The theatre seats at the Ramallah Cultural Palace were packed once again yesterday evening as the 6th annual Palestine Cinema Days came to an end. The eight-day-long festival finished off with the award-winning film "Mafak" (Screwdriver) directed by Bassam Jarbawi, and the audience was writhing with anticipation to learn which Palestinian films would take home FilmLab: Palestine's Sunbird awards.
The winning director of the feature-length documentary segment, Dina Naser, was unable to attend the ceremony as the Israeli authorities denied her visa for entry.
"This is a very special award for me. [It] comes from my homeland, so it really means the world to me," Naser expressed to MEMO over the phone. "[But] I am so angry," she said about not being able to physically accept the award.
A Palestinian refugee in Jordan, Naser has yet to return to Palestine. She competed in last year's Cinema Days festival, but her visa was also denied.
"This will not stop me," she said defiantly. "I will keep on doing films about Palestine, whether I see it or not. I will keep talking about it."
Her film, "Tiny Souls", followed the lives of three children, Syrian refugees living in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp over a period of four years, won her the award. The audience watches these children grow and continue to smile despite the rough conditions of camp life.
"The winning film convinced us with its honesty and its simplicity," said jury member Mette Hoffmann Meyer, co-founder and CEO of the Danish NGO Why Foundation, at the closing ceremony. "The story brilliantly gives us a powerful sense of life in a very harsh place and time and it forces us all… to reflect on its tragic context."
FilmLab: Palestine – the host of the Cinema Days film festival – created the Sunbird award in 2016. Named after the tiny – yet resilient – national bird of Palestine, the Sunbird award is meant to bring Palestinian stories to life by supporting productions about Palestine or from Palestinian directors.
Nine short films and nine feature-length documentaries were in the running for the $3,000 and $4,000 prizes, respectively. Each were screened throughout the Cinema Days. Eleven film ideas were competing for a $10,000 prize in addition to equipment, production and post-production facilitation, and distribution for the making of a Palestinian-themed filmed.
"Maradona's Legs", directed by Faris Khoury, took home the Sunbird award for the short film segment. Beautifully witty, Khoury's story is about two boys searching for the last missing sticker they need to complete their World Cup album during the 1990 games. Khoury was the receiver of the 2017 Sunbird award for production, which made this year's award-winning short possible.
Bilal Al-Khatib won the dazzling $10,000 award for his future production "Palestine '87". A fictional film based on his own personal experiences, Al-Khatib hopes to bring the reality of the First Intifada and the memories of Palestine in 1987 to life.
Born and raised in Bil'in, the same village that birthed Emad Burnet and featured his famous 2011 documentary "Five Broken Cameras", Al-Khatib is driven by the constant harassment his townspeople receive from the occupying forces and the resistance his village represents.
A participant in last year's Cinema Days Sunbird film competition, Al-Khatib gained the knowledge and experience that helped inspire the idea of this new production. To him, the networking opportunities Cinema Days bring to Palestinian filmmakers is indispensable.
"It is important to make a chance for people to see movies, to meet directors and producers from all over the world and to make a cinema industry," Al-Khatib told MEMO about the Cinema Days. "This is what we are missing and what we need – there is no cinema industry [in Palestine]."
Hanna Atallah created FilmLab: Palestine and its Palestine Cinema Days for the purpose of creating a cinema industry that allows Palestinians to tell their own stories. "You know the power of film, the power of cinema… is keeping the collective memory of nations, people, cultures. You present your story [through cinema]," he told MEMO last night.
The Sunbird production award is the most attractive element for Palestinian filmmakers, "especially since we don't have a local fund here in Palestine, we don't have infrastructure," Atallah said. "So at least we open this chance for them."
Though some local funds are available through the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, FilmLab's Sunbird award offers support at all stages of production, including equipment and distribution, continuously every year. The Sunbird award is a platform for Palestinian filmmakers to share their stories and to screen them here in Palestine to a growing Palestinian audience.
The building of a cinema industry and cinema culture in Palestine go hand-in-hand, Atallah believes, and every year, FilmLab and the Palestine Cinema Days succeed in nurturing their mutual growth.