Bristol Palestine Film Festival (Thu 6 - Sun 9 Dec) returns to Watershed and other venues for its 8th edition this year. Showcasing features, documentaries and short films by both Palestinian and international directors, this year's festival shows how, against all odds, the Palestinian film industry is booming.
Gaza. One of the most densely populated areas on the planet, home to 1.1 million refugees, sometimes referred to as the world’s ‘largest outdoor prison’.
The West Bank. Where restrictions on movement have brought nearly all Palestinian economic activity to a forcible halt. (read the World Bank's 2013 report on West Bank and Gaza here.)
All in all, modern-day Palestine is scarcely a place where you would expect to find a burgeoning film industry.
This was not always the case. In the first half of the twentieth century, cities including Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem proudly boasted modern cinemas. But the 1948 exodus of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes ended this golden age of cinema-going. Palestinian cinema, just like everything else, became consumed by politics.
Palestine's Disappearing Cinemas. The al-Assi pictured above.
The Israeli occupation changed everything it came into contact with, and film was no exception. In 1982, the largest archives of Palestinian cinema disappeared under mysterious circumstances, as Annemarie Jacir writes in her article, 'Coming Home: Palestinian Cinema'. Then, the cinemas started disappearing. The Al Assi cinema, which had been opening and closing since the 1950s, shut for good in the 2000s during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising). In 2016, Cinema Jenin was demolished, along with the building that used to house the Al Assi. Although three million people live in the West Bank, there are now just two cinemas in continuous operation in its Palestinian cities: Cinema City in Nablus and Palestine Tower in Ramallah.
Yet somehow, despite the occupation, politics, and resulting lack of resources, Palestinian film is blossoming. Palestine had its first-ever official pavilion at Cannes this year. At the forefront of the boom are recent films such as Omar (2013), the story of a Palestinian freedom fighter turned Israeli informant, which was nominated for the foreign language Academy Award and the winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Gritty prison doc Ghost Hunting (2017) took the top documentary prize at Berlin and is Palestine’s official submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar.
Pictured above: still from Ghost Hunting.
But politics is not always the protagonist. Crucially, the new talents cementing Palestine’s place in the global film industry are telling stories in which politics is the backdrop, not the main show. Muayad Alayan (Love Theft and Other Entanglements), directed The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Fri 7 Dec, 20:30 with director Q&A), a drama about an illicit affair with unforeseen repercussions, while Annemarie Jacir (When I Saw You, Salt of This Sea) was on the jury at Cannes this year after the success of her film Wajib, which explores the relationship between a cosmopolitan young man living abroad and his estranged father.
The talent is there, but challenges undoubtedly remain. Much as Palestine’s economy relies largely on international donors, so does its film industry. Many Palestinian films are only made thanks to international coproductions, which take jobs from Palestinians and give them to people from the country funding the production, as Melanie Goodfellow reports for Screendaily in her article, 'Can Palestine ever create its own film industry?'. Similarly, Palestinian films are largely screened abroad at international film festivals and independent cinemas.
Pictured above: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.
But there are grassroots efforts to support homegrown filmmakers as well as to recreate the movie-going culture of pre-occupation Palestine. Dreams of a Nation is a project dedicated to finding, archiving and digitising Palestinian cinema, including the films lost in the disappeared archives of 1982. Palestine Cinema Days, now in its fifth year, was founded to create a cinema culture in Palestine as well as showcase the talent of its filmmakers. It is an offshoot of Filmlab Palestine, a filmmaking hub that grew from a project teaching young people in refugee camps in Jordan to tell their own stories through film.
It is difficult to disentangle Palestinian film from its politics, just like with any other aspect of the country. So the aim of Bristol Palestine Film Festival is to give voice to Palestinians, whether their story is political or merely human. The hope is to act as a window into a fascinating area of the world, to give a platform to an often-misunderstood and underrepresented place, and to showcase the talent of its filmmaking community who create great films against the odds. Palestine should not be seen exclusively through the lens of conflict, as is so often the case, but through one which explores all aspects of human existence.
Written by Aphra Evans.
The Bristol Palestine Film Festival takes place from 4–9 December at Watershed, Cube Microplex, the Palestine Museum & Cultural Centre, Windmill Pub and the Curzon Cinema & Arts in Clevedon. The programme includes The Reports on Sarah and Saleem and Wajib, both mentioned in this article. For more details visit: www.bristolpff.org.uk/