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The Toronto Palestine Film Festival


I spent the week Oct 25-Nov 1 at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF). Because a friend of mine gets the occasional free ticket, I have attended the Toronto International Film Festival a few times – just for one film, usually. But I have never thrown myself into a film festival the way I did this one, with possibly one exception – the London (that’s London, Ontario) Palestine Film Festival, which I attended as part of a panel in 2005, when I discovered that I love Palestine film festivals. The TPFF was huge, dazzling, and amazingly impressive. I was not involved in organizing it at all, though the organizers are friends and people I respect. It was very nice to attend as an audience member and enjoy all of their work, as well as that of the filmmakers, many of whom were around for the screenings.

Even though I bought the TPFF 10 and wanted to attend every single film, I ended up coming in at around 10 programs ("programs" instead of "films" because each feature was accompanied by one or more shorts). Walk through my journey with me.

On Saturday October 25 the festival opened with Salt of This Sea by Annemarie Jacir. It is a story of a Palestinian from Brooklyn who goes to Palestine to discover her roots and retrace the steps of her grandparents who were displaced from Jaffa. The main character, Soraya, is played by Suheir Hammad – a Palestinian-American poet who brought to the screen the same magnetic presence she brings to her poetry readings (I saw her perform years before closing the "Made in Palestine" exhibit in New York). It was her first movie, but perhaps because the character’s journey has so many important similarities to her own, there was not a false note in her performance. Her co-star, Saleh Bakri, who, if I was half as handsome as I would not complain, is the son of Mohammad Bakri, director of Jenin Jenin (on whom more later). While Soraya is trying to connect to Palestine and finds Israel’s occupation blocking her at (almost) every turn, Saleh Bakri’s character, Emad, has never known anything but the brutality of apartheid locking him in, and he wants out. In the end, apartheid keeps them apart, but it can’t stop them from making a connection. As for the director, Jacir, she’s been banned from travel to Palestine by the Israelis – but they can’t stop you from watching the film. It was a beautiful way to open the festival, through Soraya and Suheir’s eyes – someone a little more knowledgeable than the audience, but making her own way and bringing you along with her, to see the realities of how people survive and live and love despite the walls that are stacked between them.

I missed "This Land Speaks Arabic" by Maryse Gargour, the second show of opening night, because I went to the reception instead, and got to congratulate the organizers and tell Suheir herself how impressed I was. If Suheir wasn’t enough to make a fella a little starstruck, there was also Bashar Da’as, star of Driving to Zigzigland by Nicole Ballivian. Zigzigland was playing on the 26th and 27th but I missed both screenings, unfortunately.

On Day 2 (Sunday Oct 26), I did watch "The Olive Harvest", by Hanna Elias, though. It is a love triangle: older brother Mazen has been in Israeli prison for years and comes home. Younger brother Taher, who’d been trying to take care of things in the village while also working as a lawyer and activist against Israel’s colony expansion into the West Bank, has also fallen in love with childhood friend and neighbour Raeda. Raeda loves Taher, too, but tradition dictates that the older brother has to marry first. Taher doesn’t tell Mazen about Raeda, and Mazen ends up falling for Raeda too. Meanwhile Raeda’s father is sick and his dying wish is that she marry a man who cares about the land and will hold it. Raeda’s father (played by Mohammad Bakri) has a point, but underrates the importance of the struggle in the city. The film takes place against the backdrop of the olive harvest in Palestine, which has to happen under the continuously expanding colonies of Israeli settlers. The story highlights some impossible dilemmas: the duty of a peasant to the land, the duty of an activist to the struggle, the duty of someone in love to the beloved. How can one of these take priority over the others? How can they be reconciled? Maybe they can’t – and maybe that’s why the movie ends the way it does.

A little frustrated by the ending of The Olive Harvest (which, admittedly, might have been the intent) I did the only sensible thing – turned around and watched another film! We took a break, had some ice cream in the cold, and watched "Telling Strings", by Anne Marie Haller. The movie is about the Jubran family, master musicians, their instrument (the Oudh), and their music. While I was astounded by the older Jubrans, I was more entranced when the younger Jubran, Kamilya, was on the screen. Listening to her sing is like watching an acrobat from the Cirque du Soleil or Usain Bolt running the 100m dash. You’re watching the very heights of what humans can do, and it makes you proud on behalf of humanity.

Day 3 was in the suburbs, to reach a different audience, and I missed it.

On Day 4, I watched Simone Bitton’s commemoration of Mahmoud Darwich, Palestine’s national poet. I wrote about Darwich when he died months ago, saying that he was one of those who reminds me of the power of words. I had never heard his voice, or his poems in Arabic, and since I’m trying to learn Arabic listening to Darwish’s poetry with an excellent translation is about as good as it gets. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that the poets I know are all extremely clever in conversation, but Darwish’s interviews were as dazzling as the poems he narrated. At one point he’s asked why he is alone. He says something like, while life is not worth living without a partner, a tragedy closed that door for him so he won’t pursue it. And in any case, he needs absolute quiet in the morning without interruptions! He said it so straight-faced that I wasn’t sure if he was trying to lighten something that was obviously incredibly heavy. But that was the effect. And given his power as a poet, it’s hard to believe that if you’re feeling something in a conversation with him, it’s not something he wants you to feel.

Day 5: A double header. First, Memory of the Cactus, by Hannah Musleh. An important film for Canadians to watch, it’s about three villages that were erased in 1967 to make way for "Canada Park", so called because the funds for the park were raised by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada. It includes some fantastic footage of a very smart guide taking Israeli students on a tour of the Canada Park to show them all of the physical remnants of the villages that were destroyed. Three young lawyers from an advocacy organization called Al Haq were present to answer some questions at the end. They were a clever and engaging trio as well. Most fascinating about the film, for me, was the tour guide showing how Israelis are the main targets of so much of this propaganda. I’ve always thought about propaganda of this kind as fairly complex. It works, but partly it works because it falls on receptive ears. Recent events in the US make me wonder what happens when that receptivity changes. A few years ago it seemed impossible to me that it could change in the US, and it seems to have, a little. It seems impossible to me that it could happen in Israel, but it could, too.

