For the 20th year, the London Palestine Film Festival returns to the capital with a slate of films, old and new, articulating the humanity, culture and political turmoil of a marginalised people. It couldn't arrive at a more vital time for the Palestinian community at home and abroad.
Since Hamas' October 7 attack claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis, Israel has killed more than 11,500 Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza, the West Bank and various other civilian locations in the Occupied territories.
That death toll continues to grow as the Israeli government's aggression intensifies while the world watches in abject horror. "The news coming every second and the escalation of the brutality of the Israelis is going beyond imagination," says Khaled Ziada, Founder and Co-Director of the London Palestine Film Festival. Ziada was born in Gaza and came to the UK 27 years ago. His family remains in the region.
"They're still holding on to their strength; even the people I've talked to who have lost everything, from their properties to their jobs to everything they worked for, all they say is Alhamdulillah – everything will be okay."
This year's festival line-up reflects that defiant spirit of love, resilience and hope. Films that use the cinematic lens to invite audiences into life under brutal Occupation; diverse perspectives that have for far too long been shut down or shut out of artistic spaces for public consumption.
From Twelve Beds and Notes on Displacement – two films that grapple with the experience of refugees displaced by the Nakba and the Palestinian Revolution – to dramas Alam and Dégradé, and comedy A Gaza Weekend, the programme reflects the richness of Palestinian storytelling, by filmmakers from the region, in the diaspora or outside of it completely.
"There is a great number of filmmakers who always look at Palestine that [know] it has to be more represented in the world of the cinema," says Ziada. "You have a greater number of Palestinian filmmakers themselves who contribute to this scene and this culture. All the films made on Palestine reflect every corner of Palestinian life, from politics to society to economy to comedy. Whether they are fictional or documentary, they come from real life. Even when I watch Palestinian films that are fiction, every single second comes from every second of daily life."
The programme was configured before the renewed conflict in Gaza but was already spotlighting the besieged city through films like Waiting for Gaza and the book launch of Nadia Yaqub's Gaza on Screen.
Gaza and Samouni Road were added more recently to "strengthen the programme to be more related to what's happening today," says Ziada. Its opening night film, Tomorrow's Freedom, is a powerful way to start.
On Friday night, in the basement of the Barbican, film enthusiasts gathered to watch Georgia and Sophia Scott's commanding documentary about Palestine's Nelson Mandela, Marwan Barghouti, the political leader serving five life sentences in Israeli prison.
"This is the least we can do as a festival: to remind people that more than 6,000-7000 Palestinians are still hostages in Israeli prisons for the last few decades," says Ziada.
Guests were of various ethnicities, genders and ages, highlighting the growing social awareness and interest in Palestine. "Eight years ago, most audiences were people above the age of 40 and 50," he adds. "In the last few years, our audiences include more young people between the ages of 18 and 25 – it's a positive thing."
Ahead of the screening, I spoke to Stephanie, a guest who has been interested in Palestinian film for a decade. "I have learned so much from viewing world cinema so I was very excited to be invited to come and see the film tonight," she says.
Stephanie was one of the many attendees sporting a keffiyeh in solidarity: "I am conscious of where I wear a keffiyeh but it's also an aspect of white privilege in London that some of my friends would not get the same reaction as I get."
Inside the packed auditorium, the Barbican's Head of Cinema, Gali Gold, welcomed the audience with a speech highlighting the power of film. "Our conviction that films can take us into other people's worlds and, in doing so, affect and change our own, must not change," she said. "Our commitment to artists and filmmakers to bring their multiple works to an audience and create that magical encounter, must not change."
Yet, this year's festival hasn't been without some pushback. With presentations at various locations across London, including Curzon Hoxton, the Garden Cinema and the ICA, Ziada admits the experience hasn't "been amazing" with concerns raised about the tumultuous timing. "These concerns were resolved quickly," he says. Festival producer Atika Dawood used her opening night introduction to draw more attention to the attempts at censorship of Palestinian art and culture.
"Attending and organising film festivals should not be works of activism, we should not have to deal with security issues and red tape; films should be expanding our knowledge and transporting us to other worlds," Dawood said. "Unfortunately, due to the nature of the context, we have to fight for our position on screens around the world. Since the beginning of the onslaught six weeks ago, politicians in this country and across the West have tried to criminalise support of Palestine.
This intimidation bled into "cultural institutions leading to self-censorship, paranoia and fear about what they can programme within those spaces," she added. "We urge cultural workers, institutions [and] directors to not be intimidated by the protests, and to continue to allow artistic expression, free speech, safe spaces and all the things that they stand for."
During the post-screening Q&A, the filmmakers revealed that attempts to present their documentary at mainstream festivals (after its premiere at Sheffield International Documentary Festival in 2022) or secure broadcast placement had failed.
"We have two different sales agents looking to get it onto television, on streaming platforms, and we thought we might not get into the big Sundance Film Festival, but we'd get into some – we've been nowhere," they said. "I think the topic is bloody important and we are shocked that it's not been seen."
It's a damning indictment of festival curation. It's also indicative of a mainstream culture that has spent far too long marginalising and maligning topics in Palestinian, and Arab cinema in general, deemed too controversial by so-called progressive programmers. That the London Palestine Film Festival exists is a robust and resonant reminder to resist the cowardly position that seeks to silence Palestinian voices and stories.
To provide a space for people willing to look past the bad Arab tropes that have plagued Hollywood, Israeli and Western cinema and discover art that celebrates and empathises with a people whose humanity runs as deep as any others.
The London Palestine Film Festival runs until November 30, 2023. Tickets and more information about the festival can be found at LPFF's official website.
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN
Follow her here: @HannaFlint