Palestinian cinema fights the odds

Cinema in Gaza and the West Bank has been given a shot in the arm by the start of a new festival that aims to showcase female Palestinian film-makers.

    Public cinemas are very rare in Gaza and the West Bank

    Shashan is a non-profit organisation that is screening the best of women's cinema in the occupied territories until December despite severe economic recession, repeated Israeli closures and funding shortages.

    Alia Arasughly, who runs Shashat, said: "It's hard to work in films here."

    Liana Badr's documentary The Gates Are Open Sometimes is featured in the three-month festival, and she said she endured threats and intimidation from Israeli troops when trying to film near the West Bank separation barrier.

    "The area is a military area and we're not allowed to photograph or even come with a camera, so it was horrible. We had to have a lot of courage."

    Culture drive

    Public cinemas barely exist in the Palestinian territories outside Jerusalem and Ramallah.

    "Everything requires four times as much effort"

    Alia Arasughly, the director of Shashat

    Most local film-makers are better known abroad than at home in an industry where it is difficult to get funding for films or get them shot and edited.

    Hence the reasoning behind what is only the second women's film festival, which has been organised to make Palestinians aware of the work of 11 local women film-makers and to promote culture in more isolated pockets of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

    But at present donors are increasingly focused on emergency food and employment aid.

    Add to this that tastes are becoming more conservative under Hamas and the difficulty of achieving the film's aim becomes obvious.

    Eager crowds
    The festival itself has also run into many problems. One screening was cancelled in the West Bank town of Nablus owing to a general strike and clashes between Fatah and Hamas militia.

    "For every single act you have to calculate twice as much time. Everything requires four times as much effort," says Arasughly.

    Yet, she says, audiences have been impressive. In the southern Gaza Strip, where electricity is strictly rationed after Israel bombed the only power station, a film was shown by generator.

    Yusuf Shayib, a film critic, says recent Palestinian successes, such as the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, have opened the door to local film-makers to make films with worldwide appeal.

    The success of Paradise Now has
    encouraged Palestinian directors

    "There is a need to tell the Palestinian story in a language that can be heard in the world, not by shouting," he said, highlighting young director Liana Salih and fellow film-maker Najwa Najjar.

    Still studying in Paris, Salih won a prize from Aljazeera for her short film, A Ball and a  Colouring Box, about the dreams of Palestinian children living amid death and occupation in the West Bank.

    International recognition

    "This is Liana's first film and she is the youngest filmmaker in Palestine. It's amazing to have a 17-year-old girl make a good film about the dreams of Palestinian children," Shayib said.

    Najjar's debut feature, Yasmine Tughani, beautifully shot in scenes that more closely ressemble Tuscany than the gritty  documentaries featured in the festival, tells the story of young lovers thwarted by the separation barrier.

    Despite the problems, many of the filmmakers have won international prizes for work that focuses on the human cost to their fellow Palestinians from the Middle East conflict, albeit with little regard for Israel's concerns.

    Arasughly and three other filmmakers will travel to London this month after being selected to make shorts for a "three-minute wonder" series to be broadcast by Channel 4 television in the UK.



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