Palestinian cinema at the Bethlehem Cultural Festival sets the scene to shatter stereotypes

Palestine Cinema at Bethlehem Cultural Festival
5 min read
29 November, 2022
Sarah Agha and Wisam Al Jafari are co-curating a Palestinian short film screening at the Bethlehem Cultural Festival. Here, Sarah tells The New Arab about the importance of Palestinian cinema and the ethos behind the festival.

The Bethlehem Cultural Festival is a refreshing, festive opportunity to learn about the history and people of Palestine through the lens of arts and culture. “From music and dance to film screenings, book launches and food tasting, there will be something for everyone,” says Melissa Scott, the festival director.

The varied programme kicks off with a ‘knafeh and arak tasting’ in London and closes with a screening of Palestinian cinema in Glasgow, co-curated by myself and Wisam Al Jafari. Other highlights include theatrical production, The Camp’s Visit by the Alrowwad Dabka Dance Group and the simultaneous lighting of the Christmas Tree in Glasgow with the tree in Manger Square in Bethlehem (Bethlehem is twinned with Glasgow hence the collaboration and choice of location).

To shine a light on Palestinian heritage, the festival has invited various artists from Palestine to share their work and insights such as Malak Matter from Gaza and Abdelfatteh Abusrour from Alrowwad in the Aida Refugee Camp. Abusrour often speaks about the beauty of cultural resistance to encourage and empower children to use creative, artistic mechanisms to resist their conditions.

"The films are a reminder never to underestimate the power of film and that Palestine is not a hopeless cause"

Food and music might seem trivial to some, but they can be incredibly powerful in understanding what it means to be Palestinian - to claim, remember and celebrate that identity.

I am delighted to be contributing to the festival by showcasing five short Palestinian films at the Glasgow Film Theatre on 4th December. The line-up will start with Siri Miri by Luay Awwad about two restless teenagers in Bethlehem using Siri to quell their boredom. This will be followed by The Crossing from Ameen Nayfeh about three siblings who attempt to visit their grandfather on the other side of the separation wall.

Co-curator Wisam Al Jafari is bringing his piece By The Sea about one woman's fight to keep her family together and create a semblance of normality despite unusual circumstances. “Through films, I always try to reflect reality, to show my community as it is and to break the stereotype of the Palestinian.” Wisam explained, “I try to show the true picture of my daily life in a refugee camp… with real stories or personal experiences… hope, resistance, love, pain, happiness and sadness.” By the Sea tells the story of a woman preparing a birthday cake for her husband who is being chased by soldiers.

Still from 'By the Sea'
Still from the 'By the Sea' by Bethlehem Cultural Festival co-curator Wisam Al-Jafari

When asked why Wisam chose to write a female lead in his story, he reminded me that, “the Palestinian record is full of names of Palestinian women who have left a clear mark. Women have participated effectively, from the beginning, in various stages of the struggle and at all levels.”

We will also screen Strange Cities Are Familiar by Saeed Taji Farouky. This short, which stars the prominent actor Mohammad Bakri, is a story about memories, guilt and resilience inspired by the writing of Mourid Barghouti and the director's personal experiences. The final film is the showstopping and (currently very topical) Maradona’s Legs by Firas Khoury about two young boys during the 1990 World Cup desperately searching for the last missing sticker in their football album.

These films demonstrate how the Palestinian people, in spite of ever-increasing restrictions, discover new and inventive ways to elevate themselves from the confines of their situation, to tell their stories and raise their voice.

For a Western audience, many of the films will present an entirely different image of Palestine from what they see in the media. Despite the long-standing occupation, the characters do not succumb to hopelessness and have found ways to embrace the difficulties, using their experience as fuel for powerful, meaningful, memorable storytelling.

This shattering of stereotypes is significant. When I was younger, to me as a member of the diaspora, Palestine meant loss, injustice and displacement. But now through exploring Palestinian heritage, I understand Palestine is so much more than that.

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There always has been a rich history of culture, art and civil society - the music, the recipes, the tatreez and a long tradition of poetry and literature. I was fascinated to discover that the first female photographer in the Arab world was Palestinian - Karimeh Abbud born in 1893 in Bethlehem. And one of the Arab world’s earliest films was shot in Palestine in 1935 by Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan who went on to found the Arab Film Company in 1945. Unfortunately, this momentum and progress was brutally cut short in 1948 due to the destruction and devastation of the Nakba.

But the practice of filmmaking has re-emerged and continues to thrive today with talented writers, gifted directors, and skilled cinematographers (and all their crew!) humanising the struggle with their art. We want to show this work on screen for as many people as possible.

The films are a reminder never to underestimate the power of film and that Palestine is not a hopeless cause. The spirit, joy and steadfastness of the people shines through in all of these films, each in a different, unique way. Palestinians have a voice - let’s listen to it.

Sarah Agha is an actress and writer of Palestinian and Irish heritage. Her work has been published in Backstage Magazine, 1883 Magazine, the RSC Patrons Paper and “Out of Isolation” by Unicorn Publishing. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, a Bafta Connect member and she currently curates The Arab Film Club.

Follow her on Instagram: @sarahaghaonline