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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Palestinian Cause in Palestinian Cinema

Palestinian Cause Palestinian Cinema
Lebanese of Palestinian origin May al-Masri shoots parts of her new film “Kay la Nansa” (So We Don’t Forget) at the Dhayra Lebanese-Israeli border point 30 May 2000. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP

Nabil Mohamed

Like the rest of Arab cinema, the early start of Palestinian cinema, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, was only archived in printed form. This archive chronicles the beginnings of cinema in Palestine, which is considered to have launched the film industry in several Arab countries. Pioneers of Palestinian cinema worked in the early productions in Egypt and Syria.

The Lama brothers, Badr and Ibrahim, are among the first filmmakers in the Arab world. The Chile-born Palestinians moved to Egypt to produce their first film, Kubla fil Sahara in 1926,[1] which most Arab cinema references consider the first Arabic feature film. The Lama went on to produce over 60 long and short films through the production company named Condor Films that they founded in Egypt.

The Lama brothers’ films did not revolve around Palestine but presented mostly Egyptian and general Arab concepts. Therefore, when discussing Palestinian cinematic history, the Lama brothers are only mentioned as the founders of Arab cinema, whose origins are Palestinian.

Palestinian cinema actually began in 1935 with Ibrahim Hassan Sarhan, who produced a short 20-minute documentary film about Saudi Crown Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz‘s visit to Palestine. Sarhan made several other films until the 1948 Nakba, after which he became a refugee in Jordan. According to an interview with Iraqi filmmaker Kassem Hawal, Sarhan later moved to the Shatila camp in Lebanon and worked as a tinsmith.

Palestinian Cinema Post-Nakba

The Palestinian cause became the primary subject of Palestinian cinema after the 1948 Nakba. Even at present, it is rare to find a Palestinian film revolving around anything else. After the occupation, cinema was not only an art form that evolved with the development of tools and professionalisation of amateurs, but it was also a tool necessary to document the confrontation as it passed through different stages. Cinema was contemporary to all these stages, as each had its influence.

While the refugee crisis had grown in importance, camps and the issue of asylum had become essential components of Palestinian cinema. Clashes played a crucial part in Palestinian cinema in times of armed revolts and intensified military operations.

Some filmmakers were convinced that another cinematic language was possibly more influential and universally accessible. A language, at times free of blood and bullets. As such, Palestinian cinema evolved into philosophical and intellectual cinema.

Mainly due to the displacement of the first Palestinian filmmakers following the Nakba, it took many years for this development to become visible in Palestinian cinema. Palestinian filmmakers found themselves either in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as refugees or in non-Arab foreign countries. Hence, they could no longer produce movies, as they had lost their tools and production companies at home.

It was challenging for these filmmakers not to be influenced by the political orientation of their host countries. For example, 1964’s Watani Habibi, produced in Jordan and directed by Palestinian Abdallah Ka’ush, presented the Palestinian cause as a conflict between the Jordanian and Israeli armies.[2] The film received much criticism, so much so that film critic Hassan Abu Ghneima considered it a ‘joke.’

Palestinian Revolution Cinema

Palestinian Cause Palestinian Cinema
The IV Tashkent International film festival of Asian, African and Latin American countries. A Palestinian film-maker Samir Nimer, left, awarded the prize and certificate for the documentary “Kafir Shuba”. A. Varfolomeev / Sputnik / Sputnik via AFP

In 1965, The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, marked the start of the armed Palestinian revolution. Cinema of that time became known as the ‘Palestinian Revolution Cinema.’ A group of cinematographers and directors who took it upon themselves to produce revolution films rose to fame. They founded the Palestine Film Unit, which delivered a film collection documenting the Palestinian struggle.

The list of films includes No to a Peaceful Solution, produced by Mustafa Abu Ali, Salah Abu Hanoud, Hani Jowharieh and Sulafa Jadallah in 1968, as well as 1971’s With Soul, With Blood by Mustafa Abu Ali, who was dubbed the founder of Palestinian revolution cinema. The Palestine Film Unit produced films documenting the armed movement resisting occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian diaspora.

Like Fatah, most revolutionary and political coalitions in Palestine established media and film units to produce revolutionary cinema. The Popular Front, the General Command and Democratic Front produced dozens of films, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most Palestinian feature films were produced in neighbouring Arab countries. Actors, directors and writers were, therefore, sometimes non-Palestinians. It is difficult to determine what qualifies as a Palestinian or Arab film when it is themed around the Palestinian cause and its cast includes Palestinian and non-Palestinian actors. Nonetheless, these films dealt with various themes centred around resistance, the right to return and the tragic life of refugees in the diaspora camps.

Palestinian cinema has, however, developed its tools and themes beyond cliches. Since the 1990s, Palestinian cinema has enjoyed a global presence beyond the Arab world, where it had been stuck for many decades.

Modern Palestinian Cinema

Some Palestinian filmmakers found refuge in European countries, where they worked and studied cinema. They tried taking their projects out of the realm of ordinary revolutionary Palestinian cinema to create an entirely new kind of cinema. Some of these films were independent, while cultural and art institutions funded others.

