Despite pandemic, Palestinian film festival draws in cinema lovers

Ramallah, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem, Gaza City screenings feature two empty seats between each audience member .

The main hall in Ramallah last Tuesday during opening night of Palestine Cinema Days 2020. (photo credit: FILMLAB PALESTINE)
The main hall in Ramallah last Tuesday during opening night of Palestine Cinema Days 2020.
(photo credit: FILMLAB PALESTINE)
During the lockdown in the Palestinian territories in the spring and nearly half of the summer, organizers of the only local film festival were unsure if their seventh edition would see the light of day.
The problem was to attract audiences to the art-house productions the festival has brought to local cinemas each October since 2014, and to revive public cultural life, but with clear social distancing rules and health precautions.
Yet it happened, with Palestine Cinema Days 2020 opening at the Ramallah Cultural Palace last Tuesday night.
“To a certain extent, we actually got used to watching films at home,” Samah Mahmoud, 29, told The Media Line after the opening.
“We read more books and baked more bread and cakes during the pandemic lockdown than we normally would in my family… so I was not so sure how the situation would be in the screening,” Mahmoud noted.
“Actually, I was relaxed by the silence in the hall because the audience was seated two seats apart from one another, and I enjoyed the film although it was three-hours long,” she said.
Palestine Cinema Days 2020 includes the Arab world’s premiere of Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, which is banned in Rasoulof’s native Iran for its criticism of the country’s death penalty. The film was awarded the Golden Bear in the main competition at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
It is the first time that Palestine Cinema Days has succeeded in obtaining the rights to the regional premiere of an international award-winning film, with some film festivals in the Arab world being decades old and having much bigger budgets.
This year’s fest features a variety of films from all over the world, including Serbia, China, Sudan, the US and Lebanon. There are two from Palestine.
Laila Abbas, director of festival programming, told The Media Line that the selection of films “never had clear-cut criteria” but has been based on their cinematic and aesthetic values and production modes.
“We looked through the best of 2019 and 2020, and we went as wide as possible geographically and in terms of production capabilities,” Abbas said.
“We are not looking at films that can be watched on Netflix or in regular cinemas,” she said. “We are trying to step away from mainstream.”
Abbas notes that the human elements and stories in films are a source of inspiration, and this is something the festival’s selection committee takes into consideration – particularly because it is trying to bring people out to public events once again.
“This year, [committee members] felt that people are really hungry for cultural events outside the home,” she stated. “Not just for cinema lovers, but also for filmmakers, young and old, there are films that give hope and those that show us new perspectives and teach us new things about the film industry.”
Palestine Cinema Days is organized by Ramallah-based Filmlab Palestine, which “aims to expand and cultivate the existing cinema culture within Palestine while providing the much-needed technical and artistic support for emerging Palestinian filmmaking voices.”
The festival has consistently seen a significant increase in the number of films and attendees. Some 250 people attended opening night in 2014; in 2019, the opening saw 1,100 people, many of them sitting on the stairs.
The 2020 screenings, in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem and Gaza City, are being held in halls set up to accommodate less than half of their normal capacity. This year, the audience on opening night was approximately 450.
Marwa and Maysoon, two friends who drove in from another city (and asked that their last names not be used), expressed disappointment, saying the social distancing in the theater “sucked out the human and emotional interaction” among audience members.
“What I like to see are films that have stories and tell you something that articles or books cannot tell you,” Marwa told The Media Line. “This is why I like to come to events like this, even if it’s risky [because of the pandemic]. But I didn't expect we would be sitting apart the way we were.”
As disappointing as this sounds, Hanna Atallah, the founder and now artistic director of Filmlab, has been encouraged by the demand for tickets.
“What I want from the festival is for people to leave one screening saying they will be back for another,” Atallah told The Media Line.
“I’m not going to be humble; we wanted to build a base for cinema culture and we did. But I know we have a lot more to do for a real cinema culture to emerge here,” he said.
Atallah blames religious extremism.
“The generation of our fathers appreciated cinema; it was part of their social and cultural lives. But that came into disgrace and was altered by the Islamic extremism that came during the past few decades. They [the extremists] even burned down movie houses,” he explained.
“In my opinion, we need to be even bolder and keep trying if we want to build a cinema culture because this takes years and years,” he said. “We might reach the 20th edition [of the film festival] before we raise ourselves up and develop this culture.”
Yet Atallah remains hopeful.
“The highlight of the opening night for me was when I was stopped by a well-known businessman who is also a patron of the arts, and he thanked me for bringing his attention to Iranian cinema,” he said.
“This means a lot to me; it means we are growing and expanding horizons,” he stated.
“It will take years before we revive the vibrant culture we once had,” he continued, “but it will happen.”
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