Around the world, film festivals put focus on Palestine

As Palestinians across the world commemorated the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba — the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-48 — activists in North America and the UK launched another season of local film festivals that illustrate and emphasize the Palestinian experience.

Danya Qato, a founding member of the annual festival in Chicago, told The Electronic Intifada that “the very idea of holding a festival called the Palestine film festival is really important.”

“It challenges the narrative that there is no Palestine,” she said. “People are being shown a variety of images that they would not have access to otherwise. This is important in terms of educating everyone, including Palestinians living in the diaspora. They get to know their homeland within this intimate space.”

Organizers of Palestine film festivals — currently taking place in Houston, Boston, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Toronto and London, amongst other places, — say that they are a powerful opportunity for non-Palestinians to see images that run counter to everything they have been taught about Palestine, and that it is equally important for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to see the films as well.

“Growing up in this country, we’re inundated with the same stereotypical images of ourselves,” Qato added. “And as much as we try to subtract ourselves from these portrayals, it’s important to have this annual extraction from how we’re seen in the media.”

The Chicago festival, which recently ended its tenth season, showcased acclaimed films such as Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, described by Jimmy Johnson in a review for The Electronic Intifada as “nothing less than a masterpiece.”

Hanah Diab, a committee member of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, said that cultural initiatives like this “offer perspectives on Palestine that are not often shown in traditional media sources.”

“Much of what film festivals like ours accomplish is creating awareness of the Palestinian situation to a broader audience and that helps to combat negative stereotypes of Arabs that can be so prevalent in the mainstream media,” she said.

Diab added one of this year’s featured films, Gaza On Air, which documents Israel’s 2008-09 winter invasion of the Gaza Strip, was highly-attended and well-received by audience members, “who couldn’t see such candid footage of what occurred during [the attacks] anywhere else.”

Educating the public and the community

Hadeel Assali, founding member and former director of the Houston Palestine Film Festival, told The Electronic Intifada that the schedule opened last week with a film called Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork which is about the infamous Palestinian orange groves in Jaffa, confiscated during the Nakba. The Houston festival opened during a weekend of protests commemorating the Nakba.

“This year in particular there has been a lot of focus on educating the public — talking about what the Nakba is, what it means, and reasserting our rights. We were inspired by calls to commemorate the Nakba from Palestine,” Assali said.

“I’ve learned so much through the films that we showcase. [From this film,] I had no idea how much of a role that the orange played in the Palestinian economy before Israel was established,” she added. “For us, preserving, aligning and re-aligning our history is so important in order to understand who we are. To me personally, it’s really vital for Palestinians to attend, to see positive images of ourselves on the screen. With all that we are bombarded with [in the media], we run the risk of internalizing it ourselves.”

Assali added that people in the area are curious about the various uprisings in the Arab world and that the film festival offers a glimpse into the reality for Palestinians and Arabs that is not being shown in the mainstream media. “There are a lot of new faces at the festival this year,” she said.

Festivals a fixture in wider film community

Canadian activists and organizers in Toronto began their annual festival in 2008 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. Dania Majid, programmer and media liaison with the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, said that over the past three years, the festival has grown and its often sold-out events have “become a fixture in Toronto’s film festival scene.”

“Our audience is very diverse in terms of backgrounds and knowledge of Palestine,” Majid told The Electronic Intifada by email.

“Many Palestinians and non-Palestinians have expressed to us that everything they have learned about Palestine has been [from] the festival,” Majid said. “We work with talented members of the Toronto film community, we have dedicated sponsors who support our work, we are regularly asked to participate in other cultural and film festivals, and we have become a resource for academics, filmmakers and the media on issues related to Middle Eastern culture and outreach to the Arab community in Toronto.”

Majid added that the 2011 Toronto season launched last week with a concert by Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American hip hop MC, and that plans for summer events include outdoor screenings of films in a central park, and a public breakfast with traditional Palestinian dishes.

The Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival and the London Palestine Film Festival just ended their annual events, while Boston and Toronto are planning for their film schedules to officially begin in October. In London, festival organizers showcased engaging works by Palestinian filmmakers, including This is my Picture When I was Dead.

Majid explained that these film festivals, while entertaining and engaging for the public, are also a tool for ongoing education and solidarity for activists working for justice in Palestine.

“TPFF connects Palestinians in Canada to their homeland,” she explained. “Raising awareness [about] Palestine will assist people to watch the news more critically, better engage others on the subject or be better prepared to participate in solidarity actions.”

Danya Qato, the Chicago festival co-founder, echoed this sentiment. “These films are a great way to start the conversation,” she said. “[The film festivals] are the starting point; the ending point is liberating Palestine.”