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Film and its Voices: The DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival

[Logo for the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. Image from dcpff.tumblr.com/] [Logo for the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. Image from dcpff.tumblr.com/]

Palestinian Film and Arts Festival
September 26 - 30, 2011, Washington, DC

Last week Washington, DC joined Chicago, Boston, Houston, Ann Arbor, and a string of other cities and communities in putting on the first DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival. Over the past ten years, Palestinian Film Festivals produced by the Palestinian diaspora community have been popping up all over and have come to exhibit a new stage in Palestinian artistic expression and the showcasing of it. In the Middle East, the film industry powerhouse has always been Egypt, and while that is still very much the case, Palestinian directors, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, have started to make quite a splash on the independent circuit as of late. These filmmakers have filled a modern niche in a nation that has been involved in a constant endeavor to perfect the storytelling of its struggle for and love of life through various forms of artistic expression.

According to the festival’s organizers, “the stories told in this festival are not necessarily about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, not are they necessarily stories about Palestinians, but…[ones] that reflect the dynamic formation of a transnational identity common to Palestinians and diasporic communities more generally.” Like many of its predecessors in other locales, the DC film festival was as much a means for the local exile community to explore its own identity as it was an opportunity to share it with the communities in which they live.

The festival showcased the open-ended nature of film, featuring creative documentaries, incisive shorts, and the possibilities of social media to highlight a wide variety of artists exploring and sharing their own stories and the stories of others. This was also reflected in a diversity of audiences throughout the week, which drew from both within and outside of the Palestinian community. As one panelist pointed out, film can be “by anyone and about anyone,” and the festival functioned as a platform for expressions that moved beyond traditional narratives or political protest to present a picture not only of the collective, but of individuals within it. It is these types of stories, which question the borders between fiction and “reality” or particulars and universals, that have the power to captivate our imaginations and demand our attention in a way no news broadcast can muster.

The festival opened with the US premiere of Mahmoud Al Massad’s This Is My Picture When I Was Dead, an award-winning documentary that explores the process of discovering (or rediscovering) one’s identity through the lives and histories of others as a son comes to terms with his father’s role in the resistance and the circumstances that led to his assassination. The story of a generation discovering itself through its parents’ past speaks to a broader tension between past and present that permeates the Palestinian narrative. This tension was also mirrored in the festival program as a whole, which presented, in various iterations, the overlapping dialogues between generations, as well as those that take place between the diaspora and communities on the ground in Palestine.

The motif of fathers and sons featured prominently in the festival’s “mosaic” of shorts, which explored many universal and even quotidian themes ranging from coming of age to bullying to the sibling rivalry. Although these stories were set against multiple particulars of the Palestinian experience, from a refugee camp to the outskirts of Jerusalem to London to the road between checkpoints, their message was not the politics shaping these settings but rather the human stories emerging from within them.

The shorts culminated with On the Ground and Horizon, two brief, conceptual performance-based videos by the collaboration Anteant, formed by Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon. Deceptively simple and abstract, these videos remind us that the concepts of boundaries and power are not necessarily bound to any particular face, gender, nationality, or color. They suggest that it is not just the particulars of any given narrative or individual story that give film and art their power, but the more universal arrangements and truths that underpin them. After the screening, Husain raised the important question of how film can be not merely the means to convey a narrative to others, but a means for discovering something about oneself—so that film and art need not merely call attention to the need for justice and empowerment, but instead can become means of empowerment themselves.

Horizon (2010) from Anteant on Vimeo.

This reconsideration of the definition and intent of filmmaking, as well as the range of expression possible through the medium, was a recurring theme throughout the festival; the latter was particularly evident in the film selections focusing on women that were screened on Tuesday and Thursday. The atmosphere and general vibe at Tuesday night’s showings at Bloombars, an arts/performance space in Columbia Heights, was a striking contrast to the evenings in the spacious and more conventional space of E Street Cinema. The audience was mostly under thirty, every seat was filled, and even with slight technical delays, and a hot and humid rainy DC night having its effect on the tight space, the audience’s enthusiasm and energy remained high.

The combination of Kingdom of Women, From Palestine with Love, and Samia portrayed different historical periods, generations, and experiences, but all had in common the integral component of agency and voice in these women’s lives—not least because all three films were not only about women, but directed by them. Dahna Abourahme’s Kingdom of Women masterfully highlights the range of expression through film, coupling animation and news headlines with testimony of the women in Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon telling their stories of the 1982 Israeli invasion and imprisonment of their husbands, and for some, themselves. These women reflect back on a time when, as one put it, they did not need people to tell them that they were capable or had rights; “we just knew.” Women recount to the camera how, refusing to be housed in tents, they set fire to them; how they built their homes, block by block, with their own bare hands; how they were “writing the history of Palestine” with tatreez (traditional embroidery). They spoke of their very particular and personal stories and relationships, but in doing so they evoked the all-too-common dynamics of gender under the pressures of war and need, and how those dynamics shift with the re-entry of men into society.

Maya and Samia, the protagonists of Mahasen Nasr Eldin’s From Palestine with Love and Samia, seem polar opposites on the surface, but ultimately both tell us extraordinary love stories—one fighting to traverse the physical barrier of the occupation and the social barriers associated with what constitutes “proper” marriage, the other reflecting back on a decades-long love and partnership that played an integral role in challenging curriculum regulations imposed by an occupying power in their post-1967 Jerusalem community.

Samia from Mahasen Nasser-Eldin on Vimeo.

Like these three films, May Odeh’s Diaries, which features three women Odeh meets during her time in the Gaza Strip, also captures the poignant voices of women whose stories might otherwise not be heard. However, Odeh goes one step further: though we never see her in the film, she adds her own voice, narrating her own diary as she explores Gaza for the first time as a Palestinian from the West Bank. She gives us a glimpse of the Gaza (and Rafah) of people’s daily lives—markets, roundabouts, alleyways, and neighborhood roads—capturing not only the destruction that Gaza has undergone, but also, crucially, the life that remains. Odeh’s film is as much about communicating the thoughts and experiences of these women to the viewer as it is a “thinking out loud” exercise of her personal journey. Diaries sheds light on a population under siege, but it is also a piece that calls for serious reflection within the Palestinian community, particularly in terms of what turns of conservatism mean for women, and how they are responding to the accompanying social pressures—whether through wearing the hijab, spending time with male peers on the beach, or writing opinions that have no hope of being published by the political leadership.

Appropriately, the closing night of the festival brought together the week’s recurring motifs of self-reflection and reconsidering the possibilities of film with an event on social media, hosted by Ahmad Shihab El-Din of Al Jazeera English. The evening highlighted clips from two very different YouTube channels. The first is produced by The Freedom Theatre, a cultural center in Jenin Refugee Camp that offers young people both a space for self-expression and skills for realizing their creativity. The Freedom Theatre shorts were vivid and succinct pieces that, like many of the festival’s earlier films, dealt with familiar themes of parents and their children, patriarchy, and violence. The Freedom Theatre clips, however, laid bare the autobiographical perspectives and processes of the film-making itself: to watch these films is to witness young men and women as they make films about their fathers, and to follow men coming to terms with the repercussions of their own gender biases within their own families—and capturing it all on camera. In what was perhaps the week’s most honest combination of content and process, these pieces conveyed the acts of discovering and relating one’s identity through film from a new perspective.

In case anyone in the world still doubted the potential of social media and its stars to mobilize people, Friday night proved otherwise. Every seat in the house was filled, and the festival volunteers were turning people away by the dozens. Even after some twenty or so more were let in to sit on the stage where the interview took place, others stood outside and peeked in from the windows of Busboys & Poets. After a few of his most famous videos were shown, Fouseytube creator Yousef Erakat stepped out to a crowd of enthusiastic fans (and a few diehards). Erakat is a breakout sensation in the Arab-American community, but also more generally on YouTube, drawing from his own experiences as a Palestinian-American Muslim and knowledge of the cultural idiosyncracies of Middle Eastern families in order to realize and express his passion for theatre and comedy. Standing up to a different context of parental and community expectations and pressures, he encouraged young fans to find their own voices and to use them.

Profoundly different as they are, both the comedic stylings of Fouseytube and the powerful images from Jenin reminded us that the week’s films and events were as much about listening to others’ voices as the power of our own. The festival’s wide range of films and filmmakers all deepened and complicated conventional understandings of what it means to document and represent a conflict and its people. In the midst of high-profile, abstract political discussions about statehood and peace through negotiations, these films convey Palestinians as a people, and the negotiations of their everyday lives.

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