Brief history of Palestinian cinema and women filmmakers
Don’t stay silent.
Don’t be afraid!
Break up the chains .
Break up your fears
Be the echo!
Women have always been involved in the history of cinema in Palestine and in the Arab world in general. They starred in its beginnings in the 1930s, carried a camera on their shoulders during the revolutionary era of the 1960s and 1970s, were pioneers of independent cinema in the 1980s, filmed the first and second Intifada from the front line, telling everyday stories of life during the war and occupation and are currently at the forefront of a generation of transgressive artists. We cannot group and characterise the cinematographic production of women filmmakers by attributing a particular style to them all. This would separate them from the history of cinema of which they are a full part, by which they have been inspired and by which they have been influenced. We are faced with infinite plural stories due to the cinematographic form they take and the themes they address, with singular issues through which we glimpse stories that go beyond the individual to deal with universal problems.
We can analyse and interpret the history of Palestinian cinema in five major periods, grouping them by era, style and form, distinguished by the breaks that separate the new generations from the previous ones.
Leaving behind the colonial representations of the late 19th century, Palestinian film production began in the 1930s, promoted by Studio Palestine. This audiovisual production ended abruptly in 1948 with the founding of the State of Israel and the consequent expulsion of the Arabs from historic Palestine, known as the Nakba.
Thus began the so-called Period of Silence, which remained unbroken until after the Six Day War with the emergence of revolutionary cinema. It is from this second period that the first Palestinian audiovisual documents and archives produced by the Palestinian Film Unit (PFU) during the 1960s are preserved. Influenced by the Latin American Third Cinema political film movement and fighting for the liberation of Palestine, it included filmmakers like Sulafa Jad Allah and Khadijeh Habashneh Abu Ali.
In the 1980s, with the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the expulsion of the fedayeen from Lebanon, the PFU group of filmmakers dissolved. Some of its members were murdered, others were forced into exile and the Palestinian film archives mysteriously disappeared. It was then that director Mai Masri returned to Beirut to become the pioneer of independent Palestinian film. This independent cinema gained momentum and was firmly established by the filmmakers Mona Hatoum, Layali Bader, Maryse Gargour, Norma Marcos and Liana Badr. Picking up the camera at the end of the first Intifada, these directors produced documentaries in a style close to social realism.
The heyday of Palestinian film production began in the 1990s, coinciding with the period of the Oslo Accords. Directors like Elias Suleiman broke with social realism to propose fiction reminiscent of absurdist film. This is when directors such as Cherien Dabis and Annemarie Jacir began to make their first films.
From the first decade of the 2000s until today, a new generation of women filmmakers has been using film to subvert reality. This new generation of filmmakers and activists are confronting the occupation and the apartheid situation as well as a Palestinian political system that is not only anti-democratic, but also deeply patriarchal at the same time. For these directors, the production of audiovisual stories is another part of the fight for their civil rights and for equality, to seize control of the cultural struggle and make it another tool of expression and memory. In this line, we find filmmakers like Mahassen Naser Eldin Naser Eldin, Hind Shoufani, Jumana Manna, Larissa Sansour and Reem Shilleh.
The leading role of women in Palestinian cinema is unquestionable. More than half the films made in Palestine are made by women. Nowhere else in the world is there a similar proportion: 4% in Hollywood, 18% in Europe and 11% in Israel. This is an exceptional phenomenon that disrupts the rules of gender in film and sets a positive example for female filmmakers around the world. This fact could be explained by two interrelated elements. Firstly, the Palestinian Authority has no national film institution that can discriminate against women due to its own patriarchal construction. Secondly, this lack has facilitated the creation of independent audiovisual production companies run by women, such as Odeh Films, Idiom Films and Philistin Films, which fund a great many projects.
Palestinian filmmakers have always been part of the cinematic landscape, although the dominant narrative and history often try to erase them. Today they are a silenced majority of internationally recognised artists, who only yearn to be seen and heard.
“Through the still and animated picture we can convey and disseminate the concepts of revolution to the public and keep them alive.”
