Cinema is one of the ways a nation entertains itself but also contemplates its problems. Palestinian cinema does this very well. Because of their unabashed interest in their nation and their stories, they often have as much integrity as they do charm.
But it is a culture with inherent challenges.
“Palestinian cinema is a culture in exile,” says Firas Khoury, whose debut drama Alam (The Flag) was feted by critics and the public alike. It won the top prizes at the Cairo International Film Festival last year before touring an A-list of festivals with moviegoers bursting into applause during screenings.
No doubt Palestine has talented filmmakers like Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, Anne Marie Jacir, and Elia Suleiman, but that’s about it.
With Palestine being separated into three regions, Gaza, West Bank, and Israel, filmmakers struggle to collaborate to make films, says Khoury. “We lack several resources, including crew members and filmmaking equipment.”
The majority of filmmakers are outsourcing services to other countries. “That being said, the main reason it is a cinema in exile is that the people themselves are in exile, and it is challenging to build an industry in such a situation.”
Films can be given life at film festivals. And Alam is a classic indie film success story, reflecting the political reality of Palestinians, one that has catalyzed a younger generation fighting for their rights. The film was recently screened at Reel Palestine, a pop-up festival showing Palestinian culture and tenacity through film, organized by Cinema Akil in Dubai.
NOT HAVING A HOMEGROWN INDUSTRY
But the irony is clear: visitors to the Reel Palestine in Dubai had greater access to Palestinian films than most Palestinians.
“There are cinemas in Palestine right now, but the question is, what kind of content is distributed at these cinemas,” asks Khoury.
“Unfortunately, Palestinian content is not shown, and quite often, Palestinian directors boycott these cinemas. While we have cinemas in Palestine, we only hope we can one day share our stories in our theaters.”
Ascribing to a pragmatist’s awareness of how the industry operates, Farah Abou Kharroub, an award-winning director, writer, and producer who makes films on women’s identity, says, “For the Palestinians in exile, we, unfortunately, don’t have a home industry or film fund to support our films and the stories that we want to tell.”
There are serious questions about the long-term viability of independent filmmaking. Although vibrant independent organizations like Doha Film Institute and Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s SANAD Fund nurture creative risk-taking and emerging talent, increasing production costs and falling investments are taking their toll.
“The biggest challenge is finance. It took me ten years to complete my film Alam, and that was because nobody wanted to hear this story,” says Khoury.
Kharroub agrees with it. “We want to tell so many stories, but we are constrained by limited resources and support.”
Palestinian cinema, which is not always politically correct, relies heavily on grants, as often foreign funding comes with strings attached.
“When you are financed by Western funding, it automatically entails what story they want to hear, and subconsciously, many directors tell the stories that the West wants to hear. When it comes to a controversial story, filmmakers are limited in foreign funding,” adds Khoury.
And that’s why, Kharroub says, “We prefer film funds and grants because there’s little expectation of anything in return,” says Kharroub.
Film festival circuits, although each festival differs wildly in scale, prestige, glamor, and poster-worthy prizes, are important for independent filmmakers, particularly from Palestine.
FILM FESTIVALS AS A PLATFORM
“We present our work and interact with the audience after our screenings. The discussions are thought-provoking and provide a lot of inspiration.”
“I still remember when I screened my film Summer 2006 at Jihlava in 2018, there was a discussion with a diverse audience asking me about where I come from and how it feels to have a Lebanese passport when so many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon don’t. It was inspirational, and I ended up making my next film, The Seven Villages, which talks about my roots, the history of my family, and our story as Palestinian refugees,” says Kharroub.
While some festivals are ready to hear a story and judge the film on its content and artistic value, Khoury says, some large-scale festivals have become restricted when it comes to the type of content and foreign policy awareness. “They will reject our films without a concrete reason or say that our films can’t be screened. That said, we need to show our films in festivals, and some will always welcome us.”
POWER OF FILM
The power of film is that it can reveal things about our reality. And Kharroub’s short The Seven Villages, also screened at Reel Palestine, particularly resonates – it is a video call between Farah, who moved to Prague, and her grandmother in Lebanon.
Khoury, who is now working on a new feature script called Dear Tarkovsky, about a failed film director, says Palestinian directors tell stories of personal experiences while sending a message to their audiences. “We are presenting a cause to the world and exposing the lives of our people. These goals are at the forefront when making films or writing a story.”
As a filmmaker, Khoury adds, it is important to tell the story of those who don’t have a voice. “Through my films, I try to present a human cause and tell a story of our country.”
Khoury’s film Alam is about a Palestinian-Israeli teen who has a political awakening, spurring him to join a risky flag operation on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day. “It is about the occupation of 1948 and how Israel was built. It was a very difficult story to tell.”
Palestinians are thinking about liberation constantly, and with each film, filmmakers make strides toward this cause, says Kharroub. “The power of cinema in Palestine is related to the resistance that we have in our stories. The strong characters that are undefeated regardless of the hardships they face daily.”
“With each Palestinian film we make, we rise and stand firm,” she adds.
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