Unless you’re a die-hard cinephile and film fanatic, it is perhaps unlikely that you’re familiar with Palestinian films – and if you are, it is even more unlikely that you have heard of one made by a woman. Names like Elia Suleiman – whose films have been recognised by international festivals, including Cannes, for years now – or Hani Abu-Assad, whose films Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013) are Oscar-nominated, may ring a bell, but women are unfortunately nowhere nearly as recognised in spite of their involvement in the industry from its inception.
One of the most important faces of Palestinian cinema is writer-director and documentary filmmaker, Mai Masri, the first woman on record in the country to hold up a camera, and make a film. “When I began to think of filmmaking, cinema was practically non-existent, especially with the political atmosphere at the time. And the fact that I was a woman of course didn’t make it easier. It was a challenge, and still is, because it is a male-dominated field, so it was important for me to prove myself,” she recounts.
We snuck in everywhere, we went to the backroads, we couldn’t be filming all the time because we were hiding.
Born in Amman, but living most of her life in Lebanon, which became another focal point for her filmmaking, Masri was one of the very first filmmakers to document life under the Israeli occupation, with her film Children of Shatila (1990), the first in an acclaimed trilogy. She was also the first to film the inside of a refugee camp, capturing life from the perspective of children, in the second film of the trilogy, Children of Fire (1998). The third film, Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), also focuses on young Palestinian refugees, with a close focus on the border between Palestine and Lebanon after the 22-year-long Israeli occupation of South Lebanon ended.
“Films are different than news, because that’s the point. You make them more real and human. You tell a story about characters that can carry that story, in a charismatic, genuine and different way,” she says, as she explains how documentaries strike a balance between being stories, that are watchable and consumable, and being an alternative to news. “Cinema comes in many forms, and the documentary format is very rich and offers a lot of possibilities. The circumstances I lived, the events, the people I dealt with… I didn’t feel a need to invent or make a narrative feature during that phase of my life,” she continues.
Films are different than news, because that’s the point. You make them more real and human. You tell a story about characters that can carry that story, in a charismatic, genuine and different way
After filming a number of documentaries on her own and with her late husband, Lebanese director Jean Chammoun, she more recently decided to make her first feature film, 3000 Nights, released in 2015. It was her debut feature, but won a whopping 24 awards, including the Youth Jury Award at Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum for Human Rights.
A still from 3000 Nights.
The documentary format in and of itself is what has made the stories that Masri sought to tell so powerful. People wanted – and needed – to see what actually happens in the corners and dark alleys of an occupied city, and not in a fictional format, but in a way that it also acts as a documentation of history. This year’s El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt, where Masri received a Career Achievement Award, saw her deliver a masterclass titled ‘The Documentary Journey’, during which she discussed how documentaries made and continue to make an impact that is very much needed, not only in cinema, but as a method of archiving and a site of memory.
And what do you do? All the ideas you had in your head would instantly vanish because you’re terrified
Where else would history tell the stories of Palestinian children as they figure out how to make a home out of a tent? Where else would it tell their stories as they find love on war-torn borders? That’s certainly not the stuff of history books, where the “milestone achievements” and the war strategies are recorded. Nor is it that of news, where numbers, facts and figures dominate headlines.
Masri discussed this in her masterclass at length – explaining the dimensions added by that kind of coverage to history and memory, but also to her identity, both as a woman and as a filmmaker. “Filming [Children of Fire] taught me how to make a film. We snuck in everywhere, we went to the backroads, we couldn’t be filming all the time because we were hiding. It was terrifying. And what do you do? All the ideas you had in your head would instantly vanish because you’re terrified,” she said.
...it’s war. Bombing and shelling were everywhere, it was coming from the sea, from the skies
Making films during war is not only difficult – it is scarring. But Masri’s words also contained a lot of hope. Working during conflict taught her to look at its many different dimensions – how it shows one’s potential for resistance in spite of debilitating circumstances.
Still and quote from Masri's film, Beirut Diaries and 33 Days (2006).
“It’s a very difficult experience, because it’s war. Bombing and shelling were everywhere, it was coming from the sea, from the skies. Destruction and death were a constant reality. But at the same time, parallel to all the death, and perhaps even more visible and powerful, was the people’s resistance, their union – and I wanted to capture that more than anything else,” she explains to us.
The Israeli forces thought hope was very dangerous. We had to stop shooting at some point. Many people were killed. [But] it was always about hope. Me filming is always about hope
But her films went far beyond just that – they weren’t mere depictions of resistance, they were embodiments of resistance, in and of themselves. “The Israeli forces thought hope was very dangerous. We had to stop shooting at some point. Many people were killed. [But] it was always about hope. Me filming is always about hope. This is the magic of making films,” adds Masri.
That magic was always accompanied with a darker side - filming was a threat to her and others’ lives – but it did not matter to Masri. For her, it was essential to her very being. “I shot in my home down there in secrecy, I couldn’t let anyone know. [But] for me, it was an important, defining moment in my life to know what it means to be Palestinian, especially because I was raised outside.” The physical act of holding a camera was, in many ways, an act of resistance – both to a male-dominated field in a patriarchal country, and to an oppressive and life-threatening occupation.
Mai Masri on set of Children of Fire.