The lack of archives and studies makes it difficult to track the path taken by the women who began to make film in Palestine. There are few studies like that of the filmmaker Mahassen Nasser Eldin to unearth female figures forgotten by history, showing that at the beginning of the 20th century there were already women like Karimeh Abbud, a top Palestinian photographer in the Arab world. The filmmaker Azza El-Hassan says that in the 1930s, the Lama brothers, born in Chile to Palestinian parents, travelled to Palestine to make films. Expelled from Bethlehem by the British, Ibrahim and Badr Lama stopped in Alexandria and became the pioneers of emerging Egyptian cinema. In 1930, they opened the Lama Studio, a production studio in Cairo that produced many Palestinian films.
During the same decade, in 1935, Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan filmed the first documentary on the visit of King Saud of Saudi Arabia to Palestine. In 1940, they produced a 40-minute documentary called Realised Dreams about orphaned boys and girls in Palestine. In 1939, he founded the first production studio, Studio Palestine, along with Ahmad al-Kilani, Mohammad Kayali and Abd-er-Razak Alja’uni, where they jointly made dozens of films. Unfortunately, no copy of these first images of Palestine and from this period survives.
Apart from contemporary historiographical works, the events that took place during the Nakba and afterwards have only been documented through oral accounts and personal testimonies. Most Palestinians were expelled from their land, became refugees and were dispossessed of all their property. Many were systematically killed. This caused a post-traumatic state that prevented them from narrating and documenting the period in writing or in film, currently known as the Period of Silence (1948 to 1967).
It is not until after the Six Day War, in June 1967, that a group of young filmmakers came together to turn film into a tool to fight and support the emerging Palestinian revolutionary movement. The male filmmakers Abu Ali, Sulafah Jad Allah, Hani Jawhariyeh andKhadijeh Habashneh created the Palestinian Film Unit.
Since its inception, they worked hand in hand with the Fatah movement. Installed in a small apartment in Amman and using material from Jordanian television where Hani Jawhariyeh and Sulafah Jad Allah worked, they filmed Palestinian news. It was not until after the battle of Al-Karameh (1968) that Fatah provided them with a 16mm camera to film and record the daily life of the fedayeen and life in the refugee camps. In 1969, Hani Jawhariyeh made the documentary No to the Peaceful Solution, marking the beginning of the Palestinian Film Unit.
Expelled from Jordan after Black September in 1970, the young filmmakers went into exile in Beirut, where they formed a larger movement that would become the Palestinian Film Institute, directed by Khadijeh Habashneh until 1982. It was during this period that male and female filmmakers from all over the Arab world made hundreds of films about the Palestinian cause, such as Nabilah Loutfi, Kassem Hawal, Kais Al-Zubaidi, Omar Amiralay and Mohamed Malas.
As Azza El-Hassan explains in her documentary Kings and Extras, after the Israeli invasion of Beirut, the Palestinian film archives that were stored in an apartment in the Lebanese city disappeared, leaving a void in the history of Palestinian cinema. The fate of those thousands of metres of celluloid and hundreds of reels that made up the archive, some burned, others missing or even confiscated by Israel, is still not exactly known. The destruction of this archive is considered one of the great losses of the war.
Thanks to some copies rediscovered in the warehouses of the Filmoteca de Roma and the Filmoteca de Cartago, sent by members of the PFU to spread the values of the Palestinian revolution, a small part of this archive has been found, which is gradually being recovered and preserved thanks to individual initiatives and projects such as the Old Palestinian Films Preservation Project. Unfortunately, there is no national institution in Palestine today to recover, store and restore these films and thereby preserve the audiovisual memory of Palestinian cinema.
From this era, people have recovered and restored copies of Blood and Soul and They Do Not Exist by Mustapha Abu Ali, Return to Haifa by Kassem Hawal, Palestinians People Records by Kais Al-Zubaidi and Because the Roots Will Not Die by Nabila Loutfi. These films about the life of refugees, the struggle of the fedayeen and the history of the colonisation of Palestine create a narrative that opposes the colonial discourse imposed by Israel.
Mai Masri, the pioneer of independent Palestinian film
“To me, film isn’t about recording reality. It is about unveiling a world that is composed of many magical layers. It is the art of seeing through other people’s eyes, discovering and bringing out the poetry in everyday life”.
Due to Israeli repression, the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War and the murder of some filmmakers like Hani Jawhariyeh, the Palestine Film Unit was dissolved and the Palestinian film archive disappeared. With the invasion of Beirut, many of the filmmakers were forced again into exile. Yet a new generation soon emerged on the Palestinian film scene, represented by Mai Masri, Mona Hatoum and Layali Bader, for example.
After finishing her studies in the United States, Mai Masri settled in Beirut in 1976, where she began to make her first films with Jean Chamoun. Influenced by her background abroad and her study of the work of great filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, in addition to her close contact with the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, Mai Masri surrounded herself with personalities and cinematographic styles that influenced her work, from Italian neorealism to documentary filmmakers from Latin America, especially the Chilean Patricio Guzmán. Furthermore, film in the Arab world benefited from an exceptional situation, as it received the support of Syrian public television, which funded the productions of transgressive filmmakers such as Tawfik Saleh, Kassem Hawal and Kais Al Zubaidi for a few years, who also influenced her filmmaking. Omar Amiralay and Mohamed Malas, who were part of this avant-garde film circle, also played a big role in Mai Masri’s career. Together they shared experiences and reflected on problems of storytelling, studied camera angles and became familiar with characters, stories and spaces.
Mai Masri’s first films, Under the rubble (1983) o Wild Flowers: women of South Lebanon (1986)were made alongside those of Michel Khleifi, who, after studying film in Brussels, returned to Palestine to makeMémoire Fertile (1980), a classic in the history of Palestinian film at this time, the prelude to the first Intifada. Through these filmmakers and their first films, the foundations of independent Palestinian cinema that would flourish in the 1990s were built. In 1985, the filmmaker Layali Bader made Road to Palestine, her first short film, which was part of this wave of emerging filmmakers.
Mai Masri’s legacy is vast and undoubtedly contributes to the growing emergence of other female filmmakers in the Arab world and in Palestine. Mai Masri gives consistency and coherence to the audiovisual and documentation work of more than 30 years of Israel’s war against Lebanon and Palestine, capturing the beauty and humanism of the characters with her camera. Her way of explaining stories and war stories is very different from the media images, given her use of children and women who are the antithesis of the stereotypes that dehumanise and delegitimise the Palestinian people. The influence of Mai Masri is evident in many of the emerging filmmakers of the 1990s and directors such as Hany Abu Assad, who has said that Mai Masri’s work helped him to realise that it was possible to create a sincere and genuine portrait despite the hostile media context.
Here we have a generation of artists, to paraphrase Edward Said, who seized the possibility of narration and self-narration and who rose up against the colonial story that made them invisible and dehumanised them in an attempt to explain the years of repression, exile and dispossession.
The heyday of independent film and social realism
“ When you come from a nation that has experienced a national tragedy and found no means to resolve its aftermath you find yourself caged inside public pain… whatever the story of exile is, it always comes down to one desire: the desire for a home that you have one lost”
Azza El-Hassan, filmmaker
After the 1993 Oslo Accords, there was a general disillusionment and a time of exhaustion in Palestinian society that is also evident in its film. From the revolutionary cinema of the 1970s and the nostalgia of the independent cinema of the 1980s, a part of post-Oslo Palestinian film migrated towards social realism to deal with the daily problems faced by Palestinian society.
In 1994, filmmaker Norma Marcos made Espoir Voilé, , a candid portrait of five ambitious and deeply invested Palestinian women trying to break the political and social taboos of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Moreover, we find ourselves this was a period highly influenced by subversive filmmakers like Elias Suleiman, who has moved away from social realism and opted for ridiculous tragedy and absurd cinema. This filmmaker represents and talks about concepts such as identity, the figure of the anti-hero and the widespread trauma suffered by Palestinian society. In 1998 he made The Arab Dream, a short film where we can see what would become his own style.
In the early 2000s, many Palestinian associations were created to promote film as a tool for women’s empowerment, such as Shashat Women Cinema, Digital Resistance: Palestinan Youth Media and Palestinian Filmakers Collective. These associations train young people and provide them with cameras, both in cities and in refugee camps, to film their daily lives and the difficulties they face on a daily basis, the humiliation, the fear and the repression of the Israeli Army and to use film as a means of denunciation and personal and collective expression. New technologies, especially digital video, have lowered the cost and facilitated independent film production and have democratised access to this medium of expression in Palestine and elsewhere.
The filmmaker Buthaina Canaan Khoury began to film her first documentaries, Women Struggle (2004) and Maria’s Grotto (2007), showing the double discrimination and double harassment suffered by women by the Israeli Army and by Palestinian society for the first time.
In 2008, director Annemarie Jacir directed her first fiction film, The Salt of This Sea, in which the Palestinian houses destroyed or occupied by Israelis in Jaffa serve as the basis for building a sense of belonging, for internalising identity individually and collectively by Soraya, the Palestinian-American protagonist who visits her homeland for the first time.
The Palestinian cinema of this period, both documentary and fiction, is intrinsically linked to the forced displacement of Palestinians, to the struggle for the right of return, and must be understood in this context. Its film production expresses the survival and resilience of an entire people. Palestinian filmmakers are fundamentally asking for individual and collective recognition.
The rupture and outburst of the new generations
“I’ve been waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting) for a permit to enter the PROMISED LAND.”
Around 2010, the diverse and daring new generation of Palestinian filmmakers began a high-spirited period of cinematographic production, using very different styles, from documentary to animation, including experimental film and graphic arts.
These emergingfilmmakers are increasingly present and rewarded at international film festivals, like Larissa Sansour, Farah Nablusi and Jumana Manna. In Palestine, this film is still structured and takes root despite economic, political and territorial difficulties. Film clubs and production workshops organised by associations such as Shashat Women Cinema and FilmLab Palestine are increasing in number, thereby counteracting the lack of cinemas. The creation of many film festivals in the Arab world has also allowed these films to be screened beyond their national territory and many also participate in promoting and financing these projects. The high point of this trend came in 2006, with the creation of the Dar Al-Kalima film university in Bethlehem, a new cultural artistic space. Filmmakers like Shayma Awawdeh and Salam Yahya were among the first graduates of this university. From this perspective, in 2020 Dar Al-Kalima opened the first festival dedicated to films made by students. These films are also screened at other emerging festivals such as Palestine Cinema Days and the Haifa Independent Film Festival, where artists like Razan Al-Salah, Mahassen Naser El-Din, Lina el-Abed and Dina Nasser.
This burst of Palestinian women in the world of cinema and their way of appropriating the cultural scene and using film as a tool for cultural struggle is possibly due to two factors. The absence of institutions and a strong film industry in Palestine gives women the same opportunities to make films and leave behind the discrimination operating in these patriarchal institutions. Furthermore, filmmakers like May Odeh, Reem Shilleh and Annemarie Jacir have managed to carve out a place for themselves at the forefront of independent audiovisual production and fund many films made by this new generation.
This generation of filmmakers breaks with precedents, both in form and in substance. It proposes new stories about its relationship with identity, Palestinian belonging and family memory based on an ambivalent feeling among young Palestinians, both in exile and in the diaspora. These artists reflect another view of the occupation and apartheid and propose a fine and careful critique of society and the ruling class, a new way of interacting and interpreting new technologies, ecology and gender. These cinematographic forms and eclectic stories break the silence and transform the cinematographic scene, standing at the vanguard of current Arab film.
Palestinian film today appears as a new form of political commitment for this generation of artists, as a creative space that allows them to express themselves on equal terms.
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