Last Wednesday Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected as Israel’s prime minister, set to serve an unprecedented fifth term. Leading up to his victory, Netanyahu promised to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank, diminishing hope even further for the future of a Palestinian state. Our country’s mainstream news media—which, like many of those in power, favor an Israeli perspective—play down Netanyahu’s transgressions, thus depriving many Americans the chance to see their impact on the Palestinian people. When viewed in total, the eight features and ten short films in the 18th annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival provide a necessary framework for understanding dire recent events. The selections comprise an exhaustive, and often emotionally exhausting, look at Palestinian life, both historical and contemporary.
Six of the eight features are documentaries, which seems appropriate to the festival’s mission per its website: “to present a film festival that is open, critical, and reflective of the culture, experience, and vision of the artists.” This is an objective that comes through in the documentaries especially.
Two slant purely informative: Max Blumenthal and Dan Cohen’s Killing Gaza and Rifat Audeh’s The Truth: Lost at Sea provide informative, if not graphic, overviews of their respective topics. Independent journalists Blumenthal and Cohen document the events and aftermath of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, during which Israel launched a 51-day assault against the Gaza Strip that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and destroyed almost 20,000 housing units.
Audeh’s The Truth: Lost at Sea is straightforward but needs not overemphasize to astound. Audeh was a participant in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, a convoy of six civilian ships that attempted to provide aid to Gaza in spite of the Israeli blockade. Israeli forces attacked in the night, traversing international waters to harangue activists and aid workers aboard the ships. Using footage shot by himself and others on the flotilla, Audeh utilizes film as a primary source to refute Israel’s claim that the attack was justified.
Three of the documentaries center around Palestinian women to joyous and heartbreaking effect. Thomas A. Morgan’s Soufra follows Mariam Shaar, a Palestinian woman born and raised in Beirut’s Burj El Barajneh refugee camp, as she rallies other women in the camp to start a catering business that soon evolves into other, larger endeavors. The footage of the food is positively mouthwatering, a salient reminder of its ability to unite people within a culture as well as outside it. The group, called Soufra, put out a cookbook, with proceeds benefiting its ongoing efforts.
Christy Garland’s What Walaa Wants follows another refugee, this time inside a West Bank camp called Balata, as she pursues her dream of becoming a member of the Palestinian Security Forces. Teenaged Walaa is decidedly headstrong, and her desire to be an authority figure while rejecting authority herself makes for a curious story. It’s a nuanced look at what it means to be young in Palestine, one that reveals how certain truths (namely that of youthful rebellion) are universal.
The closing night film, Julia Bacha’s Naila and the Uprising, deals with another sort of rebellion, this one more central to the ongoing conflict. Partly animated, the film details the courageous story of Naila Ayesh, a Palestinian woman whose participation in the First Intifada begets even more stories of the important role women played in that insurrection, women who were ultimately forced to return to being second-class citizens after serving the cause. The animation is novel, but it’s the interviews with Palestinian women that stand out.
Narrated by Iggy Pop, Marco Proserpio’s The Man Who Stole Banksy is a meditation on street art vis-à-vis the elusive artist’s 2014 trip to Bethlehem with a smattering of other street artists. Among their pieces was a painting by Banksy that depicted an Israeli guard checking a donkey’s identification papers, rendered in his signature silhouette style. Intended to be a commentary on the undue diligence with which Israeli forces police the occupied area, some Palestinians nevertheless found it to be offensive, thinking that Banksy was comparing them to the oft-maligned animal. The film evolves into a rumination on who owns street art and, correspondingly, who can sell it. Its message is somewhat unclear, but the pairing of a seemingly trivial issue against a much more significant one—living in a place where one’s citizenship is constantly scrutinized by occupying forces—illuminates both concerns.
Perseverance under duress is a consistent theme among all the films; the lone live-action narrative feature, Bassam Jarbawi’s Screwdriver (Mafak) considers the plight of a man wrongfully detained in an Israeli prison for more than 15 years owing to deception centered around a youthful indiscretion. Like several of the other selections, it positions such harrowing circumstances in the context of a less politically charged genre; in this case, the plot involves something of a love triangle.
Accompanying all the features is a bevy of short films whose genres range the gamut. It’s in the shorts where narrative fiction dominates, with an emphasis on the day-to-day happenings that make life as a Palestinian seem both wonderful and challenging. Here, too, works centering on women stand out. Laila Abbas’s The Chair is impressive in all respects, from its pacing to its wry economy, as it depicts a Palestinian family in the wake of a family death, with a friend attempting to play matchmaker to both the young Jamaica-based niece and her never-married aunt. Something that links many of the short films is the way in which their makers draw emotions other than horror out of otherwise-appalling scenarios. Take, for instance, Rakan Mayas’s Bonboné, a film that could legitimately be termed sexy even if its plot deals with a Palestinian husband, who has been imprisoned by the Israelis for unknown reasons, and wife trying to conceive across prison bars.
Laymun by Catherine Prowse and Hannah Quinn is another exceptional short. Beautifully animated, it shows a young woman tending a lemon grove amidst an unidentified Middle Eastern war zone. Mats Grorud’s animated feature The Tower follows its young protagonist, Wardi, as she attempts to salvage hope for her great-grandfather by speaking with her relatives about their family’s history. The film spans the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dating back to al-Nakba (or just “the Nakba”) in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians were removed from their homeland. Its animation, a mix of different styles, is breathtaking, the labor an appropriate homage to the struggles it depicts. Though both these films are feats of craft, neither oversentimentalizes its subjects; larger violence and the smaller unglamorous parts of daily life are animated with equally impressive honesty. That’s a dichotomy that could be said to describe the festival as a whole—audiences of all backgrounds should come away with greater insight into the complexities of Palestinian life. v