Programming Palestine

Bristol Palestine Festival Director David Owen shares a bit of insight into how he programmed the season, what highlights to expect, and how he hopes the Festival will grow in the future.

From Fri 5 – Tue 16 Dec we are delighted to welcome back Bristol Palestine Film Festival for a fourth installment of their ever-popular and compelling look at Palestinian film, arts and culture. Many of the filmmakers will be joining us via Skype or in person, so it’s a great opportunity to get insight into life both inside and outside Palestine.

As a preview to the Festival we asked Festival Director David Owen to share a bit of insight into how he programmed the season, what highlights to expect, and how he hopes the Festival will grow in the future.

As always there will be plenty of opportunity for discussion, debate, questions and ideas during the season. You can get involved at any of the Q&As and join the debate on Twitter @BristolPFF – the diversity of the audience and the opinions has always been a key part of the Festival’s success, and we’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts this year.

Programming Palestine - David Owen Festival Director

As I finished writing this, the media’s reportage was focused on a horrific attack in a synagogue in Jerusalem, and the ongoing and systematic persecutions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

In such a landscape, where it is difficult to make sense of what is really going on, it is so easy to switch our attention elsewhere. My number one hope for the Bristol Palestine Film Festival is that it generates understanding, and reduces otherness, irrespective of your political opinions from the outset.

I would like the festival to attract more people, for whom Palestine is just too much of a difficult or off-limit topic. I'm excited about the potential of the festival to inspire people of all ages, and to help people think about the issues raised in the films, many of which are universal, and some of which are pressing, and urgent.

When I started the festival four years ago, I never would have imagined it lasting four years. Yet, here we are for a fourth season of Palestinian film, and films on Palestine. In each of the previous years, the festival had been accentuated by events in the real world. In 2014, I feel myself alongside many others still reeling from the horrific bombardment of Gaza that left over 6,000 civilian casualties.

It seems fitting therefore that the opening night at Watershed should focus on Gaza. We begin with Nahed Awwad’s Gaza Calling, a 2012 documentary that illustrates life for Gaza’s people in-between bombardments. Not surprisingly, films about the recent events in Gaza are rare and difficult to find. Prior to the most recent conflict, I was in touch with filmmaker Wael Alsousi about his short film about Gaza in the 1920s. Between June and September, all contact with Wael was lost until finally he wrote back: “I'm sorry I didn't get in touch with you at that time was really busy and then the war happened and I got lost there”.

To complete this set we will be screening Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave by Hadeel Assali. The film overlays images of the director’s family in Gaza with a recording made on a “zello” call during the early stages of the most recent attack.

As with all seasons, the festival does not stay in the same place for long. On Saturday we focus on Palestinian refugees living in Syria, we are also screening Abeer Zeibak Haddad’s Duma, which tells the stories of four Palestinian women who have broken their silence about their experiences of sexual violence. It is among the only films ever made about sexual abuse against women in Arab society.

In a film review for Thessaloniki Film Festival, film critic Qais Qassem observes: “Duma indicates a new tendency in Palestinian cinema towards moving to self-display and criticism, which first started emerging in features with Elia Suleiman’s films and appears to be gaining ground.” The film was selected for the festival as it met our aims of profiling the work of Palestinian directors, it highlights an important human-rights issue that has global significance, and finally because I felt it would bring a new audience into the festival.

Sunday represents a change of pace again. Saken is amongst the most beautiful and intimate documentaries that I have seen for a long, long time. The film is screening in the UK for the first time, capturing the most inner thoughts of Ibrahim Salameh, who was paralysed while fighting for Palestinian liberation in the 1980s. It looks at his relationship with his caretaker Walid, explores dependency and trust, and is a real gem for any audience over the world.

Although not part of the selection for the festival, I do recommend that audiences go and see The Green Prince which is screening from Fri 12 Dec for at least one week. A stunning documentary from the Oscar®-winning producers of Man on Wire and Searching For Sugar Man, it tells the incredibly true story of Mosab Hassan Yousef – the son of one of the founders of Hamas who became an informant for the Israeli secret service, and works as an interesting juxtaposition with many of the films screening at the festival, particularly Omar, which also deals with  Israeli interrogation processes.

There are a number of new elements to this year’s festival. I’m particularly grateful this year for the support of Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, who has been incredibly supportive and helpful in suggesting some of the latest works and films, not least Saken amongst others. We have also been working together on a season exploring the ‘impact of conflict’ on cinematic narratives. The season should be launched at Borderlines Film Festival in early 2015, but several of the films in our festival act as a preview to that event, including Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar and Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of the Sea.

On our opening night at the Cube on Wed 3 Dec there’s a great opportunity to get more familiar with some of the classic films we will be exploring in this season with a screening of Cinema Palestine by Tim Schwab. We are also delighted to be working with Easton’s very own community cinema for a season of documentaries.

Check out for all of the events – I am looking forward to meeting new people and hearing your thoughts during the festival.