Category Archives: Palestinian Cinema

When I Saw You (Palestine-Jordan-UAE-Greece 2012)

Tarek (Mustafa A and his mother Gayheeda (Ruba at the refugee camp

Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) at the refugee camp

When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.

The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?

I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.

When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:

Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)

Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.

When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.

Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:

Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.


Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

Five Broken Cameras (Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands 2012)

The 'no-man's land' where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

The ‘no-man’s land’ where the olive trees were. The black objects on the ground, shaped like light-bulbs, are Israeli tear gas cartridges.

Five Broken Cameras is an engaging and well-made documentary. It’s affective in making us feel the emotions of the filmmaker who was compelled to complete it and it deserves the praise it has received and the audience interest it has attracted. The events it portrays are shocking and in a civilised world they would be one of the catalysts for change. But we don’t live in a civilised world and as yet there seems little sign that enough people in a position to change things have the courage to carry out changes.

Five Broken Cameras is a certain kind of documentary and that may also be part of the problem – though it shouldn’t necessarily be so. I’ll try to explain what I mean. The cameras of the title were each used by a Palestinian farmer to document the theft of his land by Israeli settlers illegally occupying territory in the West Bank to the west of Ramallah from 2005 onwards. The film doesn’t attempt to fill in all the history or to run through all the questions surrounding the Occupation of Palestine and the building of settlements which contravene international law as well as being (as in this case) illegal under Israeli law. Instead, it appeals directly to the viewer in terms of the obvious suffering of the Palestinians when they try to resist the bulldozers which uproot their olive trees and the Israeli soldiers and police who attack them with tear gas, arrest them and occasionally kill them during attempts to squash their protests.

Emad Burnat, the farmer at the centre of the film and the co-director (as well as the principal cinematographer, using the five cameras) was himself wounded and arrested and recorded the arrest of each of his brothers and the death of one of his comrades in the village during their protests. The co-director, writer and co-editor of the film is Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who trained partly in Paris and who lived in the Palestinian village of Bil’in for three months in 2005 when Emad began filming. But just as the film doesn’t elaborate on the history and politics of the situation, it also doesn’t explain/explore the Israeli support for the village protests – i.e. the Israeli activists who fight against the Occupation. They are shown and occasionally referenced but not in any detail. The same goes for the international supporters who travelled out to the West Bank to show solidarity. I’m not suggesting that there is anything sinister in this, but that it adds to the overall feeling that this is a very ‘personal’ film about a man and five cameras (each of which is damaged during the filming or deliberately smashed by Israeli soldiers). I suspect that this ‘personal’ approach has helped the film reach a wider audience, especially in North America, and it has been nominated for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Oscars. What is slightly sinister is the film’s depiction of the settlers – Orthodox Jews who are perhaps the least ‘humanised’ by the camera’s gaze. The Israeli settlers seen here trouble me deeply – I can’t think of anything about them that would attract my sympathy – but I don’t want to feel that way about anybody and I wonder if the filmmakers’ decision not to invite them to speak or not to attempt to present their perspective, somehow damages the strength of the film’s polemic. I’m not asking for ‘balance’ – the settlers are in the wrong, that’s the starting point. But we’ve got to try to treat them like human beings, otherwise they are trapped behind their fences in the same way that they have deliberately put the Palestinians behind a fence/wall.

Emad states at the beginning of the film that he is a ‘fella’ – a peasant attached to his land. The rough land which supports only olive trees and a few sheep/goats has been the property of the families in the village since before anyone can remember. The sight of bulldozers digging up the trees or the sheer vandalism of setting the trees on fire, even before the barbed wire has staked out the land grab by the settlers, is contrasted with the almost comical tree-hugging of one of the villagers. This is one of the most affecting shots in the film. The destruction of Palestinian olive groves is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Occupation alongside the Dividing Wall.

The one absolute plus of the film is that it celebrates the resistance over five years of the whole community in Bil’in. I’m sure that’s what stayed with the sizeable audience in the cinema. I hope the film wins the Oscar, if only because that will help more people to see the film. The more exposure that these stories get, the more chance we have of putting pressure on the Israeli government. There is one scene in the film in which we watch someone from the Israeli security forces deliberately shoot a protestor in the leg from only a few yards away. I wonder if the offender was brought to justice?

