Category: Palestinian Cinema

Gaza (Ireland-Palestine 2019)

This was the second film I watched at the Delius Arts Centre during Bradford’s 2019 Refugee Week. As with Beats of the Antonov, this was a screening with a very engaged and committed audience who, as the post-screening discussion revealed, were supportive of the Palestinian cause. We were privileged to see this film which was first screened at Sundance in January 2019 and has not, to my knowledge, been theatrically released in the UK.

Gaza is credited with twin directors, Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell. Both are Irish and both are highly experienced in their own fields but are here making a first theatrical documentary. Garry Keane has been making documentary films for television since the 1990s. Andrew McConnell is an award-winning photographer who has specialised in projects in parts of the world where conflict and displacement are common. He has lived in Beirut for the last eight years. Garry Keane owns the production company Real Films and this is a co-production with Canadian input and what appears to be a local/regional crew. Gaza is very restricted, because of the blockade, in terms of local equipment and facilities for filmmaking. That’s something the film might have explored.

The Ambulance paramedic

As you might imagine Gaza is beautifully photographed with arresting imagery and it is put together with great skill (and some great music). It introduces us to a range of people living and working in Gaza and offers images of a unique community of 2 million people crammed into a narrow strip of land. We rarely see such images in TV coverage of the conflict between its residents and the Israeli state which controls its two longest borders (the other closed border is with Egypt to the south). It’s perhaps best to let the directors present their intentions themselves:

From the very beginning we wanted to address the disparity between perception and reality. Having spent years working on the ground, we knew that Gaza was so much more than its portrayal in the media. This unique and vibrant land, rich in culture and history, is home to a people who are oppressed and dehumanised but who are also resilient and strong, and who want nothing more than to live normal lives.

. . . Through a cast of major and minor characters, we meet Palestinians from all walks of life, who individually have a strong story to tell but who together, create a portrait of Gaza like no other. The siege, brought on by history, Israel, Hamas and the abandonment of the international community, is the villain of our story. (Directors’ Notes – see the whole statement on www.gazadocumentary.com)

I’m certainly not going to disagree with the first statement and the film’s biggest achievement is to represent the resilience of the people of Gaza in the face of the most difficult conditions imaginable. The problem with the film for me lies in its structure and in the last statement above which suggests that there is a clear villain in the story. I question the definition of the ‘villain’, but perhaps the fact that for most of the time the filmmakers try to avoid ‘political issues’ – but are then forced to face them by circumstance – means they actually create more confusion and frustration than if they had taken a clearer line to begin with.

The primary aim seems to be to present us with individuals and families in Gaza (they don’t say if this is Gaza City or other settlements further down the coastal strip). We meet a whole range of people from cello-playing student Karma to a tailor, from an ambulance driver to a taxi driver and from a family of traditional fishermen to a theatre director and many more. Each is presented in situ and given the opportunity to tell their story – there is no ‘authorial commentary’ as such. During the period in which they shot the film, the directors were faced with some of the most violent altercations along the border with many casualties amongst Gaza’s youth and bomb damage which killed families further away from the border. This is shown, sometimes in long shots, sometimes up close, sometimes with shaky hand-held camerawork in the midst of the running crowds. We never see the Israelis who fire across the border at the youths hurling stones but we do get a glimpse of a huge rally of Hamas supporters and a few shots of Palestinian paramilitaries.

Getting the wounded out of the firing line

My worry is that for audiences who don’t know the intricacies of the politics of resistance by the Palestinians, these ‘glimpses’ are likely to be confusing. For instance, at one point we see a banner with Yasser Arafat’s face and also a banner for the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), opposed to both Hamas and Fatah (the Palestinian political party founded by Arafat). In the film, Hamas appears to be something like a dark cloud hanging over the territory. I know it’s difficult to present the political situation in an objective way and that you can’t show everything in a 90 minute documentary, but by not discussing, explaining or confronting Hamas while at the same time showing them on the ground, a political position is being adopted by default.

The other problem with the structure is that there are arguably too many people who speak, often saying similar things – and that the people who do speak are mainly men. Apart from the cello-player and her mother I don’t remember other female witnesses (i.e. who speak on camera) and this seems a mistake in the current climate. Most of the people who do speak are self-employed or in public service jobs. We know half the working population are unemployed so why don’t we hear more from them? Reading the notes on the film’s official website it seems that the main structuring device is to show the the cello player and one of the fisherman’s sons as contrasting figures, but I think that gets lost in the range of other stories we hear.

