On location in the West Bank

Palestinians are finding ways to make feature films at home.

abu assad 88 224 (photo credit: )
abu assad 88 224
(photo credit: )
In a flip-flop of reality, a Palestinian soldier guards a West Bank checkpoint, as a line of haggard Israelis wait to have their ID cards examined. The scene is from a satirical Palestinian film that reverses the roles of occupier and occupied, one of three full-length feature films, along with a few shorts, that were shot in the West Bank this year. It's the most ever made in one year in a place more accustomed to seeing news cameras filming scenes of bloodshed. "Each Palestinian film made is a miracle," said George Khleifi, co-author of a book on the subject. The films tell stories through Palestinian eyes, trying to get beyond the simplicity of news coverage, which the artists say often reduces Palestinians to either terrorists or victims. "Humor, passion, beauty, all of it is overlooked," said director Najwa Najjar, who just completed shooting a feature-length film about a female Palestinian dancer whose husband is sent to an Israeli prison. While Palestinian films range from intense realism to oddball surrealism, most highlight the hardships in life. Like a signature, almost every Palestinian film features an Israeli checkpoint. Some critics argue that such a narrow subject matter limits the films' artistic reach. That reach is further limited by a lack of places to see the films. There's only one cinema in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and most filmmakers refuse to show their films in Israel, skipping an important potential audience. In the end, most viewers are European audiences. This year, Palestinians shot three feature films with relatively large budgets. Annemarie Jacir, director of Salt of this Sea, shot in the West Bank this year, obtained European funding of 800,000 euro ($1.2 million). Although modest in global terms, it was exceptional here. "There's a generation of young directors reaching maturity who are becoming big enough to access large funds," said Khleifi. It helps that Palestinian filmmakers have notched up some success abroad. Most recently, Hani Abu-Assad, the Israeli-born director of the 2005 film Paradise Now, earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his tale of two Palestinian men who decide to become suicide bombers. In one scene from Enas Muthaffar's short film, Occupazion, Israeli protesters angrily wave blue-and-white Israeli flags while they demonstrate against Palestinian rule. One of them, wearing a blue-and-white headscarf in a parody of the Palestinians' signature black-and-white checkered headdress, shouts in heavily accented English, "it is time to accept the end of the Palestinian occupation!" "I want, I need, to tell a story," Muthaffar, 30, said after a recent screening of Occupazion. Audiences laughed through the low-budget movie, screened twice in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. Too many people turned up to fit in the 40-seat room where it opened. Although the film asks Israelis to stand in Palestinian shoes, few of them will ever see it. Muthaffar, like most Palestinian artists, refuses to screen her film in Israel, to protest Israel's occupation. "I'm not saying Israelis can't watch my film," Muthaffar said - just not in Israel. Like many Palestinians, Muthaffar does not recognize east Jerusalem as a part of Israel. While many Palestinian artists refuse to show their work in Israel, local Palestinians are equally unlikely to see the films. There were at least 10 cinemas throughout the West Bank and Gaza, but nearly all have been burned down by angry youths or simply closed since the 1987 outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising. People believed cinema was a "frivolous hobby," when arrests, deaths and curfews marked daily Palestinian life, said Amjad Batta, a Palestinian cinema buff. Even after the fighting died down, cinemas stayed closed as a rising tide of conservative Islam replaced angry nationalism. Only Ramallah, with a large middle class, has a cinema, the Kasaba. Some of its films show nudity, and a nearby bar serves beer - reflecting the theater's progressive audience in an otherwise conservative society. There's little official support for filmmakers. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, doesn't fund movies and the militant Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, has been hit hard by an international embargo and is unlikely to finance productions that don't bend to its own conservative Muslim world view. Khleifi says that all the absurdities involved in Palestinian filmmaking - Israel's occupation, the self-imposed boycott of Israeli audiences, the single cinema and rising Islamic conservatism - make the end product all the more important. "Cinema allows us to look at ourselves and open a dialogue with ourselves and others," he said. (AP)