Films From the South #2: Man Without a Cellphone (Bidoun Mobile, Palestine/Israel/Fra/Bel/Qatar 2010)

Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh) uses his phone in the field by the mast as his father Salem (Basem Loulou) looks on.

This witty and sharp little film (only 78 mins) is one of several recent productions from Arab filmmakers that defy easy categorisation in institutional terms. Director Sameh Zoabi was born in a village close to Nazareth in 1975 and took a joint English and Film degree at Tel Aviv before completing a Masters in Film Direction at Columbia University in New York. This is his first feature after critical acclaim for his 2005 short film Be Quiet at Cannes. Supported by two Israeli Film Council backed funding bodies plus French and Belgian funding as well as support from Sundance and the Doha Film Institute, Man Without Cellphone pokes at the sore issue of Palestinian identity within Israel’s declared borders – Palestinian land first occupied after 1948, rather than in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In a personal statement on the Memento Films website, Sameh Zoabi tells us:

Growing up, our own communities and schools are not integrated into the larger Israeli society. After high school, many young people flock to universities and the work place where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self-discovery for young adults across all cultures, but it is particularly unique to Palestinian-Israelis, who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region, and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people.

In finding a way to explore these ‘personal stories’, Zoabi hits on a number of ideas that have also turned up in two other productions from the region, the Israeli film The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian film Rana’s Wedding. In this case it is not a Palestinian lemon orchard but an olive grove that sits next to an Israeli development. The new development is a mobile phone mast which improves the reception of the villagers (both Arab and Jewish communities) but angers the older farmers including Salem who owns the olives and believes the mast is sending out radiation to give the Arab villagers cancer and to ruin the olive crop. But his 20 year-old son Jawdat enjoys the new reception and is more interested in dating girls – Muslim or Christian Arabs, or even Jewish or Russian. The twist is that Jawdat has no real future because he keeps failing the Hebrew entrance test for university – unlike his sister who is already there. The plot requires Jawdat to be reconciled with his father in order to galvanise the community fight to have the phone tower removed and this is achieved (i.e. Jawdat does help) by that standby of Palestinian films, the need to get permission to cross into the West Bank (thus the link to Rana’s Wedding, a serio-comic film narrative about organising movement between Jerusalem and Ramallah). I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure of Man Without a Cellphone any more, suffice to say that the narrative device works well. I should also note that the interaction of the men and women (old and young) in the village is treated in ways similar to that in the Nadine Labaki film we saw yesterday.

I enjoyed the film very much. There are plenty of laughs and Jawdat and his friend Muhammad are very likeable characters. But the dig at both generational conflicts within the Palestinian communities and the unjust treatment of Arabs in Israel is clear throughout. I hope the film gets widely seen. My only concern is the length. ‘Short’ features like this often fail to get distribution or are shunned by audiences. I felt that some elements of the narrative could have been extended – but perhaps budget constraints were the problem.

Go here to see the ‘pitch preview’ of the film on the website of the Doha Film Institute.

Amreeka (US, Canada, Kuwait 2009)

Nisreen Faour as Muna (left) and Hiam Abbass as Raghda

This is a conventional family melodrama with a ‘feelgood’ ending (though a few narrative strands are left open) and plenty of laughs. There is nothing new or surprising about how the film is shot (though the filmmaker cites Mike Leigh and Robert Altman as influences on the camera style) and much of the story is predictable. But . . . everything in the film is enjoyable, it is well acted and ingeniously produced and, most of all, it tells us something about a particular experience for a group not often represented in cinema – Arab-Americans.

‘Amreeka’ is the Arabic for ‘America’ represented here by Illinois during the invasion of Iraq. The story starts in Bethlehem where Muna, the divorced mother of 16 year-old Fadi is struggling to get to her job through the Israeli roadblocks, to pay for son’s private school and look after her demanding mother. One day, unexpectedly, she receives a letter telling her that her application to travel to the US to stay with her sister has been approved. She takes off with Fadi and the narrative outlines how the two of them fare in the ‘land of the free’. Some Americans are surprisingly friendly but a minority treat them like stereotypical ‘terrorists’.

Amreeka is the first feature by writer-director Cherien Dabis who was born in Ohio to Palestinian-Jordanian parents and she has lived in Jordan as well as the US. Many of the scenes are based on her own experiences as a teenager during the first Iraq War. She had previously made a prize-winning short and acted as a writer and co-producer on the TV series The L-Word. Amreeka was possible because of various awards and sponsorship schemes involving film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin and Tribeca. In fact the production acts as a fascinating example of how specialised films manage to get made. Although clearly a low budget production, the cast has a couple of well known faces and the crew is highly experienced. The production eventually came together with final funding from a Kuwaiti company and significant Canadian input. The production included shoots in Ramallah and Chicago but I’m guessing it was the array of ‘soft money’ support from various Canadian sources that prompted the move to Manitoba standing in for small town Illinois. In the production notes on the official website Cherien Dabis tells us that they had no budget to decorate a typical Arab home in North America until they found a family in Winnipeg who had come from Ramallah and who were willing to lend their house for the shoot. They also received support from the White Castle hamburger company who kitted out a set for them – this has the added advantage of linking the film to those popular Asian-American characters Harold and Kumar.

One of the great strengths of the film is the casting of Nisreen Faour, a talented performer from Haifa as Muna. She is hugely engaging and convincing. Cherien Dabis suggests that she is at once childlike but also is able to convey pain and suffering behind her sunny smile. She is ably supported by Melkar Muallem from Jerusalem/Ramallah as Fadi. Hiam Abbass is a familiar face from both American and Israeli/Palestinian films and she plays Muna’s sister perfectly, reigning in the power that makes her so often a formidable presence. Good to see as well is Alia Shawkat who was so impressive in Drew Barrymore’s début as a director, Whip It, made at roughly the same time as Amreeka. Her father is an Iraqi actor and she has spoken about wanting to support Arab-American culture. The other cast members all contribute strongly – though I did feel that the cops in the police station were clearly Canadian not American.

Amreeka often teeters on the edge of predictability but then manages to step back, e.g. the school principal who becomes supportive to Muna almost inevitably announces that he is Polish-Jewish but this turns out to be not such a big deal. The film handles the other religion question quite carefully. We are expecting that Muna and Fadi will be targeted as ‘Muslim terrorists’ but early on there are clues to their Christianity. They come from Bethlehem which makes it possible but Raghda’s crucifix necklace confirms it. The script also has the best ‘occupation joke’ I’ve heard for a while. The film plays with the balance between how difficult life now is on the West Bank but also how difficult it can be in small-town America when the news from Iraq is on every TV screen. Raghda wants to go back to Palestine – she doesn’t understand how it has changed. Muna doesn’t really understand what is happening in America. There’s a lot everyone needs to learn.

Overall I think there is a good balance of ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ moments and it’s a melodrama so the music is good as well. I’m just left wondering why it took so long for Amreeka to reach the UK.

Good news for cinema in Palestine

The re-opening of Jenin's cinema (image by Alaa Badarneh/EPA from MSNBC web posting)

Palestine has a new cinema, making, I think, three in all in the West Bank. The cinema in Jenin, in the Northern part of the West Bank has been re-opened after more than 20 years. It closed after the first Intifada in 1987. The re-opening last week was widely reported (see the various Google listings here) and the full background to the campaign leading to the re-opening can be downloaded here. The majority of the money needed has come from a German governmental source following the participation of the documentary filmmaker Marcus Vetter, who joined local campaigner Ismael Khatib. Vetter made the documentary Heart of Jenin about Khatib’s decision to donate his child’s organs after Israeli soldiers shot dead the 12 year-old boy carrying a toy gun. Equipment suppliers offered various goods and services ‘in kind’ and there were substantial private donations led by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame.

Unlike the previous opening of a new cinema in Nablus last year, which is a mainly commercial venture, the Jenin project stresses community activities and a range of cultural programming. Palestine urgently needs both kinds of venture and it’s great to see this happening. It’s also interesting to see how the story has been reported – the cinema is reported to have 300, 350 or 400 seats depending on which report you read. But all agree that there are a range of facilities available, including an outdoor screening facility. More controversially, there does seem to be some local disquiet that the re-opening symbolises a possible ‘normalisation’ of relations with the Israeli occupation, especially if Israeli films will be shown (albeit ones which focus on the Arab experience in occupied Palestine). A report in the Lebanese Daily Star also suggests that the new operation will respect local concerns and that screenings may be offered for women only in a programme of ‘quality films’.

