Gaza at war and on screen: Tunisian cinema activists air Palestinian revolutionary films guerrilla-style

Tunisian cinema activists air Intifada films guerrilla-style
6 min read
09 February, 2024

The tape begins to roll.

Grainy, sepia-toned footage jumps from one vignette to another. The footage all captures the same subject matter: the quotidian suffering of life in Gaza.

A woman and her children look directly into the camera as they cry out for their demolished home. A man flicks through photographs of rubble and destroyed buildings — immortalising the remnants of bulldozed neighbourhoods.

In an earlier scene, a dejected voiceover reels off the events of just the past three days: twenty men killed, children fired upon, a curfew imposed, irrigation pipes destroyed, and bombs thrown.

"For us, art has always been a means of resistance... In the current context, the power of the image is being used for the construction of propaganda rooted in injustice. But it also has an ability to contradict these narratives and forge new ones, paving the way for liberation"

Scenes From the Occupation in Gaza (1973), one of the first films to document life in the small strip of land, takes as its subject these everyday realities.

Its style of unflinching documentation would become the hallmark of the subsequent works of the Palestine Film Unit, a group that aimed to show the plight of the Palestinian people through cinema.

Last year in October, as the world reeled from renewed bloodshed in Gaza, a crowd gathered in downtown Tunis to revisit these scenes from the past.

A small projector was placed on the sidewalk. It whirred to life, cutting through the evening’s darkness, and bathed the wall opposite it in its light. Around thirty people sat around it, packed densely together. The excited, anticipatory chatter filled the warm air — drowning out the whirr of downtown Tunis.

Quickly, the sounds fell to a hush — the film was about to begin.

Days of Resistance Cinema film screening on a busy street. Source: Facebook
Days of Resistance Cinema film screening on a busy street [source: Facebook]

Since mid-October, Days of Resistance Cinema, a small collective of filmmakers and activists, has been organising guerilla screenings of films documenting Palestinian history and resistance.

They have garnered attention for the location of their projections: against the walls of the French Institute in Tunisia (IFT), in a square commemorating the assassinated opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi, and in front of the Tunisian Parliament.

Communicating dates and times of screenings on social media, their screenings have drawn sizeable crowds. Equipped with just a projector and a speaker, they have transformed Tunis’ streets, sidewalks, walls, and cafés into cultural fora.

Cinema as protest

“For us, art has always been a means of resistance,” members of the collective said. “In the current context, the power of the image is being used for the construction of propaganda rooted in injustice. But it also can contradict these narratives and forge new ones, paving the way for liberation. This is the path we are taking.”

The IFT, which aims to promote French culture and strengthen Franco-Tunisian relations, came under controversy when it hastily painted over a graffiti image of the Palestinian flag someone had drawn on its walls.

The incident, which happened a fortnight into the war, garnered considerable attention on social media — with many voicing their disappointment at the perceived anti-Palestinian statement. France has also come under global scrutiny for its initial crackdown on pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

The episode triggered the collective to mobilise. On October 22, they came together and hosted their first screening — taking direct aim at the Institute.

“For us, the projection on the IFT wall represents a brief reclaiming of this space through cinema. Although they rejected the painting of the colours of the Palestinian flag, we are using images and sound, however fleeting they may seem, to leave our imprint on the wall,” said members of the collective.

Four short films — the works of Palestinian filmmakers Mahmoud Ahmad, Mohammed Sami and Algerian director Yanis Belaid — were shown in this first screening. Sami was killed in the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital blast on October 17. He was 23 years old and dreamed of opening an art gallery in Gaza. 

“We organised this screening in record time and with limited resources. We didn't know how many people would join us, or even if the screening would be feasible. To our surprise, an audience gathered and the screening went ahead. The atmosphere was very emotional,” they said.

As the scale of destruction and civilian death toll in Gaza continues to climb, these screenings have provided a space for grief and solidarity.

“People are hungry for this kind of cultural participation,” said Malek, a teacher living in Tunis who has attended several screenings.

“We wanted to prove our support for the Palestinian cause. The entire world is just watching these massacres, and the reigning feeling is a feeling of helplessness,” she added.

“Being able to even do as little as just watch a film and spread awareness — this helped that feeling.”

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Coming together

The collective formed as a result of the Tunisian Government’s cancellation of the annual Carthage Film Festival (they are named after the festival’s French title, Journées cinématographiques de Carthage, referred to as JCC by most Tunisians).

The controversial cancellation of the Festival, a weeklong celebration of African and Arab cinema, was justified as standing “in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” according to the Tunisian Ministry of Culture.

But the decision came under heavy criticism, with many pointing out that the lineup included several Palestinian films. They argued that the highly anticipated event would have provided a much-needed space for discussion and reflection in the wake of Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza

"People are hungry for this kind of cultural participation...We wanted to prove our support for the Palestinian cause. The entire world is just watching these massacres, and the reigning feeling is a feeling of helplessness"

In its place, the Days of Resistance Cinema screenings have been a much-needed outlet.

“We were angry with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. For us, this was an opportunity to gather and to prove our dissatisfaction,” said Malek. “After the screenings, we talk, we debate, we discuss–just as we did during the JCC.”

Malek was teaching in Béja, a small town in the verdant northwest of the country, the night that a screening was due to take place in the capital. She decided to set up her own projection instead.

“I was amazed to see that many of my students, aged 16 to 17 participated. They were very opinionated and well-informed about the Palestinian cause,” said Malek.

“Screenings are taking place in all of the symbolic areas of the region. It’s really something to be proud of, and it’s participating in the decentralisation of culture. Everyone has the right to participate in the cause.”

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The collective’s regular screenings in October and November drew in sizable crowds. They are beginning to coordinate with cultural organisations outside Tunisia, and have so far assisted with similar events in Paris.

For Malek, the idea is so powerful precisely because it is so simple: “We need just a projector, a speaker and a blank wall. And that’s it.”

Isabella Crispino is a New York-based journalist and researcher. She has worked with investigative outlets Daraj in Beirut and Inkyfada in Tunis and is a graduate of Oxford University. Currently, she is pursuing a Master of International Affairs joint between Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and Sciences Po, specializing in human rights. 

Follow her on X@isa_crispino