Michel Khleifi

Palestinian Cause Palestinian Cinema
Carthage Film Festival’s president of jury, Palestinian director Michel Khleifi, arrives for the opening ceremony of the 28th edition on November 4, 2017 in Tunis. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Michel Khleifi is an influential Palestinian independent filmmaker. Media often describe Khleifi as the pioneer of Palestinian cinema. His journey began after studying theatre in Belgium, where he directed his debut film Fertile Memory in 1980. This documentary tells the story of two Palestinian women who resist occupation by not giving up their land. The film was well reviewed.

In 1987, Khleifi directed Wedding in Galilee — a fictional work depicting the story of a wedding in a Palestinian village. In exchange for waiving the curfew at the time of his son’s wedding, the village’s mayor agrees to invite Israeli soldiers to the event. The film was distributed internationally and won multiple global awards, such as the Golden Shell at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 1987 and the Tanit d’Or at Carthage Film Festival in the same year.

In the 1990 film Canticles of the Stones, which was well received, the cause was present through multiple Palestinian characters — some coming from abroad or holding on to their land, while others had recently been released from Israeli prison. The film shows how the stolen land brings the different characters together.

In 2009, Khleifi directed Zindeeq about his hometown Nazareth. The film covers the same concepts he presented in previous films, from retaining land to the right of return. The film won Best Feature Film at the 2009 Dubai Film Festival.

Elia Suleiman

Palestinian Cause Palestinian Cinema
Palestinian film director and actor Elia Suleiman attends a press conference for the film “It Must Be Heaven” at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2019. Laurent EMMANUEL / AFP

Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman stands out among his peers because of the particular style he adopted, which was uncommon for most Palestinian and Arab directors. Comic symbolism characterises Suleiman’s style as he tries to present everything – even tragedies – in a light comedic way. As a director, Suleiman depends on visual cues and framing to deliver his message, at times, at the expense of dialogues.

In his younger years, Elia Suleiman – born in Nazareth – was accused of affiliation to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which led to his arrest by the Israelis. Later, Suleiman lived in several European countries and eventually settled in New York. He spent his time between New York and Palestine, to which he had always returned to shoot and produce his films.

Suleiman’s 1990 debut film Introduction to the End of an Argument gave him a platform at international film festivals. The film, which presents Palestine’s image in Western media and how it contrasts with Palestinians’ actual lives, won the Best Experimental Film award at the Atlanta Film Festival.

In 2002, Suleiman directed Divine Intervention — a milestone in the history of Palestinian cinema. It tells a story of love under occupation, won both the Jury and FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and received a host of other global awards.

His 2009 film The Time That Remains chronicles the Palestinian cause using lighthearted black comedy and was nominated for awards at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals. His film It Must Be Heaven, produced in 2019, received worldwide recognition in dozens of galleries and festivals and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Elia Suleiman’s films are virtually devoid of the weapons, violence and bloodshed that permeate the reality of life in Palestine — a distinguishing trait, that also makes his films a target for criticism. Many who experienced the Palestinian crisis and were harmed by the occupation did not welcome the comedic language and symbolism. Suleiman’s style, however, has moved the cause to global screens on numerous occasions, allowing viewers to see Palestine differently.

Hany Abu-Assad

Palestinian Cause Palestinian Cinema
Palestinian-born director Hany Abu-Assad presents his AGICOA’s Blue Angel Award he received at the 55th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin 19 February 2005. Hany Abu-Assad has won the prize for the best European film for his movie “Paradise Now”. MICHAEL KAPPELER / DDP / ddp images/AFP.

The films of Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad have dealt with a number of problematic issues in Palestine, most notably Israeli intelligence and martyrdom. The majority of his films were characterised by engaging screenplay, focussing on meaningful and symbolic long dialogues.

His most famous film, 2005’s Paradise Now, won the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Golden Globes. It was the first and only Arab film to ever receive this award and was nominated for the same category at the Oscars. The film received the award for best film in the Netherlands in the year of its release.

Omar, produced in 2013, tells the story of lovers separated by Israel‘s West Bank barrier. The film was held in high regard, especially since most of its actors were Palestinians.

Abu-Assad’s latest film, Huda’s Salon, produced in 2021, was heavily criticised by Palestinians and officials because of a scene depicting a naked woman. This criticism reflects the current state of Palestinian cinema, which no longer exclusively follows the wishes of the public and resistance organisations but is at times at odds with these audiences. Some of Abu-Assad’s films received more criticism from Palestinians than from Israelis.

In conclusion, Palestinian cinema no longer follows a rigid style but has evolved into an open cinema, capable of accepting various ideas and employing different tools. This evolution has guaranteed the global presence of Palestinian cinema and thereby taken it out of the narrow domestic arena, which denied it its ability to address non-Arabic speakers for decades.

[1] Tawfeeq S., The Story of Cinema in Egypt, V. 221, Dar Al-Hilal for Publishing, 1969, Egypt.

[2] Ibrahim B., Palestine in Arab Cinema, Syrian Ministry of Culture, 2005, Damascus.