Palestinians celebrate Arab film at Gaza festival

Last Thursday marked the end of a one-week film festival in Gaza City. The Palestinian Film Forum, an independent Palestinian community organization, sponsored the event with 33 films produced in six Arab Gulf states. Ranging from documentaries to educational and short films, this is the first film festival in Gaza since Israel placed the territory under a tight blockade more than 30 months ago. Held at Gaza City’s al-Meshal Cultural Center, the films were attended by scores of Palestinians from across the tiny coastal territory.

Rajab Abu Seriya, a Gaza-based filmmaker and chairman of the forum, explained that the purpose of the festival was for Gaza to participate in the celebration of Jerusalem as capital of Arab culture for 2009. He added that it was also to introduce “the people of Gaza to other forms of cinema.”

Abu Seriya explained that the greatest difficulty was bringing the films into Gaza. “We spent about one month and a half trying to bring [the films] here. Finally we asked an independent Palestinian dignitary to bring them from Cairo.” He added that officials with the Hamas party currently in control of Gaza did not object to the festival and it was coordinated with the Ministry of Information.

Both the festival and the films shown were well received by Gazans in attendance at the festival. “I am a resident of Rafah, 18 miles away from Gaza City, however I wanted to attend the festival. This is a unique event, especially here in the Gaza Strip, where I have been raised without observing cinema or theater,” said Ismail Matter, a 20-year-old university student.

Sahar Yaghi, a media and Arabic language student, echoed these sentiments. “I think the shows are very interesting. Unfortunately, we don’t have cinemas in Gaza so it has been a very good opportunity for me and others to attend such shows.”

Gaza’s cinemas have been closed since the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. They remained shuttered after the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and were never reopened by the Palestinian Authority. Instead, many of the cinemas were either abandoned or have been turned into public libraries.

Director Ashraf al-Hawari, who has been working on documentary films for several Arab TV stations for 16 years and attended the festival, explained that there is no independent cinema production in Gaza and most of the related work in the territory is usually for local TV channels.

“Gaza-based film production is going in the right direction. For the past three years, there has been development in terms of documentary films, but there needs to be some sort of progress technically. Also, young filmmakers are in need of a specialized body that supervises such productions. I remain pessimistic toward better filmmaking in Gaza unless an official body takes care of the arts,” al-Hawari added.

Atemad Abu Tahoun, another local filmmaker, added, “I have been working in the field of filmmaking since 2007, and I have found that there are a growing number of women filmmakers. Yet Gaza has only a few actresses and if we want to have successful filmmaking, there should be more actresses.”

The festival also served to demonstrate the possibilities for Palestinian filmmaking based on the example of the Arab Gulf films. Fayeq Jarrada, a Gaza director who works with the Media Group production company, explained that “Gulf-based cinema production reflects real progress. Despite the fact that Gulf-based cinema is recent, it is quickly developing technically and artistically. Directors from the Gulf states are young people who have studied cinema in well-known international schools.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.