More than a century after France’s Lumière brothers first shot Palestine, a film festival dedicated to the Palestinians and their lives, Le Festival Ciné-Palestine, has opened in Paris for the first time.
It was in 1896 that cameramen working for the founders of moviemaking captured vivid black and white images of Arabs, Jews and Christians all sharing Jerusalem.
Now division and subjugation dominate the high quality films being shown in Paris, all of them produced by, and starring, Palestinians.
A total of 25 are being shown, including documentaries, shorts and features, at a central Paris cinema, Saint-Denis University, and Le Sudio Cinema - an art-house in Aubervilliers, in the northern suburb of the city.
Numerous highlights include director Hany Abu-Assad’s 2005 hit ‘Paradise Now’, a dark film about childhood friends from Nablus who have been recruited to take part in bombings.
Another established crowd-pleaser is “When I Saw You,” the festival’s opener by award-winning director Annemarie Jacir. It’s about displaced Palestinians, and their hopes of returning to their homeland from Jordan after the Six Day War between Israel and Arab nations in 1967.
It had to be shown twice at Les Trois Luxembourg, the Left Bank cinema, on Friday because of the huge crowds who turned up to see it. Big names from Britain supporting the event include the actress Julie Christie and director Ken Loach.
Speaking via video link before the showing, Ken Loach said: “I think this festival is an opportunity to see the whole of humanity, which makes Palestinians a people like any other.”
Top actor Saleh Bakri was also in Paris. He plays a character called Layth in the 2012 film, which was selected as the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. He said: “The Festival is, like most Palestinian films, an act of resistance.
“Palestinian films resemble life itself – there is occupation, oppression, war, death, exile but also hope, happiness, dreams of freedom. The Festival is also a great opportunity to meet a new generation of artists, producers, and other Palestinian actors from all around the world.”
Funding for the festival has mainly come from donations from the Fondation de France, as well as individuals. The Palestine Mission in France and the Town council in Aubervilliers have also supported the event.
London has just cancelled its own Palestine film festival after 17 years because of underfunding. The fact that Paris took nearly 120 years to even host one has caused considerable disappointment, especially since France is the birthplace of the “Seventh Art,” and has the highest number of cinemas per capita in the world.
The city also outlawed pro-Palestine demonstrations during the Gaza conflict last summer, with Jacir saying it was all “extremely shocking.”
Samuel Lehoux, one of the volunteers behind the Festival said:
“Despite the ban on demonstrations and attempts by the French government to make boycotts against Israel illegal, there was still a massive show of support against the slaughter in Gaza.
“People want to help the Palestinian cause, and the Festival is a continuation in this support… people want to know more about the situation in the occupied territories too”.
Suggesting a problem of perception, Jacir added: “I feel there’s a popular misunderstanding and distrust about Palestinian cinema.
“People expect to see lots of explosions and blood, but in fact, Palestinian cinema is mainly about humor, and it gives people much to think about.
“The story of Palestinians has been mistold by others. We remain a voiceless people. The festival is an act of defiance. It’s about Palestinians telling their own story, making their own art, their own festivals. It’s a chance for audiences around the world to appreciate our history and our creativity.”
Asked if Palestinian cinema could be anything other than political, Jacir said: “For me, everything is political. I have never seen a film that is not political. There is no difference between a love story and a film about Palestine.
“What makes Palestinian cinema different is that we don’t present ourselves as victims. Yes we are being victimized, but we always give a perspective full of love and human relations, and we don’t feel sorry for ourselves."
Filmmaker Hind Shoufani presented “Trip Along Exodus” in Paris. It is a film that tells the story of 70 years of Palestine politics through the experience of her father, Elias Shoufani, an intellectual and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She said “It’s almost impossible to differentiate between the personal and political stories in making Palestinian films.
“The politics inform every single aspect of the life of Palestinians: where they were born, where they live, where they die, how Palestinians meet, get married, lose land etc…”
Expanding on a hugely complex situation, Jacir said: “Palestinian films are also about self-derision: they are critical of the Israeli occupation but also of our own leadership, our society, the relations we have between each other. We are not just looking at the main problem, which is Israeli military control – but also other issues.
“I don’t think it’s the job of Palestinians to educate our colonizers. The role of Palestinian cinema is to tell another side of the story – that of the Palestinian people. I come from a people who have been marginalized, cut off, isolated… and this has informed the way I approach the world. That’s why my focus is on Palestinian cinema.”
Le Festival Ciné-Palestine (FCP) is on until June 7.