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Film Festivals… What’s the Hype?

The Importance of Presenting Palestinian Films at Festivals

By Najwa Najjar

Over the last few decades, Palestinian cinema has emerged as a vital cultural force that aims to narrate the stories of a displaced and fragmented community. Despite all the difficulties in the creation of a film in occupied and historical Palestine, Palestinian cinema has carved out a significant space for itself on the international stage, captivating audiences and drawing attention to the complex sociopolitical issues of the region.

For the first time in 2018, the Palestinian flag was raised at the Cannes Film Festival. The Palestinian pavilion, which drew considerable interest and awareness, was initiated by the Palestine Film Institute (PFI) with the support of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.

Before the 1980s, Palestinian cinema was not focused on presenting itself to the international arena through festivals. During the 1960s, filmmakers across the globe developed militant cinema traditions that aspired to break the prison of the image and to transform the world. Revolutions were fought with bullets, demonstrations, and strikes but also with posters, songs, and films. From Chile to Vietnam by way of Palestine, this cinema was central in the creation and circulation of revolutionary and liberation imaginaries.

Pioneering Palestinian men and women armed with a camera and a story to tell including Mustafa Abu Ali, Khadija Habassneh, Hani Jawhariyya, and Sulafa Jadallah were part of this world movement. They saw the purpose of their work as Palestinian resistance and Palestinian identity, specifically centered on Palestinian militant resistance. At the end of the 1960s they moved to documentaries that focused primarily on capturing and bearing witness to atrocities committed against Palestinian populations in exile. The interesting thing is that these documentaries were screened in refugee camps and followed by discussions on the film and how to improve it … in many ways the start of local film festivals. Not addressed in this article, but affecting the production of the films, was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the loss of the PLO’s cinematic archives which had been building up since the 1960s. Filmmaking post-1982 was radically altered, as filmmakers focused on the exiled condition, and Palestinians in historical Palestine began to explore the Palestinian experience vis-à-vis Israeli occupation.

Co-productions with Europe and a financial divorce from Palestinian institutions led to a wave of independent cinema that made its way to international festivals. Palestinian cinema first began gaining recognition on the international film festival circuit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the earliest notable Palestinian films, Omar Gatlato (1976) by Merzak Allouache (an Algerian filmmaker), was selected for the Cannes Film Festival.

Outdoor screening Cinema de la Plage during the festival.

However, it was not until the 1980s that Palestinian cinema truly started making waves internationally when filmmakers such as Michel Khleifi, Elia Suleiman, and Hany Abu-Assad first hit the film festival circuit, with their films premiering in prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Berlin.

These filmmakers paved the road for other filmmakers, including Rashid Masharawi, Mai Masri, Omar Al-Qattan, and another wave of fictional filmmakers that include Cherien Dabis, Annemarie Jacir, and Najwa Najjar who shot in the West Bank and Jerusalem and released their films in the 2000s despite the second Intifada – depicting and analyzing Palestinian individual identity, and examining themes such as love and everyday life under occupation. Their films premiered in the Venice, Cannes, and Sundance film festivals.

The journey of Palestinian cinema through international film festivals has been one of perseverance and resilience for Palestinian filmmakers throughout historical Palestine and in the diaspora. Palestinian filmmakers have continued and made their voices heard in both documentaries and fictional films despite facing numerous challenges along the way. As the number of Palestinian filmmakers continues to grow, their films not only impact global audiences but also help humanize the Palestinian narrative and raise awareness about the complexities of the region.

Marilyn Monroe at the Cannes Festival.

Given the increasing interest in Palestinian cinema, the future looks promising for the filmmakers who are dedicated to sharing their stories with the world. Opening in festivals certainly gives exposure to the independent film and the filmmaker, including (but not limited to) Mahdi Fleifel, Maha Haj, Sameh Zoabi, Raed Andoni, Suha Arraf, Tawfik Abu Wael, Sahera Dirbas, Larissa Sansour, Amer Shomali, Jackie Saloum, Arab and Tarazan Nasser, Muayad and Rami Alayan, and Lina Soualem (please forgive any oversights). Not forgetting Mohammad Bakri whose documentary Jenin, Jenin was awarded Best Film at the 2002 Carthage International Film Festival, despite a 20-year lawsuit filed by the Israeli government. This lawsuit has not stopped today’s filmmakers from making their shorts and long features, continuing the tradition of regaining their narrative, making sense of the political havoc that rocks the country and the world, and telling a story that comes from the heart.

The cast and crew of Between Heaven and Earth on stage at the 2020 Cairo International Film Festival where the film won the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Best Screenplay Award.

Acceptance into the major film festivals is no easy feat. The division between A-list and B-list festivals has been brought about by the sanctioning organization: Fédération internationale des associations de producteurs de films/International Federation of Film Producers Associations. Founded in 1933, the FIAPF is a regulator of international film festivals that recognizes Category 1 or A festivals around the world, including some of the world’s most significant: Berlin, Cannes, Cairo, Venice, Locarno, Busan, and Karlovy Vary.

The acceptance into festivals is often motivated by reasons other than the artistic quality of the films. Sometimes the programmer for a certain festival doesn’t have a full understanding of the situation in a country, or perhaps his or her own personal taste dictates the films chosen from a certain area, overlooking different filmic languages and stories that challenge the status quo. At times there are certain political dictates and/or sales distributors that have a certain influence. And sometimes the festival has simply filled its quota for the films it can screen or has specific funding restrictions (if it contributed to the production). Regardless, there are literally hundreds of other film festivals that can be equally appropriate for a film premiere, offering an opportunity and platform to further showcase skills in storytelling and movie making to the world.

Rashid Abdel Hamid and Mohanad Yaqubi are among the group trying to reestablish the Palestine Film Institute for all Palestinian filmmakers worldwide, and have a permanent presence of the Palestinian pavilion.

This journey through international film festivals reflects not only the artistic prowess of Palestinian filmmakers but also their determination to tell stories that resonate with audiences worldwide. Through international film festivals, these films have reached broader audiences, making a significant impact both culturally and politically.

And although most filmmakers may think about where their films will premiere, they will tell you that making a film is a tremendous experience. From the idea itself to writing, raising and securing funding, co-productions, casting, finding the right crew, filming in difficult circumstances, editing, translations, packaging, and then submitting to festivals, there are numerous steps involved, and each comes with its own challenges.

In recent years, Palestinian cinema has continued to flourish on the global stage, garnering international acclaim and even earning Academy Award nominations. When the French producer Humbert Balsan presented Elia Suleiman’s film to the Academy, there was confusion about a country named “Palestine.” Now, there is a yearly nomination submission from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture to the Oscars. These achievements have brought Palestinian cinema to the forefront of international attention. (Even though renowned Palestinian-Chilean filmmaker Miguel Ernesto Littin Cucumides submitted his film Actas de Marusia (1975) and Alsino and the Condor (1983) to the Academy of Arts and Sciences as Latin American films.)

Writer/director Najwa Najjar with producer Hani Kort and Egyptian superstar Khaled Abu Naga presenting their film Eyes of a Thief at the largest Arab film festival in Europe; the Malmo Arab Film Festival.

Palestinian films screened at film festivals open doors to conversations about complex and enduring narratives, reminding us that in the world of cinema, stories have the power to bridge divides and illuminate the human experience. And what better way to break down stereotypes than to take an audience to these different worlds and show how life really is? We hope that film festivals will continue to insist on doing this despite pressures to globalize stories and to see narratives according to the narrow perspective of mainstream media. Ultimately, celebrating the art of storytelling is what the hype is all about.

  • Najwa Najjar has explored several artistic grounds, having written, directed, and produced over a dozen critically acclaimed award-winning films that premiered at festivals in Cairo, Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, and at Sundance. In 2020, she was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and in 2021, she was elected to the European Film Academy EFA and honored for her work at both the Aswan International Women’s Film Festival and the Tiro Arts Festival in Lebanon. She is featured in this current issue as Artist of the Month.

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