Watch (and vote!): Alaa Al Ali’s “Letter to Ahmad” nominated for best short film in online competition

The Palestinian solidarity movement celebrated the good news today that Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras — which chronicles Bilin village’s grassroots struggle against the wall and Israel’s brutal repression of the movement — was nominated for the prestigious Academy Award for best feature-length documentary. But the Oscars aren’t the only venue where Palestine cinema is being honored.

Palestinian writer and filmmaker Alaa Al Ali’s short film Letter to Ahmad is currently nominated for the Dragon Award for New Talent and the corresponding audience choice award (you can vote here until 24 January). According to its website, the Dragon Award, a project of the Göteborg International Film Festival, is the world’s largest online short film competition.

Produced in 2011, Al Ali’s poetic film weaves together footage of one of Lebanon’s refugee camps with a narrated letter from one of the camp’s residents to his childhood friend Ahmad, who now lives in Europe. The narrator informs Ahmad about the changes in the camp and the fate of mutual acquaintances, and poses existential questions about exile.

Letter to Ahmad strikes me as an artistically distinct cinematic tribute to and contemporary re-imagining of Ghassan Kanafani’s classic “Letter from Gaza.” In Kanafani’s 1956 short story, the narrator addresses similar themes of flight and belonging in his missive to a friend living in California, far away from Gaza’s refugee camps.

Al Ali, who was born in Lebanon and has spent most of his life there, said over email that Letter to Ahmad is the first in a series of shorts to be distributed over the Internet. A second video is currently in production.

Al Ali is part of Studio Camps (Studio al-Mukhayamat), which describes itself as an independent, grassroots collective of Palestinian and Lebanese artists whose inspiration and work comes from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. (Find Studio Camps’ work on their YouTube page.)

Al Ali also worked as assistant director for Marco Pasquini’s documentary Gaza Hospital, which recalls the history of the hospital which witnessed the bloody Lebanese civil war, Israeli invasion and 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, and which was later destroyed during the “War of the Camps.”

An archive of Al Ali’s writing (in Arabic) can be found here and an English-language translation of his fascinating profile of Palestinian cinema pioneer Ibrahim Serhan can be read here.


Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.