I recently went on a mini-break to Palestine. Sort of. There were lots of olive trees, lots of checkpoints and a great big bloody wall obscuring… everything. This time, I entered Palestine not through a checkpoint but through the Barbican, where the London Palestine Film Festival had established residency for a week. There was plenty of Levantine sunshine spilling out through the projector and, as might be expected, quite a bit of politics. 

It’s not really the political nature of the films that was of interest, more the resistance within them, their very existence and exhibition being an act of resistance in itself; which felt pretty significant, especially given recent events. Big thanks to the Palestine Film Festival for countering the western media’s typical depiction of Palestinians with their selection of diverse films (over 40). It was a joy, as ever, to see Palestinians represented as happy, funny, clever, opinionated, dedicated, passionate, complicated, united but divided people. Not victims. Never victims, even when a bunch of IDF soldiers have rocked up at your family house in the middle of the night and start ransacking your home. 

This is the story in Smile and the World Will Smile Back, a documentary short from Hebron. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem gives cameras to families in the West Bank, so they can record their daily reality of life under occupation. The al-Haddad family passes the camera back and forth as the Israeli soldiers keep instructing them to empty out the contents of their house, as they search for some allusive mystery item that clearly doesn’t exist. The son, Dia, conveys the ridiculousness of the situation wonderfully; he goes out of his way to help the soldiers, asking if they want him to empty out even more drawers, more boxes, all of the wardrobe. The soldiers deal with his attitude by making him stand outside in the cold with his hands up against the wall. Dia keeps smiling. The family seems unfazed by the situation, by the disturbingly large guns that are being strolled around their home. They keep filming and smiling.  Small acts of resistance that shows the everyday defiance of occupation within the West Bank. 

Mais Darwazah’s My Love Awaits Me By The Sea, another documentary, was stunning. Always poetic, always considered, always emoting. Mais goes in search of Hasan Hourani, her imaginary lover, and Palestine, her homeland, bringing both back to life in the process. Hasan Hourani was a Palestinian artist who escaped the West Bank for the day to go to Tel Aviv to see and feel the sea. Hasan couldn’t swim, and although he was just standing in the shore, he was dragged under by the waves and drowned along with his nephew. 

Hasan is Palestine and Hasan is everywhere. Stretching from the Dead Sea to the shores of Tel Aviv, The Bride of the Sea. We see this shoreline again and again, in old, fading pictures that Mais pins to her wall. Her camera frequently returns to these polaroids from a lost time; focusing in on a rock that protrudes from the waves, a rock that hasn’t yet been claimed by an Israeli flag. But patience is running out. Enough is enough. My Love Awaits Me By The Sea genuinely made me feel like we were at a point where something is finally going to change. It also made me cry. Palestine is likened to an abused woman; there are issues that will need to be dealt with. If someone cuts your hand off, you have a stump. You can carry on living, but you still have a stump. But will you live with it negatively, or positively? How do you keep breathing? All these ideas are thrown up for discussion.

A genius piece of programming was Ramallah: A Triple Bill followed by Gaza: A Triple Bill. Three films from each area gave a wonderful insight into places that are otherwise pretty inaccessible, especially Gaza. Obviously. Ramallah was shown to be a city of many contradictions in French filmmaker Flavie Pantel’s montages of the de-facto Palestinian ‘capital’. Centre of commerce, industry and home to the PLO, hedonistic bubble of multicultural contradictions, overgrown village where shepherds herd their flocks over rubble strewn wadis and half finished developments. I also loved Pink Bullet; a bizarre but wonderful representation of youth culture in Ramallah.

The Italian Teleimmagini group’s collaborative hour-long exploration of Gaza, StripLife, was beautiful and uplifting. The film opens with unforgettable imagery of hundreds of manta rays washed up on Gaza City beach. Nobody knows where they came from, but they are desperately hacked up and rushed off to sell at market. The film then follows the everyday lives of different individuals across Gaza. Antar recording his first hip-hop single, Jabber harvesting his fields in the buffer zone, Moemen photographing the Strip from his wheelchair (he lost both his legs documenting the 2009 Israeli insurgence). This film celebrates Gazan culture, and everyday existence. Yes it’s political, inevitably, but there’s a real beauty in it too and this is what pervades. The scenes of the Gazan Parkour team leaping across abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn graveyards feel full of freedom, with a deep-rooted sense of fraternity. Of course, the film also inspires great anger and compassion at the end of a year that saw Israel destroy half the infrastructure in the Strip and kill 2,189 Gazans. StripLife was full of the resilience of spirit that so often defines Palestinian cinema. A remarkable film, about a remarkable place and the people who inhabit it.  

I should probably say something about the features, but generally these were lacking in integrity and ingenuity. The festival opener, Eyes of a Thief, was pretty tolerable but ultimately without depth or impact. I also found the casting of two non-Palestinians in leading roles – Egyptian Khaled Abol Naga and Algerian Souad Massi – a complete cop out. It’s the Palestine Film Festival, let’s see some Palestinian talent on the screen! It’s not as if it’s lacking. Villa Touma did feature some great Palestinian talent (Ula Tabari, Nisreen Faour) but it was largely wasted. The characters didn’t seem sure of what they were doing in the film, and I found myself wondering what I was doing watching it. Mars at Sunrise was a confusing and barely watchable mess, without subtlety or nuance. Giraffada on the other hand, was charming and unique; a family film set in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. And, it was a pleasure to watch father and son Mohammad and Saleh Bakri on screen together again. 

Another documentary, Cinema Palestine, was a wonderful look at the history of Palestinian cinema, celebrating the richness of films made within/without/about the territories, as well as the art of filmmaking itself. Tim Schwab follows a fairly standard format of talking heads of Palestinian filmmakers intercut with excerpts from films. Simple on the face of it, but the research and focus that has gone into the project indicates that it was a real labour of love. Schwab spoke to almost all of the filmmakers who have been a part of establishing what many now refer to as a Palestinian national cinema, although this itself raises many questions. It feels annoying to say it, and I don’t mean to diminish the quality and obvious hard work and dedication of the film, but I did miss Elia Suleiman’s presence. 

The documentary recreates Palestine itself, weaving a narrative for what is lost and what remains through collecting clips from a huge range of films. It’s like a big collective memory, filled with beauty and comedy. Especially fascinating were the different motivations for becoming a filmmaker. There’s touching recollections of seeing moving images for the first time, projected onto the walls of refugee camps. One filmmaker says, “We the Palestinians feel a need to tell our stories,  Who we are and what we like to do.” Another tells us, “The camera is my weapon […] A way to record so that your time isn’t being wasted.” They all profess a natural joy for cinema. 

There’s some difficult things that aren’t addressed; who are the films for? There’s not a lot of cinemas in Gaza or the West Bank, so audiences are generally Palestinians in the diaspora or foreign audiences. There’s nothing wrong with that but a national cinema’s primary audience would generally tend to be the people of that country. I suppose Palestine isn’t exactly like most other countries. Rashid Mashawari talks about the freedom of Palestinian directors; there’s no government to control cinematic creativity, no big industry, no money and, no audience. They are free to criticise society in which ever way they please. Hany Abu Assad, who directed Golden Globe winning Paradise Now and Oscar nominated Omar, talks about Palestinian directors all being connected through one idea and that all Palestinian cinema is about fighting for that idea: “Whatever you do, you can’t disconnect us from our land”. So Palestinian cinema is actually bigger than a national cinema: it’s an ideology. 

I felt myself feeling a longing for the land too and it’s not even my homeland, yet I felt a real pull to it all the same. All the films moved me to this confused nostalgic state, as if I was looking back at fading postcards from memories entwined with this iconic, holy and most contentious land. Even the bad films films took me back there and yes, there were some fairly bad ones but let’s not dwell on that, not everybody likes everything, after all. I loved seeing Palestine on screen and all the narratives woven together in this distinct festival to contribute to a collective memory and a consciousness. It asked audiences to hold their breaths, to reflect, and to engage with what happens next. More olive trees and less checkpoints, let’s hope. 

Words by Libby Waite