The fisherman’s sons

All of this may sound like nit-picking and an attempt to prescribe what the film should do. I can appreciate that but another point is that documentary is something of a Palestinian specialism. For many years documentaries formed the major share of all Palestinian film production. Now we have diaspora filmmakers returning to the West Bank to make films and others living in Israel or occupied territories making fiction films. Those Palestinian films are usually committed to the Palestinian desire to get back control of their lands. It seems this film wants to simply state: “This is how people in Gaza live.” By not mentioning the politics perhaps they will get wider audiences on TV? But they still won’t avoid the charge of ‘propaganda’ – see The Hollywood Reporter review.

The film shows the closed border crossing to Egypt but does not explain why it is closed. An Egyptian in the Bradford audience pointed out that Egyptians who might ordinarily have supported their “brothers in Gaza” have come to believe that Hamas is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which formed the first administration in Cairo after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. I also suspect that the Egyptian military, as the real power in the country, is now aligned to American foreign policy and therefore to the American-Israeli alliance.

I want to re-assert that the film does present the resilience of Gazans and it also stresses the despair and the insult that comes from the 3 mile limit for Gaza’s access to the sea imposed by Israel. At one time Gaza was famous for its fish, said to be the best in the East Mediterannean. Since this film was made the limit has been extended to 12 miles in the central coastal area and six miles in the North and South. This is still less than the 20 mile zone set for the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Many believe the blockade and its enforcement by Israeli gunboats is illegal under international law. In the film, many of the interviewees look out to sea and the fisherman greets his son who has been imprisoned by the Israelis for fishing beyond the three mile limit. Not surprisingly, the local waters are now over-fished.

I’m not sure how Gaza will be distributed. It sounds like it might get a theatrical release in North America and surely it will be/has been seen in Ireland. Elsewhere in Europe, given the TV funders listed, it should appear on TV and on DVD/VOD. Despite my reservations I would urge anyone to watch the film since the directors do achieve their primary aim of showing us life in contemporary Gaza – life lived by ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Netherlands, Palestine, Germany, Mexico 2018)

This new release was screened in the Leeds International Film Festival and was also the first title in the 2018 Leeds Palestine Film Festival which runs on until December 11th. The film was a fine production to grace the Official Selection programme in the Leeds Festival and a strong opening film story for the Palestinian Festival. The Festival catalogue describes the film as

Both a nail-biting thriller and a heart-breaking love story.

This is a film that combines genres, an ‘infidelity’ film, a thriller and, at times, I felt it had tropes found in spy films. The main story concerns an adulterous affair between an Israeli woman, Sarah (Sivan Kerchner) and a Palestinian man, Saleem (Adeeb Safadi). This is treated as tragedy, rather like the film versions of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’. The thriller element is far from that of Fatal Attraction (1987).

Whilst the film concentrates on the personal relationships, the situation, the occupation of Palestinian lands, structures the whole narrative. But the conflict between two peoples is amplified here by differences of class. Sarah is married to a high-ranking Israeli Officer, David (Ishai Golan) in the Israeli army security service. She is attempting to run her own business, a café, but this attempt has been made intermittent by David’s work leading to moves. She has a young child. Saleem works as a delivery driver for an Israeli bakery and is married to Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi) who is pregnant. Sarah and David live in West Jerusalem, Salem and Bisan live in East Jerusalem.

In addition to his work as a delivery driver Saleem is persuaded by his brother-in-law, [not a sympathetic character] to use the van for an unofficial delivery service in the West Bank after work: This includes Bethlehem beyond the ‘apartheid wall’ constructed by Israel.

There are nuances here resulting from the occupation. Israeli licence plates are clearly distinguishable from those issued by the Palestinian Authority. It appears that Arab citizens of Israel, including Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, have the same type of plates as other Israeli citizens. The van Saleem drives has Israeli plates and at checkpoint he passes with ease whilst queues of cars with Palestinian plates are visible in the background. There are further nuances as the film features both the Israeli police and Israeli Security Service and the Palestinian Police and the Palestinian Security Service.

These all enter the narrative at various points after Saleem takes Sarah with him on a delivery to Bethlehem; their usual assignation take place in a car park. An argument in a café and the obvious presence of an Israeli vehicle in a Palestinian area lead to investigations. The Reports of the title are compiled by the Palestinian Security but later fall into the hands of the Israeli Security. As one investigation follows another the complexities of the situation emerge for the audience. And the feelings and values of both Sarah and Saleem are tested as are those of their partners, David and Bisan. We also see the different responses of both Israelis and Palestinians as the affair becomes known.

