Palestinian film festivals across UK screen solidarity and celebrate rising talent

Palestinian film festivals across UK celebrate rising talent
7 min read
12 December, 2022

“Palestinians can be very funny,” the famous Gazan playwright and writer Ahmed Masoud tells The New Arab, “and that’s what I want to show in my stories. I use dark humour to deal with our situation, which is indeed ridiculous. The occupation, the checkpoints. People on the ground have to laugh about it as well."

Ahmed studied English literature in Gaza before moving to London, where he found fame.  

He is a regular guest at the Bristol Palestine Film Festival and the main founder of the Pal Art Collective. “Palestinian artists are so diverse,” he adds. “We want to show this to the audience of such festivals, and help Palestinians to create new content, give them a platform in England”.

"They don't see the occupation the way their parents did, they don't feel the fear, the shame, the oppression"

One of these film festivals took place between 11-24 November 2022. The Palestine Film Festival took place in London at the Barbican Centre, the ICA, Cursor Soho and at SOAS University, where the first wave of Palestinian film festivals started in the 1990s.

“It was founded by the current co-director, who is from Gaza,” one of the organisers tells The New Arab. “When he saw in London the film The Tale of the Three Lost Jewels in 1994, he realised that he hadnt seen any Palestinian film before… so he did some research and then wanted to start booking films at SOAS.”

Soon after, came the partnership with the Barbican Centre followed by others with some of the most iconic independent cinemas in London: the Rio, the Phoenix, Curzon then Soho and the iconic ICA, Institute of Contemporary Arts, in central London. The festival thus grew from a university setting to become much bigger.

It offered a selection of newly-released and restored films focusing on issues related to Palestine, art house cinema, and “old gems”, along with exclusive presentations and urgent discussions.

Palestinian film festivals share Palestinian stories to make them more human, to re-humanise them

The centre of the programme was a commemoration of 50 years since the assassination of Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, who was a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. With the screening of the restored old gem, Return to Haifa, Kassem Hawal's adaptation of Ghassan Kanafanis novella of the same name. The event sold out.

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The festival also included newly discovered work by the elusive filmmaker Christian Ghazi, screenings of the award-winning Mediterranean Fever by Maha Haj - a “dark buddy comedy/drama exploring psychological well-being, aspiration, and masculinity within an oppressive political framework”, as she describes it.

“They are also other ones in the US and in Europe,” the organiser adds, “London was the first because its a little bit easier here: its such a melting pot city, and theres SOAS university that attracts lots of foreigners. But we still see it as a massive achievement.”

“After each screening,” she continues, “little conversations start outside of the festival, between some of the people that came to see the films who often didnt even attend together. They gather any comments on the films; they have a shared experience together, and that is part of our mission to create some space for these conversations to take place.”

The festival wants to celebrate the work of these filmmakers and directors who have continued making films despite the COVID-19 pandemic and various lockdowns, and also have to deal with the occupation in Palestine by the Israeli army. “This is why there is a political feeling beneath the surface,” she says.

After London, Leeds and Bristol celebrate Palestine’s films and arts

In Bristol, the Palestine Film Festival started on 2 December, at the Arnolfini art centre, with a screening of the film Boycott, followed by a panel discussion including British Director and long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause Ken Loach, Yuval Shalev from International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, Zeyn Mohammed from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), and Dave Spurgeon, former chair of Bristol Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM).

Ken Loach said: “A film like this is inspiring, it’s absolutely brilliant. The way they followed such strong characters, Palestinian Americans and activists, fighting for their rights to protests and their right to boycott an oppressive regime, it’s an inspiration for all filmmakers.”

"It all started with a football game...when, in 2007, a team from Bristol visited the West Bank to play with Palestinians. They ended up sharing much more than sport: stories, laughter and a desire to understand the other"

Other venues include the independent cinema Watershed, the Cube Microplex, St George’s, the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution, and the Palestine Museum and Cultural Centre.

This 12th edition showcases a mix of documentaries, features and shorts, as well as music and arts events, thanks to incredibly hard-working volunteers, including Sally Azzam, a Palestinian herself, Karena Batstone, who’s half Palestinian too, David Owen, Luke Sapsed, and Alison Sterling.  

“It all started with a football game,” according to the organisers, “when, in 2007, a team from Bristol visited the West Bank to play with Palestinians. They ended up sharing much more than sports: stories, laughter and a desire to understand the other. So much so that on their return to Bristol, one of the players, David Owen decided to create a platform to bring real stories from Palestine to the West of England.”

Bristol, situated in the South-West of England, has long been a home for pro-Palestinian activism
Bristol, situated in the South-West of England, has long been a home for pro-Palestinian activism and is one of the only places in Europe with a permanent Palestinian museum and cultural centre

One of the main features is Alam, by Firas Khoury (2022, France - Tunisia - Palestine - Qatar - UAE), with the young actors Mahmoud Bakri, Sereen Khass, Saleh Bakri, and Mohammad Karaki.

The film centres on Tamer, a Palestinian teenager living in Israel with his family. He and his friends lead a typical high-school students life until the arrival of the beautiful Maysaa. To impress her, Tamer agrees to take part in a mysterious flag  (‘Alam’ in Arabic) operation in their school on the eve of Israels Independence Day, which is a day of mourning for Palestinians…

“Tamer represents a certain version of me at his age,” Firas Khoury tells The New Arab. “And his friend Safer is an alter ego, a much more engaged and political young man. My favourite character is the girl, Maysaa. With them, I am talking about the third generation of 1948 Palestinians, and first of all this generation is so much more proud that the previous one.” The ones living in Israeli territories. “They don't see the occupation the way their parents did, they don't feel the fear, the shame, the oppression. They are on the same level as the settlers. I wanted to express my gratitude to them for it.”

Alam premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was recently awarded at the Cairo International Film Festival, in Egypt. Like Mediterranean Fever, it will also screen in Brussels this December, at the 22nd edition of the Mediterranean Film Festival - Cinemamed.

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On Sunday, the event Palestinian Voices in Film and Music in Bristol offered the screenings of three short films focusing on musicians, Sami Alaluls From Beneath The Earth, Sameer Qumsiyehs Voiceless and Wisam al-Jafaris Ambience. From Beneath The Earth showcases the work and artistic perspectives of Palestinian musicians in their own words. Rasha Nahas, who is featured in the first one, is about to release her second album. She has been recording in Palestine then England and is now based in Berlin, Germany.

“Performing in Palestine is so great,” Rasha told The New Arab. “It’s important to play back home for me. My family and my community are there. It’s just the best. When I’m on tour, I meet many people, and they often ask me what it’s like to perform back home. Well, I tell them, there are lots of problems! First, come the checkpoints, the separation walls… Then the occupation. You know, it’s Palestine, the experience of apartheid. It's beyond fucked-up.”

Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond.

Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam