This article appeared in the March 23, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity (Mohanad Yaqubi, 2023)

Three critics recommend standouts from this year’s First Look festival, an annual showcase for adventurous new cinema at the Museum of Moving Image in New York City. The 2023 edition wrapped up on March 19.

Forty minutes into Mohanad Yaqubi’s searing documentary R 21 aka Restoring Solidarity, an elderly woman—one of the 10 people who remained in Kuneitra, Syria, after its invasion by Israel in 1967—muses on what’s to be done with her razed city. “Nothing,” she says; “it can speak for itself. It doesn’t need anyone to explain, you see?” Yet the tragic reality that activist filmmakers in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) knew was that ruins don’t speak for themselves; they require a narrative, and human voices, to awaken sympathy and solidarity.

In R 21, Yaqubi collages footage from 20 films made between 1964-83 that he discovered in Tokyo, where the PLO had established a local office, and where Japanese activists had collected and screened them to mobilize their fellow citizens against the many faces of imperialism—be they American or Israeli. The excerpted works, made by Arab and Japanese as well as Western filmmakers, range from lyrical to propagandistic, with impassioned first-person voiceovers (dubbed in Japanese) condemning the war crimes and the swelling refugee camps the footage captures. R 21 also shows close-ups of Yaqubi handling the fragile film reels in the present day, stressing collective memory as perpetually breathing, requiring care and maintenance.

Yaqubi emphasizes cinema’s capacity to provoke viewers’ empathic imagination and spark solidarity. While the Japanese commentators, heard in voiceover, believe in the universalizing language of resilience—some of the restored films contrast Arab children with giant Israeli tanks, their montage crescendoing to David-versus-Goliath pathos—R 21 is ultimately an homage to the plurality of cinematic codes within the PLO filmography. Bearing witness to grim and mute landscapes of rubble, cinema utters a piercing cry of protest.

Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She‘s written about the moving image, art, and literature for ArtforumFilm CommentHarper’sThe Nation, and The New York Review of Books, among others.