That was in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, however, Masri sees a much brighter future and asserts that, against all odds and amid a suffocating and oppressive environment, the industry continues to thrive. “Palestinian cinema is on the rise. There is no official industry. There is no support. There are no grants in Palestine. But they’re still being made, [and] they are able to depict, in a very meticulous way, the Palestinian cause, and fill the gap left by media and news covering Palestine, where too many details are neglected,” she explains.
It’s no surprise that there is no film industry in the country, because, as Palestinian-Israeli actor-director Mohammad Bakri sadly and jarringly proclaimed in an interview with The Guardian, there can’t be a film industry where there is no country. It’s an occupation, and that means all kinds of infrastructure in the country are also occupied.
There is no official industry. There is no support. There are no grants in Palestine. But films are still being made
But whether in diaspora, or from the confines of occupation, Palestinians are making films that reach international audiences and festivals – in whatever way possible, filming them in English, French and Hebrew, for instance - as conditions of support and funding from other countries, namely Israel and other European countries, may often entail.
“You can say that Palestinian cinema, throughout history, can be divided into three generations, and I consider myself to be part of the second generation. The first was the one that gave birth to the cinema of the Palestinian revolution [between 1936 and 1939],” explains Masri. “The second generation included names like Michel Khleifi, Hani Abu Assad, me, Rashid Mashrawi. We sort of put together the building blocks of a new Palestinian independent cinema, and now there’s a third generation continuing that legacy, experimenting and making new kinds of film.”
In the period between 1948 and 1967, at the crux of the occupation, Palestinian cinema did not exist – like a large, gaping hole in history. It took a variety of films to put it back on the map, including Masri’s documentaries, and Michel Khleifi’s 1987 feature, Wedding in Galilee – the first major Palestinian fiction feature made by an Israeli-Palestinian.
Michel Khleifi's Wedding in Galilee, made history becoming the first Palestinian film to receive an award — the International Critics Prize — at Cannes in 1987.
Later, dramas such as Hani Abu-Assad’s aforementioned Paradise Now, which made history as the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar, began to emerge on the scene. Then came Elia Suleiman’s trademark satires, such as his debut, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), and the groundbreaking The Time that Remains (2009).
Suleiman’s pictures, a number of which include English or French among its languages, reached huge amounts of audiences, and received two Cannes Jury Awards as well as a ‘Lion of the Future’ award from Venice Film Festival. However, this is where the politics of filmmaking get complicated. He was the first to make a statement by making a case against the Israeli state in order to sustain funding for his films – without succumbing to their control and appropriation of his work.
Some, however, have argued that allowing any contribution from the Israeli government to Palestinian cinema would not vie with the various boycott movements launched against Israel by Palestinians, which they believe form an essential aspect of resisting the occupation.
On set of Children of Shatila.
Suleiman, with a team of lawmakers, made a case that is now supported by members of the BDS movement as well – which calls for the global boycott of Israeli products, brands, and whatever else would count as support, financial or otherwise – arguing that Palestinians in Israel pay taxes, and that this funding is their right. Now, many other filmmakers have followed suit, including those whose identity is mixed (Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian) making matters more complicated and raising questions about the problematic aspect of referring to such films as ‘Palestinian’.
The tug of war – besides the actual war – between Israel and Palestine makes for a tension of “identities” – it is difficult to be in a grey area when it comes to war and conflict, but in reality, having a decades-long occupation makes things quite grey. Identities mix, and they are fluid, and it’s difficult to ascertain whether one who is Israeli can also be Palestinian, and vice versa – or whether it is even important to make that distinction, or if it is simply enough to be on the side of what Palestinians would call justice.
At least through culture, we’re able to rebuild Palestine, because the occupation has systematically attacked, erased and brought to pieces the Palestinian memory, the Palestinian narrative, the identity, and the person.
Palestinian festivals around the world, however, are increasingly searching for films that shed light on the way Palestinians live their lives under occupation, whether focusing on identity politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or womanhood, as is the case in Maysaloon Hamoud’s feature, In Between, released in 2016 and co-produced in Israel and France.
Gaza's Red Carpet film festival is one of many initiatives that aim to bring cinema to occupied Palestine.
The organiser of The Bristol Palestine Film Festival, British producer Alison Sterling, for instance, once told Mada Masr in an interview that because there weren’t many productions out of Palestine every year, “the festival’s only criteria is for the films to be reflective of Palestinian reality with all its complexities and with no political filtering.” There is less clarity on the means of production front when it comes to most international film festivals focusing on the country.
For Masri, Palestinian cinema is one that elicits social action, protest and, perhaps, furthers understanding of the conflict. “Art, and the picture in specific, is a very powerful tool, because it really affects the viewer and serves as a very important platform, not just for raising awareness, but for incentivising people to act.”
Her faith in film, and her dedication to making ones that speak for and about Palestine, is thus part of a larger need to fight the Israeli occupation as a Palestinian. “Culture and art are ways to make a change from within society, not just from the surface and on paper, but real, actual change that comes from the bottom-up, from the people themselves. And that will be a long process, but we’ve come a long way,” says Masri.
She continues: “At least through culture, we’re able to rebuild Palestine, because the occupation has systematically attacked, erased and brought to pieces the Palestinian memory, the Palestinian narrative, the identity, and the person. Our role is to claim our narrative, preserve our memory, and make ourselves heard, and we’d then be rebuilding Palestine – if not in actuality, then perhaps through art and cinema, as we continue to fight for the liberation of Palestine.”