Interview: Education and resistance at the Ann Arbor Palestine film fest

A scene from Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka, featured at the second annual Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival.

The second annual Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival opened on Wednesday, 10 March with the feature film Pomegranates and Myrrh. Such festivals are a growing phenomenon with new ones popping up throughout the United States. The Electronic Intifada contributor Jimmy Johnson spoke with festival organizers Hena Ashraf, Ryah Aqel, Lauren Thams and Pomegranates and Myrhh director Najwa Najjar.

Jimmy Johnson: What was the impetus for the festival and what goals does it have?

Hena Ashraf: I wanted there to be another avenue to talk about Palestine in the area, and so I started envisioning a Palestine film festival right after I graduated from university. I am a filmmaker myself, and I was involved with Palestine solidarity activism as a student, and so forming a Palestine film festival was essentially combining two things I’m very passionate about.

Film, and more broadly, media, can be used as a means to educate, but also unfortunately to miseducate. Mainstream media outlets have often presented gross stereotypes of Palestinians and biased misinformation. But media can also be used as a means to educate, and so this film festival was started to essentially present truth — to showcase independent films made by Palestinians or by those in solidarity with Palestine, as a way to educate audiences by showing the actual reality and struggles of Palestinians. Thus, the film festival also amplifies Palestinian voices which are often unheard, because they are silenced or censored.

Lauren Thams: We hope that the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival will become a well-known Ann Arbor event. University of Michigan students created the festival as a means to promote the Palestinian cause to the greater Ann Arbor community through film, which is a very accessible medium. Film is inviting and nonthreatening and is the perfect way to teach and inform the audience about the Palestinian struggle and culture. Our goal as a festival is to promote and humanize the Palestinian people while also informing the community that might not have a foundation on the issues facing Palestine.

JJ: What effect does the festival have, and is intended to have, on local cinema and the local cultural sphere in Ann Arbor?

HA: Ann Arbor is a cultural hub for the state of Michigan and I think our film festival adds to the diversity of activities one can find going on in the area. The film festival has definitely gotten a lot of local attention and support from cultural patrons and from the local Arab communities.

Najwa Najjar: The festivals in the US featuring Palestinian films bring to the foreground Palestinian voices and perspectives not often seen in the US — images and stories different than what is usually seen on Western televisions. It is important to hear Palestinian stories told by Palestinians as more often than not Palestinian voices have not been heard in a conflict which involves them. Our stories and history has been told by others and it’s time we tell our own.

What would be terrific is to have mainstream media and distributors invited to the Palestinian fests in order to ensure the films a wider exposure as what is available in the mainstream film festivals. This would bring the film to even wider and more diverse audiences who might have never seen a Palestinian film, or even heard of Palestine.

JJ: There are a great many Palestine film festivals around the US and Europe, a number that is growing annually. What is the impact of these festivals on film culture inside and outside Palestine?

HA: These Palestine film festivals are part of the growing independent media movement. Independent media is what folks need to pay attention to if they want to get news media that is accurate, and if they want to see material that showcases the under-represented. And the Palestine film festivals definitely showcase stories that do not get circulated in the mainstream outlets.

NN: I’ve read and heard that several of the Palestine film fests being held in American cities have been subject to protests and that the organizers have received threats. What’s great is that this didn’t stop organizers who continued working — and now the festivals are gaining interest and the screenings at the festivals are well attended, and not just by Arab Americans. This is an indication that audiences in the US are open to new and different perspectives. And this in return works to creating more tolerant and open cultures — something needed worldwide.

JJ: It’s fair to say such festivals are organized by folks sympathetic, actively so, to the cause of Palestinian liberation. What potential does the festival have in foreign countries for exploring and supporting Palestinian liberation?

HA: This film festival is definitely organized in solidarity with the Palestinian community. We’re here to support the voices of Palestinians and in getting those voices heard to larger audiences. Ultimately, film can be used as a means of education, and then education can lead to action. We’re hoping that festival attendees gain more insight into the Palestinian experience, and that the insight they gain will encourage them to learn more about Palestine, and then to support the Palestine struggle.

NN: Even the most “free” countries have their own forms of occupation and oppression. In order not to box ourselves into a narrow corridor, Palestinian calls for resistance and freedom should be linked with others who suffer — those denied basic rights and whose existence is threatened. If the festivals can make the connection and similarities, which can be found almost everywhere whether it’s a massacre happening in Nigeria, or homeless children in San Francisco or losing your home in the [earthquake] in Chile — then the potential is enormous. A piece of Palestine can be found in each of these places.