The second film of Day 5 was, "All that Remains" by Nada El-Yassir. It is a documentary about Israel’s attempts to concentrate Bedouins of the Negev into townships by destroying their crops and homes and cutting them off of services. Like so much else in the TPFF, it showed some of the beauty of Bedouin culture and peasant life while inevitably exposing the apartheid regime that is trying to wipe it out.

I had thought to skip Day 6 in order to get some work done so that I could settle in for the long haul on the closing weekend. But I finished my work in time to catch the late show on Thursday October 30, "Since You Left" by Mohammad Bakri. For me, with the opening and closing films, this was the film of the festival. What a fascinating person Bakri is, an artist, fluent in Hebrew, spending a life actually trying to work towards coexistence, and watching a life of work unravel as Israel tightens the noose around the Palestinians one turn at a time after 2001. A nephew of his becomes a suicide bomber, and in the apartheid philosophy of mass reprisal, the entire family is attacked for it. After the massacre in Jenin, Bakri sneaks into Jenin and makes a film (Jenin Jenin) which is then banned in Israel for 2 years (an interesting point here: why do try so hard to prevent Israelis from watching such a film? Why are they afraid when Israelis ought to automatically be on side with what their army did in Jenin?) The film is about Bakri’s life, but he writes it as a letter to his dead friend and mentor, novelist Emile Habibi. The scenes of him at the grave of his friend, the way he laments directly to his friend, alternately wishing he was there and being glad he didn’t live through what Bakri had to, is heartbreaking and beautiful.

On Day 7 (Halloween) I watched "Untitled" by Jayce Salloum, a long interview with Soha Bechara, a Lebanese resistance fighter who was detained and tortured for years by the Israelis in Lebanon. Salloum just gets out of the way and lets Soha Bechara speak for 40 minutes, and the result is an amazing document. In form, it reminds me a little of The Fog of War, with Robert McNamara, but I hated the Fog of War and loved Untitled, probably because of who the interview subjects in both films were.

I also watched "Snow White and the Ambassador" by Thomas Nordanstad and Erik Pauser, which was a fantastic movie about Zvi Mazel, the Israeli Ambassador to Sweden’s destruction of an art exhibit on Palestine. It is a document of an amazing little piece of history. The co-artist whose exhibit was destroyed, Dror Feiler, was clever. Some Israeli artist said he overreacted to Mazel’s destruction of his exhibit and called him mentally ill. Feiler responded by saying – oh, so now we let artists diagnose mental illness and politicians decide what is art! If the Israeli ambassador’s destruction of an art exhibit was not surprising, perhaps the Swedish museum director’s response was: he kicked the vandal out. The Israeli co-director of Route 181 said this was the right response, and should show the way for others: Israel should be treated like any other vandal.

Closing night was all about Slingshot Hip Hop by Jackie Salloum. But not before I got to see a PEN Canada commissioned film on two Toronto poets, Rafeef Ziadah and Boonaa Muhammad. The film is called Sedition, it’s by Minsook Lee (who I also respect immensely) and features music by Toronto group LAL. The 12-minute film featured little snippets of the poets’ lives, what moves them to write, and snippets of their poetry as well. Best of all, Minsook, Rafeef, and Boonaa all took the stage after the film and the poets dropped their poems to a packed and revved up audience of 850.

The right mood was created for the closing film of the night, Jackie Salloum’s Slingshot Hip Hop. It chronicles the growth of the Palestinian hip hop scene over the past few years, and the growth of a group of rappers, mainly DAM, the first group on the scene, as they developed and sparked rappers from other parts of occupied Palestine. Watching these young people build relationships with each other across apartheid walls would have been inspiring enough had they not been gifted musicians. DAM describes their music as 30% (American) hip hop, 30% (Arab and Palestinian) literature, and 40% reality (they describe this by pointing out the window at their occupied neighbourhood). The film features female rappers and male ones, and like Darwish, is another testament to the power of words. They are an amusing bunch as well. When their car breaks down on the way to a concert, one of the rappers tells the camera: "Now you know why we’re rappers. Cause we can’t do anything else, we’ll be here for hours because none of us knows how to fix a car."

When Jackie Salloum came out on stage after the film, the standing ovation was several minutes long. She said, with 850 people, it was the biggest opening for the film outside of Ramallah.

Now it was a full, emotional, and powerful week, and there are many things that can be said about it. It was a cultural event above all, not a political one. But in an apartheid situation, it’s not always possible to separate the two. Art is true to reality, after all, and the reality is one of apartheid.

So here’s one somewhat political point, for me: it’s been three generations of Israel trying very deliberately and systematically to destroy Palestinian life and culture. We don’t know how much the world has missed out on because of all this destruction. But we do know this, anyone who went to the TPFF knows this: that after 60 years, after walls and massacres and assassinations, after every bureaucratic humiliation available, after the theft of land and water, after the bombing of civilians and the destruction of homes, the targeting of cultural centers and the destruction of archives, apartheid has, in the quest to stifle Palestinian creativity and culture, totally, spectacularly, utterly, failed. The words of Palestinians can reach us, if we’re listening. Perhaps in Israel’s attempts to isolate them, it may end up isolating itself, like what happened in miniature in Sweden. If that happens, the world might before too long be able to share in a Palestinian culture that’s not under siege.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.

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