Palestinian cinema is riding the crest of a wave. In the past decade, its popularity has become so widespread that film festivals dedicated to the screening of Palestinian-made films have opened across the globe. From Boston, Chicago and Washington DC to London, Madrid, Amsterdam, Toronto, Buenos Aires and Australia. Palestinian movies are sparking more interest than ever before.
The story of Palestinian cinema, however, has been far from straightforward. From the Nakba to occupation, challenges have persisted throughout the years, providing filmmakers with relatively limited opportunities to showcase their talents. But the resolve of the cinematic community has outweighed the obstacles, shaping the industry we see today.
1935 - The Beginning
It all started in 1935 when Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan shot a 20-minute silent documentary about the visit to Palestine of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia - considered the first Palestinian film ever made.
Over the next 12 years, directors released films such as Ahlam Tahaqaqat (Dreams Fulfilled), Fi Laylat El Eid (On the Night of the Feast) and Assifah Fil Bayt (A Storm at Home) and others. Sirhan and fellow filmmaker Ahmad Hilmi Al Kilani also set up the Arab Film Company production studio in 1945.
They were not the first Palestinians to make their mark on the world of cinema, however. In 1924 the Chilean-born Lama brothers – Ibrahim and Badr – decided to return to their ancestral homeland of Bethlehem. Writer-director Ibrahim and actor Badr were sidetracked in Alexandria, Egypt, where they took up work in the city’s growing film industry. In 1930 they established a studio in Cairo, from where they were part of the creative talent that took Egypt – and the Arab world - into its golden age of cinema.
As far as cinema houses go, Palestine’s first opened in 1908: The Oracle in Jerusalem. In 1937, the largest and most luxurious in the Middle East opened: The Alhambra Cinema in Jaffa. It not only showed movies, but also hosted famous Arab artists such as Umm Kulthum, Farid Al Atrash, and Leila Mourad on its stage.
By 1948 there were around 40 cinemas across Palestine, showing mainly Egyptian and American movies. From 1935 all movies had to be approved by the British Mandate, which put strict conditions on what could be shown, and when.
1948 - The Era of Silence
Things changed dramatically in 1948, however, as the Nakba true to its apt name, catastrophe, disrupted every aspect of society, including the developing film industry.
For nearly two decades Palestinian cinema was put on hiatus by the mass exodus. Filmmaking virtually disappeared, and Israel either closed or took control of cinemas. Palestinians, however, continued to make films abroad. Sirhan, for example, was involved in Jordan’s first feature film, The Struggle in Jarash (1957), while another Palestinian, Abdallah Ka’Wash, directed Jordan’s second feature, My Homeland, My Love (1964).
Further Israeli crackdowns on cinemas took place either side of the Six-Day War in 1967, but a year later the efforts of the newly formed Palestine Film Unit (PFU) kick-started Palestinian cinema’s revival.
This collective of Palestinian filmmakers and researchers, based initially in Amman and Beirut, documented daily life and important events that occurred in Palestine. Among their ranks were Mustafa Abu Ali, Sulafa Jadallah, Hani Jawhariah, Khadijah Habashneh Abu Ali.
With support from the PLO, more than 60 films were made by the PFU in a 14 year period to 1982. The group also set up the Palestinian Film Archive, collecting more than 100 films before the archive – kept in Beirut – was lost or destroyed during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The following years saw very few feature films made. Among them were Return to Haifa (1982) and Wedding in Galilee (1987). Many cinemas were again forced to close from 1987 – the time of the first Intifada - and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that theatres started to return.
1990 - The Awards
It was at this time that Palestinian cinema started to make a name for itself both at home and on the world stage.
In 1996, Chronicle of a Disappearance was released; written, directed and produced by Elia Suleiman, who also starred in the movie. The film received critical acclaim and won the Best First Film Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It also became the first Palestinian movie to receive a national release in the United States.
Other directors came to the fore such as Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, Annemarie Jacir, and Hany Abu-Assed. Their movies such as Haifa (1996), Divine Intervention (2002), Rana’s Wedding (2002), Like Twenty Impossibles (2003), and Paradise Now (2005) paved the way for a new wave of movies that would take the industry to its next level.
Funding, which had until then been hard to access, started to become available – largely from European organizations that sought to support independent, non-commercial movies; a category that Palestinian cinema falls squarely into.
This funding meant that more films than ever were being made - seven in both 2015 and 2017, for example - with many winning international awards.
Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar (2013), for example, won eight of the 11 awards it was nominated for, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.
Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting (2017) was awarded best documentary at the Berlinale 2017, and Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib (2019) won multiple awards, including the Arab Critics Award for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
And as Reel Cinema’s latest program proves, there is more to come from a creative community that has not only found its voice but is making it heard around the world.