Buried Cinema: Films from Palestine

Our December film, Amreeka–Arabic for “America”–is about a Palestinian woman who transplants herself and her teenaged son to a small town in the U.S. But it’s not really a Palestinian film in the normal sense. Instead, its national identity is blurred. The writer, producer, and director, Cherian Dabis, was born in Nebraska to a Palestinian mother and a Jordanian father. Five production entities and grant givers funded the project, none Palestinian. Two are based in the U.S., two in Canada. The film itself has won prestigious awards at Cannes, Stockholm, and Sundance, and will surely be nominated for a best foreign film Oscar next year–though it will be hard to say from which country.

Palestinian cinema lacks the sturdy history of, say, Iran’s, whose film industry dates back to the very start of the 20th century. The first known Palestinian film is a 45-minute silent documentary whose title seems to be in doubt, by Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan. It traces the visit of Arabian King Ibn Saud to Palestine in 1935. Sirhan followed this film with The Realized Dreams, about the plight of Palestinian orphans. In 1945 Sirhan established a production studio in Jaffa which made several feature films, among them Holiday Eve and Storm at Home. Sirhan’s studio was abandoned in 1948 when bombs fell on Jaffa.

In the 1960s the PLO produced most Palestinian films with funding from Fatah and other organizations. More than 60 Palestinian films, mainly documentaries, were made during the sixties and seventies. A Palestinian film festival was founded in Baghdad in 1973. London-educated Mustafu Abu Ali was Palestine’s leading filmmaker in the 1980s. Although he directed over 30 films, only one escapes obscurity, The Return to Haifa, which some film historians call the first Palestinian film ever made–they probably mean the first Palestinian theatrical film. Return to Haifa is an adaptation of a novel by one of the most revered Palestinian novelists, Ghassan Kanafani, a Marxist who wrote fiercely about the expulsion of half a million Palestinians to make room for arriving Jews.

This pushing around of Palestinian people, called the Naqba (disaster), disrupted and suppressed local filmmaking. Palestinian cinema, like all national cinemas, depended on a stable assemblage of technicians and artists, as well as professional apparatus for financing and promotion, which the Naqba made nearly impossible. Shortly after this tumultuous period, Sirhan helped produce the first Jordanian feature, The Struggle in Jarash, (1957), while another Palestinian, Abdallah Ka´wash, directed the second Jordanian feature film, My Homeland, My Love, in 1964. The melancholy titles are mirrors on the times.

Meanwhile, Palestinian films, though few in number, needed protection–namely an archive. The PLO accomplished this in 1982. Sadly, when the PLO had to vacate Beirut, the archive, which had been stored in a hospital, “disappeared.”

The U.S. had to wait until 1996 to see a Palestinian film. This was Chronicle of a Disappearance, put together by Elia Suleiman, an Israeli Arab film director and actor. It’s about Suleiman’s return to the West Bank after years of exile. It utilizes Suleiman’s family and nonprofessional actors and crew. It attracted world-wide attention, and won awards at the Venice Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival.

Sketches of contemporary Palestinian film directors, brought over from Wikipedia  without quotations marks and ellipses for ease of reading:

Michel Khleifi (1950- ) is a Palestinian film writer, director and producer. He emigrated from Israel in 1970 and now resides in Belgium. He has directed and produced several documentary and feature films and received several prestigious awards including the International Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Shell at San Sebastián International Film Festival in 1987 for his film Wedding in Galilee.

Rashid Masharawi, (also: “Rashid Mashrawi”) was born in Gaza in 1962 to a family of refugees from Jaffa. He grew up in the Shati refugee camp. Masharawi lives and works in Ramallah, where he founded the Cinema Production and Distribution Center in 1996 with the aim of promoting local film productions. He also sponsors a mobile cinema, which allows him to screen films in Palestinian refugee camps. Other projects include the annual Kids Film Festival and workshops on film production and directing.

Filmworks has shown one film by a Palestinian, Paradise Now, about two Palestinian youths who decide to become suicide bombers. This film was written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad who was born in Nazareth in 1961.

Writing this piece has been a sad undertaking. Every country, every political unit, has hundreds of aspiring filmmakers. Even in prosperous countries like the U.S., they face obstacle heaped upon obstacle. Imagine what life is like for a young filmmaker growing up in the occupied territories burdened by poverty, oppression, and bigotry. Imagine what it’s like to pour your soul into a feature film which goes un-reviewed, which doesn’t even merit a single-sentence plot summary from the imperious imdb.com. Fortunately, the film Amreeka has jumped over these ominous hurdles and has made its way to many viewers around the world.