through the screen to palestine

megan carrigy: palestinian film festival

Laila’s Birthday

Laila’s Birthday

CULTURAL MEDIA’S MISSION IS TO STRENGTHEN INTERCULTURAL UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN DIVERSE AUSTRALIAN COMMUNITIES THROUGH THE PROMOTION OF ARAB ARTS AND CULTURE. THE FIRST PALESTINIAN FILM FESTIVAL, A NEW INITIATIVE FROM CULTURAL MEDIA—A NOT FOR PROFIT ORGANISATION ESTABLISHED IN 2007—SCREENED OVER TWO WEEKENDS IN DECEMBER AT PALACE NORTON STREET CINEMAS AND SIDETRACK SHED THEATRE IN MARRICKVILLE. IT DREW LARGE, DIVERSE AND ATTENTIVE CROWDS WHO DEMONSTRATED THAT THERE IS INDEED A GREAT HUNGER FOR MORE OPPORTUNITIES TO ACCESS AND ENGAGE WITH PALESTINIAN LIFE AND CULTURE.

The program showcased a broad spectrum of films ranging from six acclaimed feature films to independent documentary production and university sponsored educational materials. The feature film with the highest profile was Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of This Sea. It had screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, was Palestine’s 2009 Academy Awards submission for Best Foreign Language Film and has won a number of awards at international festivals.

Shot in Palestine under difficult conditions, Salt of This Sea follows Brooklyn born and bred Soraya (Suheir Hammad) as she lives the dream to return to Palestine, from which her family was exiled in 1948. Stubbornly trying to reclaim her grandfather’s savings, frozen in a bank account in Jaffa when he was exiled in 1948, she is slowly taken apart by the reality of Palestinian life around her. She meets Emad (Saleh Bakri), a young man whose ambition, contrary to hers, is to leave his home in Palestine forever.

The other fiction feature film in the program, Laila’s Birthday, directed by Rashid Masharawi, follows a complicated day in the life of Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri) an unemployed judge currently driving his brother-in-law’s taxi to make ends meet. His quest to get a present and a cake in time for his seven-year-old daughter’s birthday is constantly interrupted by surreal, sometimes comic events.

This film captures the streets of Gaza through the windows of Abu Laila’s taxi. The conversations with passengers, and the ordeals to which the taxi is submitted, capture the state of affairs in the territory in all their absurdity and poignancy. Each unpredictable daily difficulty cumulatively begins to wear on Abu Laila, unbeknownst to those he encounters, who continue to make their insistent demands. He finally cracks as he waits for his taxi to be refuelled, unleashing a tirade through a megaphone wrestled from him by its policeman owner. Returning home, Abu Laila finds peace as his daughter giggles at the state of his taxi, accidentally decorated for a wedding during the course of the day’s many events.

On a different note, Reel Bad Arabs and Edward Said on Orientalism, both directed by university professor Sut Jhally, were built around interviews with the authors of significant books on the representation of Arabs in the West. Both films provided sophisticated discussion about the politics of representation. The publication of Said’s Orientalism in 1978 resulted in major shifts in contemporary thought, still reverberating around the world today. However, although Said talks here about the context in which his argument was first conceived and extends his discussions of the concept of Orientalism to media representations, the film shows its age and does not extend the late writer’s insights to the contemporary political situation subsequent to his death.

Sut Jhally’s other film is based on the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, written by Jack Shaheen, Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University. The video successfully integrates interviews with Shaheen and clips from myriad movies ranging from blockbusters featuring the likes of Arnold Schwarznegger right back to some of the earliest representations in the history of cinema—an excellent companion piece to Said’s Orientalism.

Sling Shot Hip Hop

Sling Shot Hip Hop

The most talked about film of the festival was Slingshot Hip Hop, directed by Jackie Reem Salloum. This unique documentary deftly intertwines stories of young Palestinians living in the West Bank, in Gaza, in refugee camps and inside Israel as they discover the power of hip hop as a tool for self-expression and cross-border communication.

Slingshot Hip Hop traces the origins and development of hip hop amongst two distinct groups, one located in the West Bank, the other in Gaza, its members young, male and female, who initially struggled against Israel’s stringent travel restrictions to meet each other. That was until they gained the support of an organisation promoting youth development projects across Palestine. These groups build hip hop into an educational tool to teach young people, to provide an outlet for self-expression and connectedness, which throughout the film is voiced in entirely non-violent terms. After the recent devastating attacks on Gaza, no doubt many who saw the film will be worried about the current circumstances of the young men and women from the group, whose stories imprinted themselves so strongly.

Writers on the Borders: A Journey To Palestine(s), directed by Samir Abdallah and Jose Reynes, likewise travelled across Palestine following artists and storytellers. It documented the journey of eight writers from the International Parliament of Writers who travelled to Palestine to visit renowned poet . Darwish, who could not leave his own country to attend their international festivals. This film continues Cultural Media’s focus on Mahmoud Darwish, following an event celebrating the life and work of the Palestinian poet at the NSW Writers Centre in October 2008.

Writers on the Borders incorporates the diverse perspectives of the international writers on the trip, each of whom muses on their experiences of Palestine in an impressive array of languages. This is integrated with readings by Darwish and others at events set up throughout the film and exciting to witness. Relentless in its documentation of almost every detail of the delegation’s journey, Writers on the Borders also successfully produces a series of intense eyewitness accounts of Israel’s ongoing, systematic project to devastate and disrupt the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinian people. It provided a useful context for understanding the relentlessness of Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza. Among many injustices, the writers encounter roadblocks designed to prevent access to universities and homes and farmland freshly bulldozed to make way for the ever-expanding Israeli incursion into Palestinian territory. Such details tend to make it to our television screens only in times of crisis.

The Palestinian Film Festival successfully brought together a diverse array of people to share many different encounters with Palestinian life. Let’s hope it becomes a regular event on the Sydney screen culture calendar and has the opportunity in the future to travel to other parts of Australia.

2008 Palestinian Film Festival, festival artistic director Sohail Dahdal; Cultural Media, Palace Norton Street Cinemas, December 5–7; Sidetrack Shed Theatre, December 13–14

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 20

© Megan Carrigy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2009