groundbreaking institutions that were plundered y Israel in Beirut in 1982: The Palestine Research Center, the Palestinian Cinema Institution (PCI) and the Cultural Arts Center (CAS) of the PLO. These bodies were among the first to document Palestinian existence and to preserve, research and chart the visual and written Palestinian history from the late 1960s onward. Looted and Hidden, the first film devoted to the subject, follows pioneering, bold, and idealistic creators and directors and the archives they built, focusing mainly on the cinematic enterprise created by the CAS and PCI. Tracing their pillaging, administration and control by Israel – looting, censorship, denial of access, and erasure – the film raises questions about archival institutions in areas of conflict and points, as in detective work, to the need to dig into the invisible and hidden in order to reveal what has been erased or rewritten.

Looted and Hidden is based entirely on archival materials, long-term research and in-depth interviews with key figures who have been linked to the fate of the archives, including Khadijeh Habashneh, director and manager of the PCI archive and cinematheque, and Sabri Jiryis, director of the Palestinian Research Center. The film also follows the work of Ismail Shammout and Tamam Al-Akhal, two important post-Nakba Palestinian painters who founded the PLO’s CAS, as well as singer Zainab Shathat. Characters moving on an axis of time and place: Amman – Beirut – Tel Aviv- Fassuta.

The film includes excerpts from the 1970s film The Urgent Call (directed by Ismail Shammott, music composed and performed by Zeinab Sha’ath) that, like many other Palestinian archival materials, was considered lost until now.