The sixteenth Document Human Rights Film Festival was composed of various strands, one of which, ‘Permissible Dreams’, focused on cinema of the Palestinian Revolution. 2018 marks seventy years since the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’), when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes after the creation of the State of Israel. ‘70 Years of Nakba: 9 Palestinian Short Films’ presented a wide variety of perspectives on the Nakba and its legacy over half a century later. One thing that was remarkable about all of the films was their range of forms and themes, with no one film resembling another.
The screening was informally split into two parts: the first part, ‘History and exile’, focused directly on the Nakba. First up was Ahmed Saleh’s HOUSE (2011), a dark plasticine parable in which the partition of Palestine is reimagined as a house whose residents are forced up onto the roof and trapped there, whilst strangers take over their home. In only four minutes the film managed to poignantly convey the sense of injustice which many Palestinians feel about their forcible expulsion from their own homeland.
This was followed by ALYASINI (2012), Sahera Dirbas’ documentary about the 1948 Deir Yassin Massacre, in which over 100 residents of a small village close to Jerusalem were killed and the town destroyed. Comprising images of the village and the oral testimony of Mahmad Alyasini, the film drives home the horrors of war on a personal level. At twenty-minutes, ALYASINI was the longest film in the collection, and could have benefitted from some trimming, but in recounting an atrocity that is often forgotten about and ignored, the film serves an important function.
The final film in the first part of the screening was Razan Al Salah’s YOUR FATHER WAS BORN 100 YEARS AGO AND SO WAS THE NAKBA (2017). Of all the films in this collection, YOUR FATHER was the most innovative, cleverly using Google Maps as the frame and vehicle for the narrative. The concept of the film is simple and yet unique: Oum Amin, a Palestinian grandmother, uses Google Maps Streetview to return to her hometown, Haifa, but as she moves through the once familiar streets she becomes more and more distressed at how different things now are, and at her inability to find her loved ones. Gradually the film itself begins to fragment and distort, paralleling the permeability of one’s own memory, as the present plasters over the past.
The films comprising Part Two, ‘Contemporary dreams and realities’, were less directly about the Nakba, although all dealt in some way with its consequences. Two of the films take a critical look at the 1993 Oslo Accords, which were supposed to usher in peace between Palestine and Israel. Despite enormous short-term hope and optimism among many Palestinians that the accords would finally result in the creation of a Palestinian state, the Accords ultimately, according to Ayman Azraq’s OSLO SYNDROME (2014), resulted in more difficulties for Palestinians, not less. OSLO SYNDROME couples a young Palestinian’s frustration at the Oslo Accords with his frustration towards the city of Oslo, which he moves to and ends up trapped in.
TWENTY HANDSHAKES FOR PEACE (2014), by Mahdi Fleifel, took a less narrative approach, instead simply showing on a loop footage of Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands with then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with Bill Clinton standing between them and beaming. A didactic male voice-over picks apart the Oslo Accords, explaining how it failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a novel approach to take for a short film, although it could not be taken much further than the film’s three minutes running time.
Alaa Al Ali’s JOURNEY OF A SOFA (2014) was certainly the most humorous of the films on show, depicting the lengths that two friends go to in order to transport a sofa through a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Compared to the heavy subject matter of all the other films screened, JOURNEY OF A SOFA proved a refreshing contrast. Although seemingly absent of politics altogether, the film does serve to show the maze-like complexities of life in a refugee camp, with even mundane tasks made near impossible.
Anim Nayfeh’s INTERFERENCE (2014), meanwhile, presented a moving story of thwarted love and attraction, in which an Israeli boy finds himself drawn to his Palestinian neighbour across the street. The two are connected by radio, but separated by a cavernous divide that cannot be bridged.
Finally, TODAY THEY TOOK MY SON (2016), by Farah Nabulsi, was perhaps the most harrowing of all the films shown. In this eight-minute drama, a mother is devastated when her young son is detained by Israeli forces. The fictionalised account of the film is paired with real life footage of similar incidents, hammering home the brutal reality of the film’s message, and it would be hard not to be moved, even if the film does at times tip over into melodrama, with the boy actor’s young age a deliberate attempt to play on audience members’ emotions. Not many people are going to sit down and read UNICEF’s report on children in Israeli military detention, so Nabulsi’s film plays an important role in shining a spotlight on the injustices that are ongoing in a so-called liberal democracy.
One film, Muhannad Salahat’s MESSAGE TO OBAMA (2014), was unable to be shown, which is a shame, as it would have presented a perspective from Gaza. MESSAGE TO OBAMA was compensated for, however, by a short pre-feature animation about migration.
The films were introduced by Creative Interruption’s Anandi Ramamurthy, who also chaired a post-screening Q&A with three Palestinians. Among the topics discussed were Palestinian anger at the Oslo Accords and the difficulty of distributing Palestinian films, which makes festivals such as Document all the more commendable for giving a platform to these important filmmakers, all of whom have a voice that deserves to be heard and a perspective that needs to be seen.