Now in its twelfth year, the Chicago Palestine Film Festival is the longest consecutive-running annual festival dedicated to Palestinian cinema in the world. It is also how I got my start writing for The Electronic Intifada back in 2003 when the festival screenings were held in community centers in far-flung locations across the city.
In recent years the prestigious Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago has anchored the festival, putting it on the radar of Chicago’s cinephiles. But it also means that instead of bringing Palestinian films to the Palestinian community, the Palestinian community must go to the films.
In a large metropolitan area like Chicago where the Palestinian community is no longer concentrated in any one neighborhood, finding additional venues outside downtown is a major challenge, but one that may be worth the effort in terms of engaging a broader audience.
The community did come out in large numbers to the sold-out opening night of the festival two weeks ago — Annemarie Jacir’s brilliant and funny feature When I Saw You and Larissa Sansour’s ingenious and impeccably executed sci-fi short Nation Estate which imagines a vertical Palestinian state in a futuristic, sterile tower. But other screenings I attended had a sparser audience.
This year I was left missing the earlier days of the festival and the discussion sessions held in packed rooms immediately after the films. I remember films like Nizar Hassan’s Invasion sparking intense argument among the mostly Palestinian audience. While the opening night of this year’s festival featured a discussion session with Annemarie Jacir, the questions were pre-selected and the audience wasn’t given the opportunity to share their reaction to the film.
And this year’s selection of films are ripe for discussion and debate. In large part the festival featured work by filmmakers looking inward at Palestinian society and asking questions for their own community.
The biggest catch of the 2013 festival was When I Saw You. The story takes place in 1967, in the wake of the mass displacement following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the birth of the Palestinian armed liberation movement.
Director Annemarie Jacir told me in an interview:
I wanted to do something about this period that is so key to our history, but I haven’t seen a lot of fiction work about — all the hopefulness that surrounded that period, when Palestinians felt they had more agency in their own lives, that they could do something. The feda’i [fedayeen], they were people who were volunteering, they were people who thought this was a possibility. Though it was after the Naksa [the 1967 occupation and expulsion] and the trauma of that, there was still this feeling of hope.
For me, it’s maybe a question I have for that generation: what happened?
The other major feature film screened at the festival — Habibi by Susan Youssef — likewise showed no single Israeli soldier or settler (though we hear their voices during an interrogation scene, the noise of the Apache attack helicopters and see the bullets of invisible snipers). In Habibi, the Israeli occupation is vividly illustrated through the consequences it has on Palestinian society — how art and romantic love are impossibly constrained in a situation where there is no freedom.
Of course this year’s festival included documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras which show the visible manifestations of the occupation, but this film too puts the spotlight on Palestinian agency, in this case the popular resistance against Israel’s wall and settlements.
Perhaps the tendency to look inwards is because there is no longer the sense of urgency to show the world the terror of Israeli violence. Israel has already done that through its cruel bombing campaigns against Lebanon and Gaza and the deadly 2010 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
Maybe Palestinian and other Arab filmmakers no longer feel burdened with the responsibility of having to educate the wider world about the situation in Palestine, and so the moment is right for artists to ask what dispossession, occupation and apartheid has done to their society.
Art succeeds when it challenges us to rethink our assumptions and look at things in a new way. Palestine film festivals do an even greater service when they provide a forum for audiences to discuss the issues posed by the work they have just seen.