The short films featured at this year’s Chicago Palestine Film Festival neatly demonstrate the wide spectrum of Palestinian cinema and cinema on Palestine. The shorts range from a contemplation of the muloukhiye dish (don’t make the mistake of comparing it to spinach!) to a young Palestinian boy in America trying to join the ranks of the cowboys in his neighborhood’s play of “cowboys and Indians.”
Showing with Leila Khaled, Hijacker the opening night of the festival, Make A Wish stands out amongst the shorts. Beautifully shot on 35mm on location in Ramallah, Cherien Dabis’s film tells the story of a girl scrambling to buy a particularly attractive birthday cake from the bakery. Like children making mischief anywhere, the girl schemes to get money by pestering her mom, selling gum in the streets, and then taking her sister around the souq pretending she’s blind and asking for money for her surgery.
All the while, news reports on the conflict are heard in the background at the girl’s home as well as in the shops. Gunfire rings out as the girls run home in the dark to the more imminent danger of their mother’s anger as they have not returned when they were told to. Indeed, their mother scolds them as soon as they arrive to the house, and as she is pulled inside the girl drops the cake. The family sings a somber “Happy Birthday” in Arabic to a portrait of the girls’ father, with candles protruding from the smashed cake. Though she had been behaving like a clever girl anywhere in the world, because she is Palestinian, her goal was not to satisfy her own personal whims but to properly pay tribute to her missing father (who is presumably in prison but in another household could have been a martyr).
Another short fictional film centered on a child is Kemo Sabe, which portrays a young son of Palestinian immigrants trying to assimilate into 1970s America. The other children in the neighborhood play “cowboys and Indians,” the brown-skinned children on one side and the white kids with blue jeans and belts on the other. After stealing a pair of his brother’s jeans and receiving a cowboy belt (complete with a Texas-shaped buckle) purchased on credit by his father, the boy, wearing a kuffiyeh for flair, completes the stated requirements for membership amongst the ranks of cowboys. However, the ringleader only allows him to join their huddle amongst urging by the children on the “Indian” side. The boy is allowed in the cowboys’ company but is greeted with only cold stares. The film smartly concludes with the quote from James Baldwin’s 1965 essay “The American Dream and the American Negro,” that as a child, “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians and, although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Filmmaker Larissa Sansour has two of her pieces featured during the festival. Happy Days is a re-imagining of the classic American sitcom’s theme song, only set in Palestine. We see images of the wall, Orthodox Jews stridently walking past Palestinian women in Jerusalem’s Old City streets, and Israeli soldiers mugging for the camera. Sansour stars as “the Palestinian” and the “Israeli Army” stars as “itself.” However, the punchline never comes, and the short is bewildering rather than thought-provoking.
More successful is Sansour’s Soup Over Bethlehem (Mloukhieh), in which a group of Palestinians in Bethlehem discuss the unique Palestinian stew mloukhieh as they eat a serving of it. One in group jokes that buying the dry mloukhieh leaves in Ramallah is like scoring drugs, and when he did manage to purchase it from a guy who pulled a bag of it out of his pants pocket, he asked, “Abu Ahmed sent you here, right?” They discuss the history of the food — including how it was banned by a 14th century Egyptian sultan because of its supposed aphrodisiac quality.
“Do they eat dry mloukhieh in Israel?” one in the group poses. “Have they managed to confiscate this dish as well?” someone seconds, referring to how traditional Palestinian foods such as felafel and hummous have been appropriated into Israeli cuisine. No one has heard of Israelis eating the gooey green stew, and the conclusion to the tangent of conversation is, “So it’s still in our hands. It’s our national dish.”
However, not even mloukhieh is immune from the Israeli occupation. The wall being built in the West Bank has made it more difficult to obtain the leaf, and the group reflects how the wall and the checkpoints in the West Bank have forced the various isolated population centers to grow their own produce instead of trading across cities as was custom. Overall, Soup Over Bethlehem (Mloukhieh) pays tribute to something treasured in Palestinian culture and without a heavy hand, illustrates how occupation affects even something as simple as this tasty leaf.
Another nice contemplative short is Belgian filmmaker Fabio Wuytack’s Two Hands, which paints a portrait of the Palestinian cardiac surgeon Mohammed Tamim, currently studying pediatric surgery in Belgium. Tamim’s world-weary voice narrates how there are only four cardiac surgeons for the West Bank and Gaza’s 3.5 million-strong population. Therefore, he and others in the field of medicine work around the clock, and there have been times when he hasn’t seen his wife for as long as a week due to his workload. “It affects you,” he says, “but thank God my wife is also Palestinian.”
“You are not in the war but you are in the war,” Tamim explains as he watches leaves float in a lake. He calmly recalls the time when he was attending to one patient while a young man screamed in another room, and there was nobody to rush to his aid. “You just have two hands,” Tamim matter-of-factly states. The screaming young man had been shot by Israeli fire while sitting in his living room. “It’s a crime, I think. But this is it,” Tamim says.
Wuytack shows Tamim scrubbing up for surgery, but we also see him skipping rocks across the lake with his young son. The artistic imagery is befitting for Tamim’s poetic words. Tamim’s son takes smooth rocks from his hands as Wuytack briefly cuts to grainy video of young Palestinians at a demonstration throwing rocks at an off-camera target. “I will teach him to love Palestine, to love the human being,” Tamim explains. Indeed, as much as those youths throwing rocks, Tamim’s work is part of the struggle. Several years from now, Tamim says, “I think I will be among my people trying to heal their wounds. This is my dream.” Wuytack’s film honors a man who embodies the sumoud, or steadfastness, that has carried the Palestinians through sixty years of conflict.
The short films will be screened at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, April 14-26.
Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada.