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Boston Celebrates Its 4th Palestine Film Festival


Stormy weather didn’t dampen the spirits of a capacity crowd gathered Oct. 1 to kick off Boston’s annual tribute to Palestinian cinema. Michel Khleifi’s Zindeeq (2009) was featured, and the director present to answer audience questions. Zindeeq tells the story of M, a filmmaker born in Nazareth but living in exile in a European country (Khleifi lives and teaches in Belgium). M is played by the popular Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri; Racha, his pretty young colleague, by the actress Mira Awad. M’s on location in Ramallah filming eyewitness accounts of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) when he gets a crisis call from his sister. His nephew has killed a man in a fight, and every male in the family is now subject to vendetta. Instead of fleeing to save himself, M stays in Nazareth, but no hotel will accept him.
The acknowledged “father of Palestinian film,” Khleifi participated in a panel discussion following screening of his 1990 film Canticle of the Stones. “Zionists would have us believe that we (Arabs) are outside history. I believe it is Zionists who are outside history.” Nazareth-born Khleifi defined his people as “victims of the ultimate victims,” ie. victims of the Nazi holocaust. “Palestine is an open wound,” he explained, “yet I try to be inclusive. I am not just the inheritor of the Palestinian past, but the Jewish past as well.”
Khleifi was joined by Mahasen Nasser-Eldin, who represents a new generation of Palestinian activist-artists. Her film From Palestine with Love (2010) was presented in a program of women’s films. “We are very conscious of how Palestinians are represented on screen," she said. "It’s not enough to show them as victims; they are agents of change as well.”
Mohammed Alatar has campaigned for human rights and in 2002 was nominated for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Award for Humanity. Asked how important his heritage is, he responded: “Being Palestinian guides my work. Our films need to tell our story, and our story is conflict.” Later he was asked about the dangers of trying to make a film in Palestine: “We used two crews: one to film and the other to get arrested. You know the risks, you expect abuse.” Alatar’s 2008 documentary Jerusalem: The East Side Story depicts that ongoing struggle.
Nadia Yaqub, associate professor of Arabic Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also participated in the panel. She authored the book Pens, Swords, and the Springs of Art and many articles on Arabic literature and Palestinian cinema. Dr. Thomas Abowd of U. Mass-Amherst and Tufts, author of the upcoming Colonial Jerusalem, moderated.
Like Zindeeq, the shorts, documentaries, and features on view this year explore how Palestinians—under occupation or in exile—deal with their collective trauma. In Fragments of a Lost Palestine (2010) Norma Marcos battles with French and Israeli authorities for permission to visit family and, once with family, to nurture hope their lives will improve. Taha Awadallah’s The Thyme Seller (2009) portrays his stoical mother’s daily struggle to eke out a living selling her home-grown herb. As she goes door to door, finding few customers, we hear her labored breathing.
Catherine Deneuve, on location in Beirut, wants to see the aftermath of 2006 Israeli bombings in Je Veux Voir (2008). Her guide, local actor Rabih Mrouh, becomes lost and confused more than once. Of his childhood neighborhood, he admits “I can’t recognize anything.” Later they see bulldozers dumping truckloads of debris in the sea. The experience seals a bond between the survivor and the celebrated actress. To himself Mrouh promises: “We will rebuild. We will live again. But, Catherine, will you come back?”
Till Roeskens’ simple but powerful documentary Video Mappings (2009) allows children to draw mental “maps” of their experiences in Aida Camp (Bethlehem). Children of Aida Camp also produced Digital Poetry (2009), shown with an award-winning tribute to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Nasri Hajjaj’s As the Poet Said (2009).
Provocative documentaries by Israeli filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones included her 2007 Ashkenaz that follows European Jews from the Rhineland to the holyland, Dunam on the Moon (2002) about the destroyed Arab village of Ayn Hawd, and Targeted Citizen (2010) about discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Eyal Sivan’s prize-winning Jaffa,
The Orange’s Clockwork
(2009) uses archival footage and experts’ commentary to show how the iconic orange became a tool of colonization. Gaza was the focus of five films and an eye-witness account by Col. Ann Wright of the 2010 Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara.
Ongoing Israeli construction and Judaization were treated in Port of Memory (Aljafari, 2009), Budrus (Bacha, 2010), Memory of the Cactus (Musleh, 2008), Road Movie (Flanders, 2010), and Jerusalem: The East Side Story (Alatar, 2008). Standouts among films by women was 138 Pounds in My Pocket. Sahera Dirbas’ 2009 documentary chronicles the creation of Palestine’s largest orphanage by Hind Husseini. In April 1948, Husseini rescued 55 orphans—all under nine years—fleeing the massacre at Deir Yassin and  brought them home.
Music and comedy mixed with screenings this year. Le  Trio Joubran perfomed a tribute to their mentor, the late Mahmoud Darwish, on the stringed instrument called the “oud.” For the Arabs Gone Wild standup comedy team of Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, and Aron Kader (with special guest Eman) everything is fair game.
The Boston Palestine Film festival has enjoyed increased attendance in its four years, 42% in 2009, and increased recognition. Citing Palestinians’ invisibility, organizer Kate Rouhana says one of the festival’s goals is to “empower and inspire Palestinians to tell their stories through the medium of cinema.” “In our own small local way,” she adds, “we are providing one such forum, a model for other Palestine film festivals to follow.”
And follow it they are, says co-curator Katherine Hanna. “When we started four years ago, there were just two other Palestine film festivals (London and Chicago). Now there are events like this one in Houston, Toronto, Ann Arbor, and more starting that we’ve helped organize.”
Growing popularity may raise Americans’ awareness of Palestinian rights and the horrors of life under Occupation. At least co-curator Salma Abu Ayyash hopes so. “The more people attend our festival,” she says, “the closer we are to presenting the Palestinian narrative in a way that will give people a clearer understanding of the Palestinian struggle and bring us closer to achieving true peace in the region.”

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