The capital recently played host to the London Palestinian Film Festival, the latest edition of a long-running initiative dedicated to confronting conventional Western understanding of Palestine today and to encourage the development of a Palestinian cinema. The London event is one of several around the world focusing on Palestinian film, with cities such as Sydney, Houston and Toronto holding similar festivals designed to connect audiences to the Palestinian narrative. Microwave takes a look at the festival and its audience, as well as the recent surge in the popularity of international film festivals in the UK.
“We have no film industry because we have no country”
The first London Palestinian Film Festival took place in 1999, organised by The Palestine Society at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The festival provides a platform for Palestinian filmmakers from the West bank and Gaza, Israel and the Diaspora, but is open to all films about Palestine. It plays a major role in introducing Palestinian films and film-makers to UK audiences: since its inception in 1999, more than 320 works have been shown, nearly half by Palestinians.
One of the primary functions of the festival and its global counterparts is to create a mechanism to support Palestinian filmmakers and artists who have to undergo tremendous obstacles to produce their works and get them shown around the world. “We have no film schools and we have no studios,” said actor-director Mohammed Bakri in 2006. “We have no film industry because we have no country.”
Indeed, the development of a Palestinian cinema has to take into account that the nation has one of the largest refugee populations in the world. A key premise of the London festival in particular is to universalise Palestine, and to forgo the confines of a traditional “national cinema” series for an unmistakably internationalist one. By way of illustration, the 2011 event showcased 30 works by artists working in 12 different countries, across genres from video art to biopic.
The 2011 London Palestinian Film Festival opened with a UK premiere of Zindeeq, the latest work of pioneering Palestinian auteur Michel Khleifi. It tells the story of M, a Palestinian film-maker living in Europe who returns home to Ramallah to film witness accounts of the Nakba (the displacement of Palestinian citizens following the creation of Israel in 1948). It not only explores the events of that tumultuous era, but places them in context with the uncertainty and tension of present-day Palestine.
Also receiving UK premieres at the festival were Vibeke Løkkeberg’s Tears of Gaza, an account of the human impact of the 2008-09 war in Gaza; Simone Bitton’s Rachel, an exploratory essay into the killing of US peace activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003; and Mahmoud al Massad’s cutting-edge documentary This Is My Picture When I Was Dead.
The festival also contained a body of work from a new generation of film-makers. May Odeh’s Diaries enlists the perspectives of three young woman living in Gaza to bring audiences a rarely captured view of women facing a “double siege”: one emanating from the Israeli occupation, the other from the quasi religious authority that controls the torn city of Gaza today. My Name is Ahlam, from Rima Essa, is a profoundly moving portrait of mother and daughter and an exploration of strength under enormous duress as a Palestinian woman fights for her daughter’s right to receive adequate treatment for leukaemia.
On the shorts front, Abdallah Al Ghoul’s documentary Ticket from Azrael charted the efforts of a group of young Palestinian men digging a tunnel extending from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, through to Egypt. Shot in low light and with minimal technical support, the film provides an unvarnished glimpse into the terrifying conditions and strong sense of camaraderie that characterise the life of the young workers.
Dania Majid, one of the main organisers of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, describes the event as a way “to connect Toronto audiences to Palestine and the Palestinian narrative”. This statement immediately raises the question, exactly who is this audience? With much of its budget raised by the expatriate Arab community in Toronto, the support of this group is one of the festival’s key goals.
“It is very important to keep the history of Palestine alive and to let the younger generations know about this history,” says Toronto festival Rafeef Ziadah. “Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba, and we wanted to do something to say that Palestinians in the diaspora still remember Palestine, and that we are still fighting for the right to return.”
Nitin Sawhney, an advisor to the Toronto Palestine Film Festival and founder of the Boston Palestine Film Festival, says that the events are also a way to break the Western cycle of viewing Palestinians only through the lens of terrorism or pure sympathy. “What’s missing is what’s in between, which is everyday Palestinian lives, culture, history, love, traditions, music and everything else that doesn’t fall into those two buckets,” Sawhney says.
Similarly, Cherien Dabis, the Palestinian-American director of 2009’s Amreeka, says that her involvement in film is a response to “Hollywood and the American news media perpetuating stereotypes of Arabs”. The films, video installations and exhibits at Palestinian Film Festivals offer nuance and depth to the narratives of Palestine and the diaspora so often simplified in the West, exploring several dimensions of Palestinian identity through cinema.
A further function of the festival to consider is political. Elle Flanders, director of Road Movie, examines what she describes as “Apartheid roads” because they are only accessible to those holding Israeli identification. For Flanders, the film is part of her work to find “a cultural way to put an end to conflict and end the occupation”.
International film festivals in the UK
The London Palestinian Film Festival is not the only festival in the UK experiencing a surge in popularity. International film festivals are thriving across the country, with around three dozen foreign film festivals around the UK. Are they evidence of the British population’s growing appreciation of foreign cinema? Or are they popular because they can count on sizeable audiences of native speakers in multicultural Britain’s immigrant communities?
A recent Guardian article explored this phenomenon, examining the audiences of festivals such as Kinoteka, London’s leading Polish film festival. “At first the audiences were maybe 90% Polish,” said festival producer Anna Gruska. “Now we have long-term partnerships with various British institutions so we target the British audience much more directly.” By careful programming – mixing the best of new Polish cinema with slightly less challenging comedies, and throwing in retrospectives, shorts, exhibitions and youth events – Kinoteka is broadening its appeal, with its 8,000-strong audience approaching a 50-50 balance. The London Spanish Film Festival, meanwhile, claims 4,000 audience members of the two week event, of whom a third are British, whilst the Russian film festival’s audience stands at currently 48% Russian, 51% British.
Richard Mowe, director of the French and co director of the Italian festivals, believes that the horizons of British cinephiles have expanded dramatically over the past couple of decades. “They’re now incredibly discerning punters,” said Mowe, “very aware of what’s out there, and very aware festivals are going to be their only realistic chance of seeing a really good range of [foreign] films.”
The bigger festivals from countries with large ex-pat UK populations certainly make money, whilst others are unashamedly more grassroots affairs. Vedide Kaymak launched the London Turkish film festival 17 years ago while working at the Rio cinema in Dalston, east London. “It started purely for my community,” she says. “There were refugees, Turkish Cypriots, Kurds, Turks from the mainland – and none of them connecting. I thought a festival would be a good thing.”
Whether community-inspired or artistically minded, international film festivals such as London Palestinian Film Festival go a long way towards educating Western audiences and challenging conventional perceptions of Britain’s immigrant communities. Furthermore, that such festivals are flourishing can only be a positive contribution to the development and support of independent international cinema in the UK.