In 2008, the Toronto Palestine Film Festival held its first event. Today, the organisers are gearing up for the festival’s 16th year, bringing 24 feature and short films across various genres to Arab and Canadian audiences in Toronto.
“When we think about what the landscape looked like in Toronto in 2008 when we first started, it was very different and there was next to no Palestinian or even Arab arts culture in the city,” says Dania Majid, programmer and organiser at the TPFF.
At the time, says Majid, the discussions around Palestine were limited to either the academic type on campuses or to advocacy and activism through campaigns. “In starting TPFF, we really wanted to break out of those spaces and bring Palestine into mainstream spaces,” she adds. “We decided to use arts and culture as that vehicle because Toronto is a city of arts and culture.”
Fast forward 15 years later, there is no doubt those conversations are shifting.
Earlier this month, Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi’s feature debut film The Teacher had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, to a packed audience of moviegoers. Director Lina Soualem’s documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, which centres on her mother Palestinian star Hiam Abbass (Succession), also screened at Tiff following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. For Majid, she is proud to see such films being recognised after years of working to promote Palestinian films in the city.
“There is an international audience who wants to see these [Palestinian] films and they’re excellent films. These are so well-made. The storytelling is so compelling, despite all the barriers and difficulties and obstacles these filmmakers have to go through in order to make this work,” she tells The National.
This year, the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which also runs virtually for those who can’t attend in-theatre screenings, opens with Firas Khoury’s film Alam. Khoury’s debut drama, which had its world premiere at Tiff in 2022, follows the story of Tamer and his high-school friends, who deal with the complex realities of being Palestinian teenagers growing up in Israel.
Other feature titles include Cannes’ Un Certain Regard selection Mediterranean Fever directed by Maha Haj, which follows the story of Waleed, a man who’s suffering from depression but dreams of becoming a writer. He develops an unlikely friendship with his neighbour, which leads to a series of unfortunate events.
A Gaza Weekend, a comedy by Oscar-nominated director Basil Khalil, also had its world premiere at Tiff last year. It revolves around an Englishman and his Israeli partner who find themselves stranded in Israel after a virus outbreak where their only hope of escape is to smuggle themselves into the Gaza Strip. Short films include 45th Parallel, a documentary by Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Palestine 87 by Bilal Al Khatib, among others.
While there is a variety of films, there’s also a variety of filmmakers, too – from first-time directors to more experienced ones. Jordanian-Canadian filmmaker Mariam Momani will have the world premiere of her short In Her Shoes at TPFF this month. The short's narrative highlights employment barriers that Arab-Canadian women face as they pursue their professional careers. Momani, 26, says she’s excited to see the film finally screen to an audience at the festival.
“It’s a remarkable project to me, not only because it marks my directorial debut, but also because I believe that storytelling is the most powerful tool to build bridges between communities. It is time to tell the untold Arab Canadian narrative, our narrative, our stories, through our truths and lived experiences,” she tells The National.
The festival runs a residency programme for Palestinian-Canadian filmmakers to help them produce original work, including providing access to a production company, a mentor and some financial assistance. However, filmmaking isn’t the only tool TPFF uses to create conversations about Palestine; the festival also hosts performances, exhibitions, talks and workshops.
This year, in collaboration with Marsm Canada, the festival is bringing internationally acclaimed Palestinian pianist and music composer Faraj Suleiman to Canada for the first time in a concert on Thursday. Suleiman is known for his distinct music, which is influenced by a mix of Arabic melodies and Jazz.
TPFF will also host author Isabella Hammad’s Toronto launch of her acclaimed second novel Enter Ghost. This novel follows Hammad’s award-winning debut The Parisian, which is set in Nablus, Palestine. Enter Ghost tells the story of a British-Palestinian actress named Sonia as she returns to Palestine and takes a role in a West Bank production of Hamlet.
Visualising Palestine’s executive director Alin Batarseh will give a tour and talk on the opening day about the organisation’s research-based visuals that reflect injustices in Palestine. These visuals will also be exhibited at the festival for its full duration. Artist Nour Bishouty, who works across a range of media, will do an exhibition walk-through and talk on Sunday. Her work has been exhibited both in Canada and internationally, including an upcoming exhibition at La biennale de Quebec next year.
When it comes to food, famed chef Fadi Kattan will discuss how cuisine is an act of resistance, how culinary traditions passed through generations shape Palestinian identity and the importance of putting Palestinian dishes on international culinary maps during a festival talk that will take place on Friday.
For Majid, these artists – despite their various artistic mediums – are visionaries. “They’re our storytellers. They're telling me the Palestinian story, as Palestinians, so there's an authenticity to those stories.”
The Toronto Palestine Film Festival runs from Wednesday to Sunday. More information is available at tpff.ca