The film has been written and directed by two Palestinian brothers, Rami Musa and Muayad Alayan. They also produced the film through their company Key Films, with co-producers from Germany and Mexico. They have previously produced several short films and one other feature, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (Al-hob wa al-sariqa wa mashakel ukhra 2015). I have not seen this film which does not appear to have had a British release. It does though suggest generic affinities with The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, the plot involves a Palestinian who mistakenly steals an Israeli car.

The Alayan brothers also worked on the cinematography and art design for this earlier films. Here they have assembled a skilled production crew. Sebastian Bock provides the cinematography which does fine work with both interiors and exteriors. He also uses a hand-held camera for certain dramatic sequences, [presumably a steadicam with a loose setting]. The interiors range though daytime and night-time lighting, with chiaroscuro in places. This also applies to the exteriors, which include narrow streets, car parks, the ‘separation wall’ and at judicious intervals long shots of both sectors of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and briefly the empty desert landscape of the South. Whilst these settings focus on the development in the plot they also are reminders of the conflict setting which is so important to the narrative. And the editing by Sameer Qumsiyeh keeps up a narrative pace that maintains both the drama and the developing mystery of the story.

The film works well as a drama and is absorbing and at times generates real tension. There are relatively explicit sex scenes, unusual for a Palestinian film. Added to this is the representation of key aspects of the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. As is regularly noted in the media East Jerusalem is at the conflicted edge of the struggle for Palestinian independence. The Israeli control and harassment of those Palestinian living in East Jerusalem is hedged round with restrictions and constantly threatens their homes and their culture. This emerges with increasing power as the film’s narrative develops.

The film was shot digitally and is in 2.35:1 and colour. The dialogue is in Arabic, Hebrew and English with the first two languages translated in English sub-titles. The Festival screening was the British premiere and to date there is not a British release listed for the film which neither has a BBFC certificate. The DCP for the screening was provided by Heretic Outreach, based in Athens,

Heretic Outreach is a boutique world sales agency that supports and encourages outstanding films and film-makers to reach out to the world, by becoming a key partner for solid strategies in festivals, sales and alternative distribution models.

One would expect this film to feature in other Palestinian film events round Britain, of which there are now a number. Hopefully it also be picked up by a distributor for a more general release.

Wajib (Palestine-France-Columbia-UAE-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)

A trip round Nazareth can take you to strange places . . .

Is there any country in the world with a higher batting average in films produced than Palestine? It’s not even technically a country but an occupied land which, as the funding sources listed above indicate, needs all the help it can get. Yet every Palestinian film I’ve seen has been well worth watching and many of them have been excellent. Annemarie Jacir has made three of the best Palestinian features as director, she also writes and produces (see Speed Sisters) and she acted as curator of the ‘Dreams of A Nation’ Palestinian Film Festival in 2002. She’s a phenomenon.

She wrote and directed Wajib and it is a brilliantly conceived narrative with fabulous performance by the two leads, the real-life father and son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri. Palestine is a small country with many people and many more living in exile, as refugees or migrants. The West Bank and Gaza are strips of land a few miles across and on the West Bank penetrated by Israeli settlements. So the obvious solution is  . . . a road movie! Not only that, but a road movie set entirely in the Christian Arab community of the small city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city within the state of Israel after its capture by Israeli forces in 1948. This is truly a narrative of a fecund imagination. It’s also unusual as a narrative with a plot that only covers a few hours – though the story depends on events over many years.

Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) with his son Shadi (Saleh Bakri)

The starting point is the ‘wajib’ or ‘duty’ of Abu Shadi in delivering by hand all the invites to his daughter’s wedding on the Saturday before Christmas. Abu Shadi is not a well man and there are a lot of stairs to climb. Fortunately, his son Shadi has arrived from Italy and the two drive slowly around the city in the family’s old Volvo. Everybody needs imagination living as a kind of prisoner in an occupied city. Abu Shadi is a teacher who has seemingly taught most of the young men he meets has had to ‘keep face’ by inventing stories about his son’s life in Italy but now with a son baffled to learn that he’s meant to be something he isn’t, it’s got a lot trickier. Any single man like Shadi is bound to be asked questions about why he hasn’t married and to be offered every eligible daughter.

