How a remote city in Norway is offering a glimpse into the Arab world

We explore why Tromso, deep within the Arctic Circle, is celebrating movies from the Middle East, with a particular focus on female Arab filmmakers such as Dalia Kury

People walk near a tourist shop as it snows in downtown Tromso on January 11, 2019.  At this time of year, daylight lasts about 2 hours, between 11.00 and 13.00. / AFP / Olivier MORIN
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The sun never rose above the horizon during the 29th Tromso International Film Festival. It’s a perfect metaphor for many of the movies that screened in the Arctic Circle at the world’s most eclectic film gathering over the past week.

Most visitors went to Tromso in search of the aurora borealis – that magical light show in the heavens in which the night sky serves as the biggest cinema screen in the world. The trouble is, those electrically charged particle collisions are extremely unreliable, so for a week every January, the best source for fantastical light shows is on the silver screens in the homely snow-capped cinemas.

Tromso, Norway. Pixabay
Tromso, Norway. Pixabay

The Arab world in Tromso

The selection of movies often contains a glance towards the Arab world. It’s in the DNA of the city. Despite the expensive shops, the largest number of luxurious wooden houses in northern Norway and the vista towards the vast expanse of the Norwegian Sea, since 2001 Tromso has been twinned with Gaza.

The festival is particularly keen to highlight this connection and its year-round programme supports a number of initiatives as part of the Twin City Tromso-Gaza Project, and its cultural and creative hub Tvibit, which aims to deepen Tromso’s commitment and solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian people.

The Tromso film festival always has a strong focus on the Arab world, and this year was no different. There were several screenings of Tel Aviv on Fire, Sameh Zoabi's satire on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has had festival audiences in stitches. A section called Arabiyat – the Arab word for Arab women – programmed in collaboration with Morocco's Cinematheque de Tanger, was given over to celebrating Arab female filmmakers. Three movies screened include Tunisian feature Beauty and The Dogs by Kaouther Ben Hania, which premiered to much acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, Leila Kilani's 2010 picture On the Edge, which received finance from Abu Dhabi's Sanad fund, and Erika Cohn's 2017 Palestine-set documentary The Judge, about Kholoud Al-Faqih, who in 2009 became the first female judge appointed to a Shari'a court in the Middle East.

The poster for the 29th international Tromso Film Festival. Courtesy TIFF
The poster for the 29th international Tromso Film Festival. Courtesy TIFF

Dalia Kury

Of the new work, the most notable was Palestinian filmmaker Dalia Kury's Privacy of Wounds, which screened in the Horizons section of the festival, and has been nominated for the Dragon Award Best Nordic Documentary at the Gothenburg Film Festival, taking place from January 25 to February 4.

Kury, 38, lives in Oslo, but grew up in Jordan and Kuwait in the 1980s. She studied communications in Canada, before moving to Amman where she took a course in filmmaking and began making short, observational documentaries. She also holds an MA in Screen Documentary from ­Goldsmiths, University of London.

In 2015, Kury made her feature documentary debut, Possessed by Djin. Her second film, Privacy of Wounds, is a quasi-observational documentary that revolves around an experiment. Three former political prisoners, Hasan, Mazen and Khaldoon, have agreed to be put in a simulated cell for three days and be continuously filmed while discussing their experiences of being jailed at different times under the Assad regime in Syria. Kury says she got the idea for the film because "when you put Syrians alone in a room together, what they say to each other is different to what we read in the media. The way they tell their stories is different. I wanted to capture that."

Film stills from “The Privacy of Wounds”, currently showing at Tromso Film Festival.
Film stills from 'The Privacy of Wounds', currently showing at Tromso Film Festival.

The director explains that she didn't want the prisoners to recreate what they went through, like in Raed Andoni's Ghost Hunting, which picked up the Silver Bear award for Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival. She wanted them to talk and be comfortable and be in a spot where they could provide an accurate testimony of the horrors they have experienced.

“I’m not re-enacting,” says Kury. “I needed a space where I could instigate memory, and the only way to do that was to simulate a prison. There is no footage from the prisons in Syria.”

'Privacy of Wounds'

Kury is also a character on screen. ­Privacy of Wounds starts with the eight-month pregnant Kury in an editing suite where monitors are hooked up to live feed into the simulated prison cell. It has an element of reality TV show Big Brother, in the way that Kury interrupts their narrative. She does this when she delivers food to the trio through a door slot and also when she communicates with the "prisoners" over an intercom. At one stage she even tells them to hold off talking about their experiences of torture. Kury says her own presence in the film became unavoidable during the shoot. "As much as the characters really got comfortable and forgot the cameras were there, there were several times when they would actually call out to me," she says. "They still tried to communicate with me, so I felt it would be entirely dishonest to make a film where we don't see any communication between us when there was some."

She first met with Hasan, who lives in Oslo, and then started a process of interviewing other potential protagonists on Skype, whittling down the candidates to those who could go to Oslo and who were also the best storytellers. She was relieved that they were as descriptive on set as they were on her computer screen. “I want to hear the voices in people’s heads and know what my characters are feeling,” she says. 


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'My family is Palestinian-Syrian'

Her particular interest in the Syrian crisis stems from her own personal experience of the country. “My father grew up in Damascus, as a Palestinian refugee,” she explains. “We had an apartment there that I visited throughout my youth. My family is Palestinian-Syrian, the way we eat and talk Arabic is like them.”

Her ultimate goal in making the film was to understand how these men who were tortured, mistreated and denied their rights could move on from this past and overcome this trauma, especially Hasan, who claims to have not been affected by it. Her conclusion? “What was revealed to me, is that it’s private,” she says. “We don’t really know how people overcome this pain. It will probably be two or three generations before it can be processed.”

And it will be first-hand testimonies, such as those captured by Kury that will aid this historical analysis and perhaps as the sun finally climbs above the horizon in the Arctic, there will be many new dawns.