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“You can’t sit with us,” reads a yellow ribbon draped around a row of red sofas, an ironic message considering that it fronted the entrance to the 8th edition of the annual “Reel Palestine” film festival in Dubai. Even more ironic in view of the UAE‘s and Israel’s warming relations, which have once again pushed Palestinians to the margins.
The film festival, which is dedicated to Palestinian films, took place at Cinema Akil from January 29 to February 6 and showcased several films, features, and shorts produced by filmmakers in Palestine and the diaspora.
The films mostly highlight stories of Palestinian struggle; a struggle against occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, as recognized by global rights organizations, most recently Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Among the films on display at the festival was “Waiting for Gaza,” a stunning and compelling documentary directed by Guillaume Kozakiewiez and based on the story of twins Arab and Tarzan Abu Nasser who recreate a mental Palestine in exile. Waiting for Gaza follows them to the heart of their twinship, of their history, of what both haunts them.
Another film, “Layl,” directed by Academy Award-winning writer, director, and art director Ahmad Saleh, tells the story of a woman whose son disappeared years ago. The short animation centers on longing, loss, and sleeplessness, highlighting suffering that is still felt in Palestine and in the diaspora.
There were a few films on the subject of the Nakba, of 1948 when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and villages. “Jaffa, Mother of the Stranger,” directed by Raed Duzdar is one example. Based on the oral histories of Palestinian elders from Jaffa, the documentary tells the stories of those who were forced into exile, their memories of Palestine before the arrival of Israeli colonialists, and what became of their lives after 1948.
But these stories are only a small glimpse of what has become of the Palestinian struggle at large. The festival is a model for increasing Palestinian voice, awareness, and documentation of the struggle on the ground. Through this festival, Palestinians continue to tell their own stories while educating others.
For nine days, this temporary cultural production center in Dubai hosted an array of films, documentaries, and shorts about struggles on the ground in Palestine. Nine days that coincided with Israel’s president’s first visit to the UAE on February 2. Nine days where Palestinians were barely spoken about in official corridors but were present. Nine days where Palestinians told their stories despite the oppressive climate aimed at crushing their culture, and their resistance. Nine days of solidarity from Palestinians to Palestinians. And nine days that were only made possible by independent funding and Cinema Akil.
Film critic Ola Al Sheikh told Fanack that “Reel Palestine” film festival attendees have always been large. “No doubt, more people visited this year as a message of solidarity,” she added. Her statements struck a chord with a number of people we spoke with, who all agreed that there are some things they can’t express out loud.
Amal (not her real name), a 28-year-old Palestinian who has lived in the Emirates for over 15 years, told Fanack that to her the festival felt like a “glimmer of hope” in a place that otherwise “makes us feel like they don’t really care about us.” Especially in the wake of talks between the UAE and Israel, and despite a burgeoning Palestinian presence in the country, she said: “At least we were able to watch our movies and have access to the booths only dedicated to Palestine for several days.”
A 22-year-old Palestinian student in Dubai echoed Amal’s statements. She told Fanack that the festival was “an escape” from the same “hegemonic discourse” she hears on an almost daily basis. “It is also a learning opportunity,” she said. “It is about learning about the Palestinian struggle for liberation.”
Because “Palestinian directors haven’t reached the luxury of creating imaginative, fiction movies yet, mirroring reality as an art form is highlighted through Palestinian cinema more than any other,” Al Sheikh added. “And this is what helps the newer generation understand the context of their existence in exile.”
The UAE’s hosting of the festival is significant given the context of the times. With many films on display underscoring the Israeli occupation, the siege of Gaza, and other stories, the festival was the UAE’s attempt at highlighting an aspect of the struggle that was missing from the official narrative. Nevertheless, the Gulf nation is playing a role in legitimizing Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid, and in furthering the oppression of the Palestinian people, many attendees told Fanack. “My feelings are mixed,” said Malaka*, who was sitting in the audience. “I was sad because these films remind me of the grave injustice that has been happening in Palestine and the fact that I can never return to my country. And all of these feelings are happening as the Israeli president visits the UAE.”
The United Arab Emirates is on the road to situating itself as a cultural hub in the region. This is mainly accomplished by bringing in artists and performers from around the world. It imports culture and even creates space for narratives that run contrary to its policies and politics in an attempt to balance the scales, despite the overwhelming evidence that this balance is heavily tilted in favor of Israeli political and economic interests, and of course, its own, another attendee told Fanack.
But Al Sheikh sees matters differently. “The cultural shift is mostly due to all eyes being on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the moment. There’s a decision for more openness in the Kingdom as a whole, and of course, the cultural scene is part of that. We are talking about a country which had no cinema theaters being turned to one which is supporting film productions. This is related to art mirroring reality always, whether it was the factual face of reality or one they want to show,” she said, and the UAE is following suit.
With that in mind, the drive to support the arts is important in understanding the political logic that drives policies. Gulf countries have forged alliances with Israel, privileging economic and political interests over a united struggle against an oppressive regime. What’s most troubling is the larger context of this cultural focus. It is indeed a means to pay lip service to the Palestinian struggle, but it is not an end in itself.