I wonder if the slightly smaller audience that the film attracted for its single showing in Hebden Bridge was a result of its relatively low-key presentation of the politics of occupation? We are used in the UK to Palestinian films that involve direct conflict with the Israeli state in some way – often through the military or settlers or movement restrictions. Setting the action in Nazareth doesn’t mean that such issues are not important, but that they are expressed in different ways. There is actually a political discourse but in one sense it is developed in quite subtle ways and in another it is played out in the generational difference between father and son and between ‘staying’ and exile/migration.

The bride Amal (Maria Zreik) tries on dresses for the wedding

I can imagine a similar film being described as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’ and Wajib does have many small moments of humour, mostly arising from the interactions with friends and relatives who receive the invites. The father-son relationship also functions as a universal story so you don’t need to know that much about life in Nazareth to appreciate the film, but it is so much richer if you delve through the small incidents for their deeper meanings. The father-son relationship does reach a climactic moment which is confidently handled and the film ends at what for me was the perfect moment. To avoid spoilers I haven’t discussed the other characters – present or absent – but be assured there is plenty to enjoy across 95 minutes. Annemarie Jacir’s previous film, When I Saw You (2012) is a must see and is fortunately available in the UK on DVD. Saleh Bakri appears in a lead role in that film and also in Salt of this Sea (2008) which is only on a Region 1 DVD.

SPOILER! The trailer below starts of well, giving a good sense of the ‘feel’ of the film – but then gives away an important plot point. You’ve been warned!

Leeds Palestinian Film Festival 2017

The 2017 Festival launches during the Leeds International Film Festival with a new documentary Gaza Surf Club. The film has been directed by two young filmmakers with funding from German Public Broadcasting Company, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln. In Gaza there is a small band of enthusiasts who ride the surf in the coastal waters. The added dangers of the sport here are the Israeli blockade and maritime restrictions. It is in colour and with both English and Arabic.

The Occupation of the American Mind is a documentary produced by the Media Education Foundation. The writers and directors Loretta Alper, and Jeremy Earp have provided an exploration of that central movement attempting to protect Israel from scrutiny and justice in the USA. This ‘propaganda’ and pressure is replicated to a smaller extent in Britain as well. Filmed in colour and all in English. The film will be followed by a talk and discussion with former Reuters journalist Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi. Naomi is a leading campaigner for ‘Free Speech on Israel’.

Firefighters Under Occupation is a distinctive documentary. Sponsored by the Fire Brigade Union it was filmed by a South Wales firefighter on a trip to the Occupied West Bank where indigenous firefighters operate the equipment donated by their comrades in Britain. The event also has a distinctive venue, the converted Gipton Fire Station now an East Leeds Community venue.

The Time That Remains is the most recent feature by Elia Suleiman released in 2009. Suleiman is a pioneer of Palestinian cinema, his first films in the 1990s were produced before the present expanded cycle of films made in the occupied territories emerged. Dramatising his own life and that of his father Fuad Suleiman produces a complex narrative setting out both the Israeli domination of Palestinians and their resistance. The film treats the subject with a degree of irony. See review.

The Idol from the 2016 Festival at a new venue. This title dramatises the story of Muhammad Assaf, the Gazan wedding singer who won the prestigious Television Contest ‘Arab idol’. The film had some fine sequences set in Gaza in his childhood and returns there at the end with actual footage of the celebrations on his success.

Also returning from 2016 is Balls, Barriers & Bulldozers, a documentary following a British tour of the West Bank playing against  Palestinian women football teams. The film is about the sport and about the experience of visiting the Occupied Territories.

‘Existence is Resistance’ is an evening with short films and an exhibition of photographs. The theme is ‘Sumud’, that is ‘steadfast’. The short films are Sumud: Everyday Resistance; Journey of a Sofa; and Shireen of al-Walaja the portrait of a popular resistance leader.

Finally we have ‘Film Maker as Activist – an afternoon of short films and discussion with Jon Pullman’. The Forgotten addresses the condition of the millions of Palestinian refugees who still wait for the liberation of their homeland. The filmmaker will also talk about his planned film, The Lynching, which will deal with the current ‘anti-semiotic’ witch-hunt in the British Labour Party.

The Festival offers a varied selection of films in both theatrical and community settings. Now well established the Festival brings a political edge to film viewing in West Yorkshire.

Check the festival out at: http://www.leedspff.org.uk/