Despite decades of conflict, non-Arabs might know little about Palestine beyond the news. It is Palestinian artists who have best presented the human cost of occupation and violence. Hundreds of films are available on such platforms as Shahid, OSN, Netflix, Watch It – and they are eye openers.
The MBC-owned Shahid offers nine films by Palestinian filmmakers based in Palestine or the diaspora. These include Palestinian director Najwa Najjar’s latest, Between Heaven and Earth (2019). Best known for Pomegranates and Myrrh (2009) and Eyes of a Thief (2014), the latter being Palestine’s 2015 Academy and Golden Globe Awards nomination, Najjar has won many awards. Between Heaven and Earth did not travel as far or wide as it might have due to the pandemic, but it did win awards including the 2019 Cairo International Film Festival Naguib Mahfouz Award for Best Screenplay. Starring Mona Hawa, Firas Nassar, Lamis Ammar and Louise Heem, the film, based around the divorce of a young couple, is road trip shot all across Palestine.
Another Palestinian film to see is Ghost Hunting (2017) by Raed Andoni, who also made the critically acclaimed documentary Fix Me (2009). Both films are dig into the trauma of living under occupation. In Ghost hunting, real people recall their dehumanising experience at the Moskovia Interrogation Centre in Jerusalem. Starring Palestinian director-actor Ramzi Maqdisi, it received the best documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017, and was selected but not nominated as a Palestinian Academy Awards entry that year.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar (2013) is a remarkable film by the director of Paradise Now (2006). Both films were Palestinian Oscar entries. Omar was also screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize, and at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Starring Adam Bakri, Leem Lubany and Eyad Hourani, the film follows the relationship of three friends, Omar, Tarek and Amjad and Amjad’s sister Nadia who all live in the West Bank and who are continuously kept off-balance by political tensions. Abu-Assad’s latest is a Hollywood film unrelated to Palestine, The Mountain Between Us (2017), which stars Idris Elba, and Kate Winslet.
In his debut feature film, Screwdriver (2018), Bassam Jarbawi tackles one man’s return home after 15 years in an Israeli jail. Played by the renowned Palestinian actor and cinematographer Ziad Bakri, the son of celebrated Palestinian director Moammed Bakry, Screwdriver had its world premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and its Middle East premiere at El Gouna Film Festival.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (2018) is yet another gem by Muayad Alayan, whose debut feature was Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (2015). It shows flesh-and-blood Palestinains acting (often controversially) in real-life ways, and often generates heated debate for that reason. Among nine awards, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem won two at the 2018 Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Audience Award and a special mention (Tiger Award) for to screenwriter Rami Musa Alayan. The jury commented, “This well-crafted screenplay shows us four humans, each with their own flaws and desires, who have to face the consequences of their actions in a complicated, divided world. The screenplay intertwines the personal and the political and manages to balance a complex plot with convincing characters. This proves to be the basis for a strong film by a talented director and an excellent cast.” The film stars Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi and Kamel Al Basha.
Villa Touma (2014) by Suha Arraf is another controversial film, but the controversy relates rather to the fact that 70 percent of its budget came from Israeli sources. “They wanted me to call the film Israeli and not Palestinian, and wanted the film to represent Israel at festivals abroad,” Arraf said in an interview on Jadaliyya web site. “But I am an Arab, Palestinian and xitizen of Israel – I have the right to define my own identity.” Starring Nisreen Faour, Ula Tabari, and Cherien Dabis, the film follows a Palestinian Christian family of three women (Violette, Juliette, and Antoinette) who are wholly immersed in the past, isolated from Palestinian society within their Villa Touma in Ramallah. When their niece Khadija, who was raised in an orphanage, appears in their life, they embark on a journey through class, gender and religion. Though the film went to court over its identity, it participated in over 50 festivals including Venice in the name of Palestine and won several awards and honours. Arraf was on Variety magazine’s “Top 10 Screenwriters to Watch”.
Despite a long documentary career that started in the mid-1980s, often working in collaboration with her husband, Lebanese filmmaker Jean Khalil Chamoun, Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri did not make a feature film until 2015. Starring Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadira Omran, and Rakeen Saad, 3000 Nights is the story of a young Palestinian schoolteacher who gives birth to a son inside an Israeli prison where she has to fight to protect him, survive and keep up hope. The film was shot in a real prison with an almost entirely female cast, with most of actresses having a strong connection with imprisonment whether directly or through their families. It was Palestine’s official submission for the Golden Globe Awards and Jordan’s official submission to the Academy Awards. It was officially selected in many prestigious film festivals including Toronto and Busan, and won the Tanit d’Bronze at the 2016 Carthage Film Festival.
The Time That Remains (2009), widely believed to be the closing part of a trilogy by Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman that also includes Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002). Although, being autobiographical drama, it is the most personal film in the trilogy, the film is also an account of the state of Israel from its creation in 1948 to the present day. The film stars Ali Suliman, Saleh Bakri, and Elia Suleiman himself, who appears in most of his movies. Competing for the Palme d’Or of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, The Time That Remains was on the official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival, among many other honours and awards.