How the cinema was before the restoration (from the Cinema Jenin Project)

Making films in Palestine isn’t easy for a whole range of reasons – not least because most young Palestinians have never even seen a film in a cinema and antipathy to any venture that requires tacit Israeli approval (i.e. allowing equipment and personnel into the West Bank and Gaza) is understandable. It is amazing therefore that Palestinian film culture flourishes at all. I hope that the new cinema prompts more local participation.

The Time That Remains (France/Italy/Belgium/UK 2009)

The impact of the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 is felt in the Suleiman household.

What a terrific film! It is astonishing that someone could become such an accomplished and controlled filmmaker after only a handful of features spread over many years. The Time That Remains is intensely moving, very funny and incisive in its critique. It won’t please everybody and I confess that I only ‘got’ parts of it because of the investment I made in exploring writer-director Elia Suleiman’s previous film, Divine Intervention (2002).

Like the earlier film, The Time That Remains is a sharp commentary on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian town of Nazareth which was ‘incorporated’ into the state of Israel in 1948. This time the historical events provide the structure of the film that tells the story of the director’s own family. The film opens in the present but soon switches to the moment of the Arab defeat in July 1948 when Elia’s father Fouad is a young toolmaker providing the local men with weapons. The narrative then moves forward to re-visit the Suleiman family when the son (referred to as ‘E.S.’) is first a young schoolboy, then an older student and finally in the present when the director, playing himself, visits his elderly mother.

The linear narrative with clear historical references makes the film in some ways more accessible than the series of sketches which detail contemporary life in Nazareth as seen in Divine Intervention. The recognisable structure means that, at least for me, it doesn’t feel as comedic or surreal as the earlier film (which also featured Suleiman Senior), though there are moments of surreal comedy. For instance, a running gag sees a next door neighbour who routinely gets drunk – in the first few scenes dowsing himself in petrol and trying to immolate himself and in later scenes claiming that his drunken state gives him powers that enable him to pluck Israeli planes from the sky. “It’s only logical” he says. (This is a Christian Arab community, so drinking arak is not as shocking as some commentators imply.) Other tropes of the director’s style also carry over from the previous film. He himself remains a largely passive character who never speaks – though he has some interesting non-verbal interactions with his mother. In several scenes the camera is kept static while comic scenes unfold in long shot – a hospital corridor is shown from outside the building as police and doctors play a game of tag with a wounded man, pulling his stretcher trolley one way and then the other.

Apart from the opening wartime scene, which includes a comic commentary on the failures of the Arab armies in 1948 (and which disturbingly shows the Israeli soldiers dressed much like British ‘tommies’ – which many of them had been – committing atrocities in Nazareth), the film is more subtle in its critique than Divine Intervention. Or at least, that’s how it felt to me. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian seems to like the film but complains that the title isn’t explained. He suggests that it signals a kind of acceptance. I don’t agree with this and Suleiman himself offers this statement (which if it first appears elliptical, does, I think, make sense:

“The [title] of this film is a political term that describes the Palestinians who remain on their own land, who are insiders and absentees, while they remain on their own land,” Suleiman continued, “It’s a very political term which I appropriated . . . from my personal context being present and absent, someone who is an outsider and an insider, someone who does not live in one place but always departs.” (from indiewire, May 2009)

Suleiman himself is in some ways a typical Palestinian filmmaker – ‘exilic’ in his perspective as an outsider and insider. The film is essentially his own observations on the memories bestowed to him by his father and the letters and cards sent by other relatives who moved to Jordan. As is often the case, the most powerful statements against the occupation are the most personal. In school, the young ES is challenged for claiming that the Americans are ‘colonialists’ and ‘imperialists’. The (Arab) school wins a prize in a Hebrew singing competition. A screening of Spartacus in the school stimulates the children’s sense of resistance – as their teacher attempts to protect them from the film’s portrayal of sexual desire.

Suleiman’s work is often compared to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton in terms of sight gags and to Buñuel in its surrealism. This film has also prompted references to Fellini for its personal histories (i.e. like Amarcord). I think all these references can be justified but I worry that they deflect attention from Suleiman’s original, personal and highly political perspective on a specific tragedy – the occupation of Palestine.

This fascinating Facebook page on the film offers links to extracts, photos and background materials.

Here is the UK trailer:

Seen at Chapter, Cardiff Cinema 2, 29/7/10