Palestinian cinema is relatively young in comparison to Arab cinema as a whole. This is for obvious reasons, but that hasn’t stopped a vibrancy developing over the last twenty years that has wowed both audiences and international film festivals. This year they have submitted a film for the Best Foreign Language Category at the Academy Awards for the only the seventh time (twice they have been nominated in the final five, on both occasions these films were directed by Hany Abu-Assad). The first London Palestine Film Festival was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in Spring 1999 and in 15 years it has grown in size and now lasts for two weeks, from the 28th November to the 8th December, alternating from the splendor of the Barbican Centre for the first week and it’s original home of SOAS and UCL in the second week.
When thinking of Palestine, one as an outsider is drawn to the political situation but what the national cinema attempts to do is to force you to see the country, the world of Palestine afresh if for the first time. All cinematic representation and curation of Palestinian Cinema walks a fine line of how an international audience may perceive it but at the same time stay true to the international diaspora it acts as a protector, explainer and door opener. This of course comes from more than 40 years of military occupation, 60 years of dispossession and having the largest refugee population in the world. The mere mention of Palestine can be both enlightening and frustrating for many but cinema is at it’s first point whether it be production or representation has to be a revolutionary illumination of the dispossessed.
That is the reason why the forthcoming two week of dramatic features, shorts and documentaries will help the knowledgeable, the curious and even the opposed. The festival opens with a coup, that of this year’s representative for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: Najwa Najjar’s (who will be in attendance) Eyes Of A Thief (2014). This is the much-anticipated follow up to Najjar’s award-winning Pomegranates and Myrrh (2008), and weaves its tale of love and loss into a taut political thriller aimed at the suspicions and sacrifices lurking beneath the surface of contemporary Palestinian society. There are of course many tonal shifts at the festival to give a rounded example of the plurality of it’s cinema. A fine example of this is the family film: Giraffada, a drama inspired by real events. Ten-year-old Ziad and his zoo veterinarian father embark on a bold journey to save the West Bank’s only giraffe. Other elements to be looked out for include the numerous documentaries, from Tim Schwab’s Cinema Palestine that operates as a primer on contemporary Palestinian cinema with interviews with many of it’s filmmakers, including Hany Abu-Assad, Azza el-Hassan, Sobhi Zobaidi, Mai Masri, Tawfik Abu Wael, Annemarie Jacir, and many more.
The other key documentary is David Edgar and Taylor Downing’s Channel 4 two part documentary The Palestinians, featuring ground-breaking archive research and major contributions from Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Michael Palumbo. This fascinating film looks at the history of the country from the Ottomans to the ethnic cleansing that happened in 1948. Lastly the festival is always represented by the experimental with Jessica Habie’s debut feature Mars At Sunshine which opens with a US visitor sets off to explore the West Bank, but this aesthetically spectacular narrative shifts its focus to the experiences of a Palestinian painter (played by Ali Suliman) imprisoned and tortured by an Israeli soldier (Guy Elhanan). In addition there are documentaries that focus on all aspects of Palestinian life from exile, war, poverty, poetry and architecture. A festival of course wouldn’t be complete without numerous shorts which gives the opportunity to see the future of a nation’s cinema.