The Ramallah cultural palace was humming with anticipation. Hundreds had gathered to watch the award-winning 2019 comedy It Must Be Heaven by Elia Suleiman. A Palestinian entry at the Cannes Film Festival, as it will be at the Oscars later in the year, Suleiman's film duly kicked off the 6th annual Palestine Cinema Days organised by FilmLab: Palestine.
Launched in 2014 by now-artistic director Hanna Atallah, the goal of FilmLab: Palestine and the festival is to give Palestinians the platform and tools necessary for telling their stories, all while reviving the cinema culture in Palestine.
"Hanna Atallah believed in building an audience for cinema," FilmLab executive director Brigitte Boulad told MEMO. Boulad explained how the first few years attracted just a couple of hundred people, mainly friends and family related to the production team.
"Last year it was a moment of glory to see young people waiting in line to buy tickets," she added. Last year was also the first year that the Cinema Days festival sold tickets upon entry as a part of its new Sunbird award. The event at the cultural palace was sold out last night, Wednesday, forcing the organisers to open up a second venue in Ramallah just days before the screening, which also sold out.
All ticket sales from the eight-day event across seven cities in historic Palestine will go to a winning production. Nine documentary-style films are in the running, all telling a unique story about the lives of Palestinians.
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"It's something nice to bring our whole family to, something to take pride in," explained Terry Boullata, who travelled from Jerusalem to attend last night's event. "We need to build a cultural identity for the new generations."
Boullata pointed out the significance of creating a cinema culture in Palestine, especially in terms of the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation. "Cinema is about cultural exchange in seeing our humanity," she said. "We always say 'see things in order to believe them' and with cinema you can see other people's experiences."
Sixty films will be screened in total, split between Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, Gaza and — a new venue this year — Nazareth. With the Palestinians in Gaza under siege and the Israeli-imposed permit regime around the West Bank, a multi-city film festival is necessary to ensure inclusivity.
"I think no festival in the world knows what it means to organise a festival in Palestine," noted Boulad. "The mobility issue is really paralysing. People cannot travel, so we try to bring the meaningful people to Palestine and start a conversation."
This year, nearly 60 esteemed international cinema industry professionals —from film festival organisers and producers to actors and directors — have been invited to Cinema Days. These guests not only get to experience the reality of life under occupation with their own eyes, but provide an ample networking opportunity for budding Palestinian filmmakers.
"We are breaking the closure of the occupation," FilmLab media relations contact Khulood Badawi told MEMO. "Mobility is a fundamental violation by the occupation and we are trying as much as we can to break it by bringing the world to us instead."
The value of all that effort is evident. "The Palestine Cinema Days is an important event for Palestinian directors and for the film industry in general," 24-year-old script writer Shada, who hails from Bethlehem, told MEMO at the opening night. "It throws the spotlight on us."
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For a recent film school graduate, having a film festival in Palestine is also simply exciting. "[To] experience this real cinema — with a huge screen and good sound and with real movies, like from Cannes — is something big," Shada added.
The Palestine Cinema Days festival also offers a children's programme. This year it has a new open-air theatre venue in the old city of Ramallah. FilmLab executive director Boulad expressed their great pride in getting a popular German children's film dubbed into the Palestinian dialect. Such a move is rare, because it is quite expensive. Most of the short films that will be screened, though, have no dialogue.
The children's programme at Cinema Days is a part of FilmLab's larger "Next Generation" scheme that operates throughout the year to bring cinema to children and teenagers. "We teach the kids how to tell their own stories through cinema," said Boulad.
A parallel programme focusing on gender-based issues also makes this year special. The Danish-led NGO International Media Support (IMS) is making its mark on film festivals across the world with the "No Means No" initiative. This seeks to "raise awareness and bring about change that positively affects survivors of gender-based violence." Four films and a full-day of workshops will be presented as part of this initiative.
"It is tackling the issue from a cinema point of view for the first time," explained Khulood Badawi, adding that the unfortunate timing in the wake of the so-called "honour" killing of Israa Ghrayeb and the ensuing protests was not planned. "It was an almost routine incident, and while we wish that Israa's was an exceptional crime, it wasn't."
Cinema is an essential tool in designing mentalities, changing mentalities and raising awareness about basic human rights issues, concluded Badawi. She is confident that initiatives like this can and will have a meaningful impact on society.