On a humid day in Paris in the basement of the Cité internationale des arts which overlooks the River Seine, a collection of leading Palestinian directors, producers and screenwriters are in agreement about one thing: that there is no cinema industry in Palestine.
Lack of funding from a Palestinian ministry of culture which neither has the budget, nor the will, and the geographical dispersion of Palestinians are just some of the challenges which confront these professionals.
Many are scattered across the world as part of the diaspora, others are divided by their location within Palestine, for example a filmmaker from Gaza cannot attend a festival or help shoot a film in the West Bank as the Israeli authorities rarely grant permission for entry.
The question which everyone has gathered at this film festival to tackle is what can be done. Meeting in the French capital using the platform provided by Festival Ciné-Palestine is one way to get around the geographic sprawl, and co-production – taking funds from French or German companies – can raise enough cash to see a full-length production through to the end.
But as the participants themselves admit, though there are huge advantages to collaboration this can also be part of the problem, not the solution. The aim is for the funding to come from within Palestine itself so filmmakers are not bound by someone else’s agenda.
Michel Plazanet, deputy director of the National Centre for Cinematography and the Moving Image (CNC) – the biggest film centre in Europe with a €600 million ($700 million) budget which it offers to both budding and veteran filmmakers to realise their projects – told the audience that Palestine is a priority for co-production.
However, as is always the case when money is involved, there are demands at every stage of the journey – the first being that the film must have a co-producer who is French.
When CNC supports a film the money is given to the French producer. Half of it has to be spent in France, and only 25 per cent in Palestine, so it offers visibility to the film but it doesn’t help build Palestine’s industry. Germany is even worse, asking for the full 100 per cent to be spent in the country.
For experts already struggling with funds there is another drawback – scripts forwarded to CNC must be in near perfect French, which sets applicants back an extra €1,000-2,000 ($1,167-$2,334) for a good translator. If filmmakers fight their way through the fierce competition and onto the final stage, it is still a French company which owns the rights to the film.
A case in point is Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib” which follows the story of Shadi who returns from Rome to Nazareth to help prepare for his sister’s wedding. It was a huge success for the French distributor Pyramide International, selling more than 50,000 tickets in France, but as one audience member pointed out, this is money for the French not for the Palestinians.
Whilst the funds offered by organisations like CNC are vital it’s not just about money, says artistic director of Filmlab: Palestine, Hanna Atallah. It’s also about laying the groundwork for the industry to grow and develop by itself:
Infrastructure is like building a home. You need a good solid floor otherwise it will collapse. I believe if we have good infrastructure it will open doors for other opportunities.
Based on this premise, Filmlab: Palestine offers workshops for emerging and established filmmakers on sound and photography to try and tackle the problem that the necessary equipment and training to make films are just not available in Palestine.
Filmlab: Palestine was set up in 2014 as an organisation which helped young Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan communicate their own personal history and document their collective memory through film. Palestinians selling their own stories is the most important form of resistance, says Atallah.
After the Arab Spring a wealth of European filmmakers poured into the Middle East to make their own films about the uprisings, but they were ultimately from their point of view and more accessible to the West, yet still regarded as Arab films.
Even that is happening less and less. It’s over seven years since the uprisings swept across the region and people are losing interest. “Now we are at a real anti-climax and people don’t want to see Arab films,” says Irit Neidhart, a distributer for mec film based in Berlin.
One of the most vital components missing in Palestine is the actual cinemas themselves. Once popular during the 60s, 70s and 80s most were shut down by Israeli authorities during the First Intifada. Some turned into shopping malls, others into wedding halls. As a result, the culture of spending an evening at the cinema is almost non-existent and films made by Palestinians end up with a higher audience in the West rather than at home.
These days everyone wants to watch films on their phones and computers yet even uploading them onto a VOD streaming website will not help Palestinians access these films as debit and credit cards from the Arab world are not accepted by European banks, says Neidhart: “I watch VOD platforms and they’re great but it’s not something that is open to everybody, it’s much more restrictive than having screenings.”
[There is a] political system and Europe and North America decide who sees what.
Perhaps the answer, or at least part of it, lies in the Haifa Independent Film Festival (HIFF) run by Rojeh Khleif who describes himself as a “cultural activist”. Hosted in a city inside present-day Israel which pre-Nakba had a reputation for being a cultural capital of the arts HIFF screens Palestinian films and productions from other Arab countries.
The festival prides itself on being independent from the Israeli government and is not supported by any organisation or institute. This means the decisions, the content and the programme are decided by Palestinians and all the screenings take place at Palestinian venues, not at Israeli cinemas.
It also helps shine a light on the Palestinians living inside Israel and is a reminder that they are part of the Arab world:
“We as Palestinians who live in 48, we always [feel] disconnected from the Arab world and the Palestinians in the West Bank. Some people don’t know about us, that we exist, that Palestinians live there that are fighting everyday – fighting for our rights, fighting for our brothers and sisters on the other side, running demonstrations, working hard to keep our identity because Israel is always trying to delete us and our history and the names of the streets and the cultural events,” says Khleif.
“Now finally we have a film festival for the people… we built a bridge and trust between all the Arab countries.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.