“There is a need for people to see us as Palestinians, and film is the best way for us to be seen—this celebrates Palestine the most.” So says Karma Nabulsi in her introduction to the London Palestine Film Festival, which opened in the Barbican on 30th April and continues there and at the School of Oriental and African Studies until 14th May.
Now in it’s sixth year, the festival explores through film and photography the myriad issues of Palestinian identity, both contemporary and historical, and within the Palestinian nation and beyond—from the Israeli onslaught in Gaza in early 2009 and the issue of expanding illegal settlements, to the plight of Palestinian refugees across the middle east and the Palestinian diaspora around the world. Highlights include Jaffa: the Orange’s Clockwork, which traces the political significance of the orange as a symbol of Zionist power and Palestinian loss, and Pomegranates and Myrrh, the controversial debut film by Najwa Najjar which focuses on the position of Palestinian women living under Israeli occupation. Central to all the films is the need to represent Palestine in ways that challenge its reductive portrayal in the mainstream media.
The festival opened with a screening of Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, a whimsical but powerful autobiographical history of the director’s family from the inception of the Israeli state in 1948 to the present day. Based on his father’s diaries, his mother’s letters to family who had been forced to leave Palestine, and his own memories of growing up in Nazareth, Suleiman describes the film as an “un-epic epic,” depicting the everyday life of Israeli-Arabs, a minority with a perilous existence in Israel, forced to renege their identity in order to survive.
There are moments of wry humour and farce—a young Elia is constantly thrown out of the classroom for denouncing America as imperialist; his elderly neighbour threatens to set himself on fire on a daily basis, only to fail miserably; an Israeli tank cannon absurdly and pointlessly stalks a young Arab man as he strolls up and down the pavement a few yards away while talking on his phone. Juxtaposed with these observations is the constant underlying threat of violence, a cycle that repeats itself down through the generations, evident in the street battles between Arab youths and Israeli soldiers that reoccur throughout the passage of time in the film.
For Suleiman, The Time That Remains is an attempt to portray his personal history, and that of his homeland, while disrupting conventional linear narratives of Israel and Palestine in the 20th century. This dislocation of established historical ideas has not been to everyone’s taste—Suleiman, like several of the other directors featured in the festival, has had to overcome his films being banned by Israel’s government, or not receiving standard distribution across Israel. He says that even left-liberal Israelis, the kind of people most likely to support his work in Israel, have responded to his revision of their country’s history with discomfort and even anger. “They don’t like to come face to face with the idea that the creation of Israel might have done harm, that it was not a happy event for Palestinians.”
It seems unlikely that the audiences at the London festival will feel challenged in the same way. But at a time when the position of Palestinians within the Israeli state is as vulnerable for ever (see, for example, the new Israeli ID law which could result in tens of thousands of Palestinians being deported from the West Bank), and when those in Gaza are struggling for their very existence due to the Israeli blockade on goods, the real value of the festival is that it allows Palestinians, as Karma Nabulsi says, to be “seen.” It gives them the opportunity to represent themselves, and their history, on their own terms—unfettered by state censorship and media stereotypes.
Click here to find out more about the Palestine Film Festival