Sunday, 16 November 2014

Palestine - On the Silver Screen

Palestinian cinema had a fairly late start in comparison with the cinematic traditions of other Arab nations and the production of movies, understandably, has been interrupted by war, Israeli occupation and the intafadas.

In recent years, there seems to have been a cautious resurgence in Palestinian movie-making, primarily driven by Palestinians born in Israel, like the directors Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman.

I watched four movies as part of my research on Palestine:

Paradise Now (الجنّة الآن‎), dir. Hany Abu-Assad (2005)

This is a great movie and was the first Palestinian movie to be nominated for an Academy award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language film.  It deals with the lives of two friends, Said and Khaled, who live in Nablus and are sent on a suicide-bombing mission to Israel.  Things don't go as planned and they end up returning to the West Bank, without detonating their bombs. This gives them a chance to rethink their positions and throws up some surprising and dramatic results.

It's an incredibly sad movie and makes you wonder how desperate a young man or woman would need to be, before they would agree to give their own lives to further a political cause.  The movie also deals with the issue of ameel or collaborators - the choices that Said (played by Kais Nashif) makes are based on the fact that his father was a collaborator and this has left a stain on his family, so Said is seeking some kind of redemption in his modern life.

It's a controversial movie, in the sense that it shows the real lives behind suicide-bombers, which has drawn accusations of glamorising violence (although, I think suicide-bombers surely have real lives?).  For me, this is what made the movie interesting, i.e. trying to understand the psychology of the characters and the choices they were forced to make.

Omar (عمر‎), dir. Hany Abu-Assad (2013)

Abu-Assad's most recent movie, Omar also deals with the theme of collaboration, this time within the context of a love story.  It's an incredibly powerful movie and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Academy award (losing out to The Great Beauty by Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino), Omar won the Jury prize in the category Un Certain Regard at Cannes and it really feels as though Abu-Assad and Palestinian cinema is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

I must admit, I've got a bit of a not-so-secret crush on Adam Bakri, who plays Omar.  As well as being a great actor, he's very easy on the eye!

Divine Intervention ( يد إلهية‎), dir. Elia Suleiman (2002)

Nazareth-born director, Elia Suleiman is one of the greats of Palestinian cinema.  He acts in his own movies, as well as directing and I loved his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, which is very different that your average film director.

Suleiman finds a space in the daily lives of his on-screen characters which reflect the absurdity of life in the West Bank. Nothing much happens in his movies and, at the same time, everything happens - explosions, fight scenes, breaking hearts.  Actions in Suleiman's movie are often repetitive and seemingly meaningless.  He very cleverly depicts the sense of 'waiting' that pervades modern Palestinian culture; waiting for the occupation to end, waiting for the Israelis to leave, waiting for real life to begin.

Suleiman's style might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I would recommend giving his movies a chance, as there is a depth to his narrative which is very rare in 21st century cinematography.  The humour in Divine Intervention is thought-provoking and full of symbolism.  Divine Intervention was nominated for the Palme d'Or in 2002 but, controversially not accepted as a submission from Palestine to the Academy Awards, due to Palestine's status (or lack thereof) as a nation.

The Time that Remains, dir. Elia Suleiman (2009)

I also watched Suleiman's semi-autobiographical movie The Time that Remains.  This movie picks up on similar themes to do with timelessness, the meaning of life and the injustice and absurdity of the Palestinian experience.

With The Time the Remains, I felt that Suleiman had reached a new level of perfection in terms of the stylisation of the content and the beauty of the shots.  There is a real sense of 'the loss of purpose' in this movie and the opening scene shows the Palestinian character, Fuad (based on Suleiman's father) getting into a taxi with an Israeli driver.  They get caught in up a storm and the Israeli taxi driver loses his way.

His exclamations of 'Where am I? Where am I?' are quite poignant and it's an interesting symbol of Palestinians and Israelis lost in the storm, where the Israelis are in the driving seat and the Palestinians are passengers.

Fuad is played by Saleh Bakri, the brother of Adam Bakri (who starred in Omar). The Bakri brothers come from a family tradition of actors and their father, Mohammed Bakri is also a well-known Palestinian actor and director.

I thought it was interesting to read Mohammed's comments, when asked about the state of Palestinian film industry, he said:

Let me tell you about the Palestinian film industry. Very simply, we do not have one. We have some very talented film-makers, but that's about it. We have no film schools and we have no studios. We have no infrastructure because we have no country.

Whilst Palestinian movies have only recently been recognised with international awards and made it to more mainstream audiences, there is, nevertheless, a respectable tradition of Palestinian cinema that is worth delving into to.

I could only get my hands on four Palestinian movies, but I've created an extended 'watchlist' below, which includes other Palestinian movies I think would be worth seeing:

Wedding in Galilee (عرس الجليل), dir. Michel Khleifi (1987)

Chronicle of a disappearance (سجل اختفاء), dir. Elia Suleiman (1996)

The Olive Harvest, dir. Hanna Elias (2003)

Salt of this Sea, dir. Annemarie Jacir (2008)

I'll leave you with the trailer for Salt of this Sea - looks like a really interesting movie and as I've been researching for this blog, I've several times been confronted with the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank no longer have access to the sea. I believe everyone should have access to the sea and it strikes a real chord with me, personally, that this isn't the case for people in places like Nablus and Ramallah.

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