Drama and uncomfortable questions at Chicago Palestine Film Festival

Women filmmakers and protagonists are strongly represented at the 14th annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival, which opened last night at the downtown Gene Siskel Film Center and runs through 30 April.

The opening feature, Eyes of a Thief by Najwa Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh), was Palestine’s entry to this year’s Academy Awards (watch the trailer above).

Shot on location in Nablus and Bethlehem, Najjar’s second feature-length film is inspired by the true events of the fatal shooting of 11 Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint in 2002.

Dramatic storytelling is promised in the first few minutes — protagonist Tarek is hidden and nursed by a nun and priest in a church after being shot and wounded by soldiers, and he makes his escape only to be arrested at a checkpoint. But the plot sputters on.

It is hard to believe that Tarek (performed by Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga) did not receive any news of his wife and young daughter when he was in Israeli prison for ten years, and that there was no crowd to give him a hero’s welcome upon his release. And very little of his story is believable after that.

Algerian singer Souad Massi makes a fine enough acting debut as seamstress Lila, but her character is given limited emotional range and she’s strangely passive when her developer husband-to-be is put on impromptu public trial by Tarek in an improbable showdown.

The most enjoyable performance of this film is that of Malak Ermileh as a fearless, tough-talking orphaned girl who was taken in by Lila. There is also an ensemble of men who gather at a coffee shop and provide comic relief and political commentary. But they cannot save this plot, the points of which are overemphasized by distracting melodramatic music.

What festival goers may most appreciate is the film’s unambiguous message of the righteousness of armed resistance and the treatment of Palestinian collaborators as a primary obstacle on the road to freedom.

May in the Summer

May in the Summer, the sophomore feature by Cherien Dabis (Amreeka), makes its Chicago premiere.

Fans of Dabis’ earnest first film won’t find its sympathetic characters in her second. Instead, an attractive, wealthy but dysfunctional family in Amman become increasingly unhappy and shouty as the clock winds down to title character May’s wedding to Ziad, who, like May, is a New York City intellectual.

Cherien Dabis in May in the Summer

It’s hard to know why the two got engaged in the first place, plunging themselves into this morass of unhappiness, since the audience doesn’t see much of their relationship in the film.

But a wedding is an excuse for Dabis to throw together and test the relationships between May and her two sisters; their bitter, divorced Palestinian mother; and their absent and remarried American father. All of them have secrets that they try and fail to keep from one another before May’s big day. But it’s hard for the viewer to have an emotional stake in whether May, performed by Dabis, goes through with it.

“Refugee film”

Other new Palestinian feature films included in this year’s festival are Villa Touma by Suha Arraf and The Wanted 18 by Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali.

Israel’s two largest movie funders banned recipients from identifying their work as Palestinian after Arraf registered Villa Touma as Palestinian at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, putting her in the crosshairs of the Israeli press and political elite.

“It is my refugee film,” Arraf told The Electronic Intifada in a recent interview. “Like Palestinians everywhere, it is stateless.”

Set in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Arraf’s directorial debut depicts three women from an aristocratic Palestinian Christian family who take in an orphaned niece whose behavior doesn’t conform with their severe and secluded lifestyle.

The Wanted 18 meanwhile is a buoyant celebration of a West Bank village’s grassroots resistance against the Israeli occupation during the first intifada.

As Selma Dabbagh explains in her review for The Electronic Intifada:

The Wanted 18 was a surprise. It is a film about a real story that captivated director Amer Shomali’s imagination as a child, the story of how the town of Beit Sahour bought 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz in order to start producing its own milk. It tells the tale of a town trying to attain independence by boycotting taxes and produce. It is the story of nonviolent resistance, its heroics and psychology.”

Rich history

Documentary films which uphold Palestine’s rich and diverse history — Heba El-Attar’s The Voice of a Condor pays homage to the longstanding and sizeable Palestinian minority in Chile — are also featured at this year’s festival.

Encounter with a Lost Land by Maryse Gargour (The Land Speaks Arabic) recollects the memories of the Jaffa-born daughters of a French doctor and gives a glimpse of the cosmopolitan center of Palestinian intellectual life which was lost in 1948.

The history of the Zionist conquest of Palestine, Britain’s pernicious role, and how Jaffa was emptied of its people and filled with strangers, is told by these women and their father in his letters.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians who have managed to cling on to their property in Akka, another historic coastal city in the country’s north are the subject of It’s Better to Jump.

As Sarah Irving describes in her review for The Electronic Intifada:

“Director Patrick Stewart does an admirable job in It’s Better to Jump of conveying both the staggeringly long history of this beautiful port and the challenges which beset its people on a daily basis” as Israel uses tourism development schemes as a means of insidious ethnic cleansing.

Journey of a Freedom Fighter by Mohammad Moawia honors the life of Rabee Turkman, a Palestinian fighter who laid down his gun and took up cultural resistance at Jenin’s famed Freedom Theatre.

The half-hour documentary is painful to watch because Turkman’s journey is cut brutally short when he succumbs to kidney failure as a result of Israeli bullet wounds from his days in the armed resistance.

There is some consolation that the wide-eyed and romantic Turkman achieved his dream of acting on stage in Europe and pursued this despite the stigma of leaving behind his fellow fighters, who are embarrassed by their former comrade.

Uncomfortable questions

Excellent new shorts are also to be screened at this year’s festival.

A father (Makram Khoury) on his deathbed asks his son a question decades too late in In Overtime, written, directed by and starring Rami Yassin. Sentimentality is avoided as both father and son achieve some sort of liberation as they acknowledge what they’ve let fear prevent them from broaching all these years.

Viewers can feel the tension tightening in their shoulders as a drone buzzes incessantly in Condom Lead, invading the most intimate moments of a Gaza family’s home. In Tarzan Abu Nasser’s smart short, the occupation is intangible but smothers the intimacy between a young couple, giving insight to the siege’s profound and pervasive toll on all aspects of life.

Hajjar by Rana Khaled Al Khatib is an ode to a people who survived the uprooting of their nation. Animation and poetic images of sand moved by the wind accompany the testimony of Hajjar, an 82-year-old Nakba survivor who now lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon. She recounts her family’s forced march from Palestine, memories of the absurd and the tragic tumbled together. Bittersweet is the flavor of Palestinian memories.

Around the same age as Hajjar are Yossi Schwartz and his wife Rivka in Mirror Image by Danielle Schwartz. The couple live in Binyamina, a settlement near Haifa in present-day Israel, where Hajjar and other refugees like her have never been allowed to return.

Hajjar’s memory of 1948 and how her village was conquered is clear. More evasive are Yossi and Rivka, who both did military training with the Haganah, the principal Zionist militia that cleansed Palestinians like Hajjar from their land.

Yossi and Rivka are interrogated by Danielle, their granddaughter, about the provenance of a grand mirror displayed in their home. To Yossi and Rivka, it doesn’t matter whether that mirror was plundered or purchased from the Palestinian village of Zarnuqa. What matters is that it is now theirs — reflecting the pervading attitude among Jewish Israelis about the violent and unjust genesis of their state.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.