A great many films about Palestine, especially in the documentary genre, are heavy-handed political screeds. For the purposes of the festival, where is the line between solidarity and quality? Alternately put, is it the Palestine film festival or the Palestine film festival?

HA: We have a lengthy process where we review the films that get sent to us or that we request, and from there on, based on the general consensus of the planning committee, we make our film selections. So this film festival is based on solidarity but we also want to provide quality programming for the audiences. As such, there are a great many films out there about Palestine, and so we take our time in making our selection.

This film festival is focused on Palestine, and also on film.

JJ: Where is Palestinian film in the context of Arab and Middle Eastern filmmaking?

HA: I would say that Palestinian cinema is at the forefront these days of Arab filmmaking. Palestinian cinema is very vibrant and in the past decade has gained a lot more worldwide attention. It definitely has its own unique flavor, as Palestinian cinema is edgy, experimental and it’s growing in terms of its output.

NN: It is remarkable that Palestinian cinema has survived and even more recently flourished, considering the devastation of the infrastructure, continuous invasions and destruction of property, killings, checkpoints, walls — and in a place with limited-skilled professionals, no film school or studios and of course hardly any financing and absolutely no government support. But despite these seemingly insurmountable odds filmmakers with something to say have found a way, and their films are in the foreground of Middle Eastern filmmaking, showcasing in festivals and theaters around the world, and are making in ways with alternative distribution and marketing strategies.

JJ: What are some of the highlights from this year’s festival?

HA: This year we are opening with Pomegranates and Myrrh, a film by Najwa Najjar, [was] shown on Wednesday night. On Thursday [we showcased] Amreeka by Cherien Dabis. Both of these films feature Palestinian women as the main characters, and both filmmakers are Palestinian women. On top of that a lot of our films both this year and last year, were also made by and about Palestinian women.

I think that is indicative of how much of a presence women filmmakers have in Palestinian cinema. That needs to be commended, because most film industries feature very few women; for example just this past week, a woman filmmaker finally won the award for best director at the Academy Awards. But in Palestinian cinema, many films are made by women already, and in addition, a lot of those films are about women, which is also very important as stories about women are also lacking in other film industries.

LT: Also, this year we have the opportunity to present the Oscar-nominated film Ajami that was co-directed by a Christian Arab, Skandar Copti and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. The film was nominated for best foreign language film [at the Academy Awards] and represented Israel this year at the Oscars. The film portrays the struggles of Arabs living inside of Israel. The film reveals the cultural and religious tensions that are a part of everyday life in the multi-ethnic Ajami neighborhood [of Jaffa].

JJ: What does the festival offer to casual filmgoers?

HA: The [festival] offers an attendee the chance to watch new, exciting and courageous cinema that they most likely would otherwise not get a chance to watch. They also get to see films made from the perspective of Palestinians themselves, instead of from the skewed Hollywood perspective.

JJ: How can the festival support the efforts of grassroots activists, and vice versa?

HA: The film festival is completely organized by grassroots activists, and in fact most of them are current students. Activists who want to support the festival can certainly get involved, or they can help us with our outreach and fundraising efforts. The film festival also wants to make more connections with local activist groups, and so we welcome collaborative events.

LT: [The festival] is very unique as it is primarily organized by full-time students. The festival, however, would not be successful without the support and efforts that local community members have shown. We welcome all interested people to help with the organizing.

JJ: How does cinema fit within the context of Palestinian arts and how does it compare, contrast and complement the rich legacy of Palestinian poetry?

NN: Again along the same lines Palestinian filmmakers creating film are also creating their voices. These voices are not only meant to be part of Palestinian culture but a world culture. It is a film, which happens to be Palestinian, and will be part of world culture for future generations similar to how Mahmoud Darwish is not just a Palestinian poet, but a poet read and loved worldwide — who happens to be Palestinian.

Ryah Aqel: Palestinian art is closely intertwined with the livelihood of the Palestinians, whether it is representing towns or villages of origin through embroidery or even the representation of individual and collective emotions through poetry and storytelling. Cinema is a different medium to represent what was once lost and what continues to exist. Like poetry, it has the ability to reach audiences that might not have access to other forms of Palestinian art.

JJ: Where does, or where can, Palestinian film fit within the context of Palestinian liberation?

NN: I think that it is important not to be defined as strictly a Palestinian film. Certain films which do explore “moral” issues tend to be forms of resistance. Palestinian films like those films should be able to cross boundaries and languages — to have a universal language which is understood and felt by many audiences. It is only then that the stories that show the place, the people, their stories, ideas, beliefs become part of resistance and struggle, but not just for Palestinians.

Jimmy Johnson is a supermarket employee in southeast Michigan, US. He can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.