Filmmakers on a mission to tell Palestinians’ stories

New generation of Palestinians intent on telling personal rather than political story of Palestinian life.

The Media Line
NOVEMBER 14, 2014

by Abdullah H. Erakat

A new generation of Palestinian filmmakers is intent on telling “the people stories you don’t hear about” rather than staying true to form with films charged with political messages such as “Israel’s Occupation” or “Nakba” (the great catastrophe, referring to Israel’s establishment).

While some Palestinian filmmakers insist that it remains their mission and obligation to tell the world about their struggle, other moviemakers seek to broaden the horizon and defy the stereotypes.

“Despite the fact that we make news headlines, I think many Palestinian films failed because they focus on the political story, rather than the personal story,” director Enas I. Al-Muthaffar told The Media Line.

“Human stories have come out of Palestine, too, including films that show what it means to live in this place as a human being,” she explained.

Al-Muthaffar, a director, writer and producer listed by IMDB (International Movie Database), says Palestinian films have been received better internationally because the audience “wants to get closer to the people that news headlines speak about.”

“If you monitor the progress of the last ten years, you’ll see that Palestinian cinema is progressing in quantity and quality,” Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad told The Media Line.

Abu-Assad, the two-time Academy Award-nominated director, who directed “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013), received the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film for “Paradise Now,” the story of two childhood friends who are recruited to carry out a bombing in Tel Aviv.

is about a young Palestinian who is recruited as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt-by-association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing. For Abu-Assad, filmmaking is a form of expression and the reason he became a director in the first place.

“I don’t make movies to entertain, but movies have to be entertaining. I don’t have a message, but I want to share emotions and thoughts, and I want to make people think about their situation and the situations of others,” he told The Media Line.

Palestinian-American Osama Abed, a recent graduate in media studies, plans “to give something other than the sad sympathetic Palestinian victim narration that is constantly told,” even if it means being controversial.

“Palestinians are no exception from the rest of the world. We smoke, we drink and we have sex. So why can’t we talk about it?” the 25-year-old Abed asked The Media Line.

Other Palestinian filmmakers use the medium to try to break the stereotype of how Arab women are depicted.

Amber Fares’s inspiration to tell the story of the “Speed Sisters” came from the idea that these women were doing something that was completely unexpected.

“When you think of Palestine you do not normally equate it with race car driving, let alone women racing,” she told The Media Line. Fares says she saw this documentary as an opportunity to tell a surprising story from the Middle East that people all over the world could relate to. Plus, it just seemed like such a cool story.

“On the surface, ‘Speed Sisters’ is a film about five female race car drivers from Palestine, but at its core, it is a film about the human struggle to break through the obstacles in our lives and follow our dreams,” she said.

Al-Muthaffar says that the greatest achievement for Palestinian cinema came in 2007, when three films were made under the label of “Palestine.” “That’s the maximum, two films are lucky, but on average it’s one a year,” she said, adding that some Palestinian films are shot in Jordan.

Such statistics is the reason Fares says that in the early stages, she relied on friends and people who believed in the project.

While “Speed Sisters” is scheduled to open December 1st at the Ajyal Film Festival in Doha, the Lebanese-Canadian who considers herself “Palestinian at heart” says it took her five years to bring her film to the screen.

“Most of the issues that we faced were financial. It was a bit difficult for us at the beginning to raise money to make this film,” she said.

“The difficulties are endless, they don’t stop,” director Buthina Khoury told The Media Line. Despite applying to various funds in Europe and the Arab world and participating in a number of screenwriting, directing and producing workshops, she has yet to raise the money to make “Green Almonds,” a family story that she says reflects Palestinians as humans – a story that she believes in very much.

Khoury believes that political elements could be the reason for the delay in getting the money to make the film. “It reflects the tragedy of a Palestinian family that tries to live in Palestine despite the hardship. The producers are not ready to show Palestinians with this humanistic image,” she says. But she will keep trying.

Khoury’s struggle began before she entered the profession of filmmaking. In the mid-1980s, with no film schools in Palestine and the Arab world busy with political issues, she went to the United States where she received a BFA with honors in filmmaking from the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts. She returned to her home in Taybeh, on the outskirts of Ramallah, to make movies. Having completed four documentaries and a short, she has been struggling since 2010 to get her first feature length movie made.

It is not uncommon to hear of Palestinians studying abroad since there are no film programs or film schools at home. Al-Muthaffar studied film in Egypt for just that reason. Growing up, she watched Egyptian films because “Egypt was the capital of film in the Arab world.”

But unlike Egypt, Khoury says, Palestinian films have not yet reached the point of entertainment. She says that she and her colleagues have a “one thousand per cent responsibility” to carry the Palestinian cause.

“Cinema is a peaceful tool that can be used to express our points of view of the struggle itself. It can travel easily and is universal. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then one film is worth one thousand political discussions and negotiations,” she said.

Visual artist Khaled Jarrar, a 38-year old resident of Jenin, says Europeans and Americans make movies about their own social issues like the environment or drugs. He uses art as his format and his voice. “Here we have our own problems. For me, it’s not just politics, it’s about life,” he told The Media Line.

Jarrar’s first short video, “Journey 110,” was selected at several international festivals and art galleries such as Basel Art 41, Instant Video and the London Film Festival. He has set up exhibitions of his photos depicting the Qalandiya and Howara Israeli military checkpoints.

His project “Live and Work in Palestine” included creating the first unofficial Palestinian stamp that he used to stamp official passports of people from all nationalities around the world.

With 14 films under her belt (“Salt of this Sea,” “When I Saw You”) and gearing up to direct a movie next year, Annemarie Jacir believes that film is much more than just entertainment and that it “awakens senses and defends life.”

Jacir expects more “beautiful films” to emerge because of the “many incredibly talented Palestinian artists.”

“I just watched a documentary film by a Palestinian woman which is truly an incredible film – difficult and important,” she said. Jacir has been working on the project for perhaps eight years. “This kind of dedication is what makes so much of Palestinian films so strong — artists who take the time to work on their craft rather than working quickly,” she said.

Looking back, Fares says in the last few years many stories from the Palestinian Territories have broken through and had mainstream global success. “It’s also been exciting to see the growth of opportunities by Arab film institutions and festivals,” she said.

Although Khoury does not consider Palestinian cinema to be an industry yet, her evaluation is that compared to other Arab-world filmmakers they are doing much better. “Although we’ve never existed as a state, we make films which have won awards,” she says.

But still looking ahead, Fares says the main challenge remains.

“Because of the Israeli occupation and the difficulty of securing permits to attend pitching forums, it can be more difficult for Palestinian filmmakers to build relationships in the funding