Shahid also features a tiny selection of short films including The Parrot (2016) by Jordanian directors Amjad Al-Rasheed and Darin J. Sallam. According to Amjad Al-Rasheed, it is based on the true story of his grandmother who left Jerusalem fir Jordan in the 1930s shortly before the Zionist occupation of Palestine. All her stories to her grandson were about the little parrot she left behind at a Haifa home she would never be able to return to. Al-Rasheed used to wonder how the poor little creature dealt with its new life with the Mizrahi Jewish family from Tunisia who take over the house.
OSN, another streaming platform that celebrates some of the latest Palestinian productions, offers 200 Meters (2020) by Ameen Nayfeh. The film premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival where it won the BNL People’s Choice Audience Award. It was also the Jordanian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. Starring Ali Suliman, Anna Unterberger and Lana Zreik, it won four awards at El Gouna film festival where it had its Middle East premiere, including the best actor award and the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize. Based on a true story witnessed by the director-writer himself, 200 Meters is a road film about a Palestinian father trapped on the other side of the separation wall as he tries to reach the hospital where his son is.
OSN also offers Elia Suleiman’s latest, It Must Be Heaven (2019). Starring Elia Suleiman, Tarik Kopty, and Kareem Ghneim, the film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize,and received a Special Mention. It was also selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. The film depicts a man’s attempt to flee his problems in Palestine – only to encounter the same problems. The story of the film draws on Suleiman’s own life journey.
Among the short films recently acquired by OSN, there are three interesting shorts about Palestine and Palestinians. Bonboné (2017) by Rakan Mayasi stars Saleh Bakri, Rana Alamuddin, and Nadira Omran. The film, which won 14 awards including the Best Short Film award at the 2018 Moscow International Film Festival, is about a Palestinian couple resorting to an unusual way to have a baby as the husband is detained in an Israeli jail where visits are restricted.
The other film is A Drowning Man (2017) by Mahdi Fleifel, starring Atef Alshafei, Jalal Qaniry and Thymios Koukios. Fleifel’s debut fiction film, it is about a refugee drowning in sorrow and hardship, struggling to survive another day in a foreign country. The film was nominated for the 2018 BAFTA Best Short Film prize and the 2017 Palme d’Or’s Best Short Film prize and won the Muhr Award in addition to a Special Mention at the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival.
There is also Five Boys and a Wheel (2016) by Said Zagha, starring Ali Suliman, Nadira Omran, and Haidar Kfouf. Based on the American author Raymond Carver’s short story “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes”, it is about a school teacher who must regain his young son’s confidence and admiration through an act of violence, symbolically reflecting the director’s perspective on the political conflict.
Nominated for the 93rd Academy Awards, the Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi’s debut The Present (2020) is streaming exclusively on Netflix. Starring renowned actor Saleh Bakri, it centres on a Palestinian man in the West Bank who sets out with his daughter to buy his wife a gift, and demonstrates the struggles they go through among soldiers, segregated roads and checkpoints. The short film has also been nominated for Best British Short at the BAFTAs. Nominated for 45 awards, it won over 20 honours including the Audience Award at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
Also on Netflix, there is Ibrahim: A Fate to Define (2019), a documentary feature by Lina Al Abed. The film which won the Best Arab Film award at El Gouna Film Festival tracks the director’s journey to find out about her father, Ibrahim Al Abed, who left house one day 1987, when she was six, never to come back. Said father turns out to have ben a secret agent for the Revolutionary Council, a militant faction that opposed the PLO’s attempts to adopt more peaceful solutions to the conflict with Israel.
Another Palestinian film on the same platform is Wajib (2017) by Annemarie Jacir, starring Mohammad Bakri, Saleh Bakri, and Tarik Kopty. It was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It was also selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, but not nominated. Another road movie, it is about a father and son travelling amid wedding preparations in the buildup to Christmas in Nazareth. The film won 23 awards including the Arab Critics Award for Best Actor at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the Muhr Award for both Best Fiction Feature and Best Actor at the 2017 Dubai International Film Festival and four awards at the 2017 Locarno International Film Festival.
The Egyptian-based streaming platform Watch It, although it does not yet focus on non-Egyptian content, is streaming three Egyptian films about the Arab-Israeli conflict: The Road to Eilat (1994) by Inam Mohamed Ali, Cousins (2009) by Sherif Arafa and Dignity Day (2004) by Ali Abdelkhaleq.
In addition to the pre-paid streaming platforms, there are also a few nonprofit streaming platforms which aim to spread independent Arab cinema among audiences across the world. These include the Aflamuna and the Palestine Film Institute, where several Arab and Palestinian films are streamed on a regular basis but for a limited period of time.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly