The sixth annual Palestine Cinema Days festival is in full-swing. From 2-9 October across six cities in historic Palestine, 60 Palestinian and international films are being screened to thousands of audience members. The festival is a testament to FilmLab: Palestine's goal of reviving the cinema culture in the country.
Four films in particular make this year's festival unique. They are a part of a parallel programme in partnership with International Media Support (IMS), a Nordic media development organisation that promotes press freedom and the safety of journalists around the world. The programme is called "No Means No" and is meant to raise awareness of gender-based violence and bring about positive change for survivors.
Despite the fledgling re-emergence of cinema culture in the country, Lama Hourani, the IMS programme director for Palestine, believes that cinema is still an important tool for shaping mentalities. "Human rights fighters and women's rights fighters need to use cinema," she adds, "in order to raise awareness not only [to] the public but also decision makers." This is especially true of documentaries.
The first film screened in "No Means No" was a perfect example of the power of cinema to make change. Violently in Love, by Danish director Christina Rosendahl, went inside a closed women's shelter in Copenhagen for the first time to document the intimate lives of women and children recovering from domestic violence and abuse.
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At Cinema Days, Rosendahl explained how before making her film there was no legal protection for victims of psychological abuse. Her documentary, which was made over a five-year period, helped inspire an advocacy movement that actually created legal change in Denmark designating psychological abuse as a punishable offence.
The Feeling of Being Watched, by Assia Boundaoui, was screened in Ramallah on 4 October. About the decades-long and presumably racially profiled surveillance of Arab-American communities in the United States by the FBI, Boundaoui's film involved grassroots-level organising in her home town of Bridgeview, Illinois and lengthy legal battles. Although surveillance and state-sanctioned violence are not particularly "women's issues", Boundaoui's film was chosen for the programme because of her all-female production team and the fact that most of her subjects interviewed happened to be women.
"When I call something a 'woman's story' it's not about the subject, it's about the approach to the subject," explained Debra Zimmermann, executive director of the New York-based NGO Women Make Movies, to an audience at a "No Means No" discussion panel. In response to questions about why the team and subjects were mainly female, Boundaoui insisted that it was not intentional. "I don't have a feminist agenda." She noted that when men have an all-male team nobody asks them why. "This is my world and I'm trying to show you what it looks like," she said simply.
The topic of women in the film industry was discussed intensively at a discussion panel on 3 October, kicking off the "No Means No" programme. The half-day event also discussed the image of women in Arab cinema as well as gender-based violence in Palestine.
In all kinds of commercial cinema, women are depicted as sexual beings, said journalist and writer Mariam Farah while taking part on the "Women's Image in Arab Cinema" panel. The panellists discussed how, in Arab cinema specifically, the killing of women or homosexuals is normalised, reinforcing dangerous traditions such as "honour" killings. Alternative cinema, like the movies screened as a part of "No Means No", can be an important tool to combat these stereotypes and promote a healthy development of society when it comes to gender and sexuality issues.
"Talking about gender-based violence is needed all the time," Lami Hourani told MEMO, adding that the parallel programme was not planned around the recent incidents of femicide in Palestine, including the killing of Israa Ghrayeb and the ensuing protests calling for justice. "The reaction of the public was really loud against the killing of women," she said. "But it is also part of all women's and human rights movements in Palestine, because they have been working on this issue for a long time, raising awareness, changing laws."
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Discussed in detail in the "Gender-Based Violence in Palestine" panel was the central issue bringing people to the streets after Ghrayeb's killing; an outdated legal system and the lack of political will to really protect the rights of women.
"There is no political will to change in this country," claimed Lina Abdilhadee. "This mindset is there, [but] for 20 years there have been social contradictions." The Palestinian legal advisor and head of the legal department in Nablus added that the liberation of women is absent in the discourse of liberating Palestine. "We have to believe in our rights as a civil society and support ourselves. It's not only the political will that can decide."
The "No Means No" initiative explores how cinema can be used as a tool to make substantive change on both the social and political levels. Hourani gave the example of Arab Cinema achieving just this with the famous 1975 film I Want a Solution, with Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, "that really changed the law and raised the issue of the rights of custody and rights of divorce in Egypt."
Cinema, she continued, could really change some regulations and laws. "It is important [for this very reason] to have documentaries and features that can raise issues about all women's rights but especially gender-based violence."