Reel Palestine film festival brings portraits of Palestinian life to Dubai

A vibrant festival will bring nine days of screenings, talks and a Palestinian market to Dubai

Elia Suleiman in 'It Must Be Heaven', which will be Palestine's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars. Carole Bethuel
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The annual Reel Palestine film festival, running from ­Friday to Saturday, January 17 to 25, will bring a selection of independent Palestinian films to Dubai. There will be several screenings a day and a number of talks, as well as a vibrant market of Palestinian crafts and flavours.

Founded by a group of friends in Dubai in 2014, Reel Palestine is a non-profit, volunteer organisation that launched its first pop-up festival in January 2015. The aim of the event is to show Palestinian culture and tenacity through film, submerging viewers in the beautiful, difficult, emotional and inspirational moments that occur in Palestinian life. Films will be screened in collaboration with Cinema Akil at its Alserkal Avenue venue.

Dana Al Sadek, co-founder of Reel Palestine, says the selection of films is an ongoing process, with the team closely following festival selections around the world, as well as institutions that give film grants for regional and Middle Eastern projects.

"At the start of Reel Palestine, we used to rely a lot on Dubai International Film Festival to find out the latest in regional cinema," Al Sadek says. "We now anticipate seeing the releases at the annual Palestine Cinema Days in Ramallah every October, which releases the latest in Palestinian cinema. Working closely with Cinema Akil is also a perk, as they help suggest films and help us in narrowing the selection to best suit our audiences."

Reel Palestine has also started to collaborate with other film festivals that have an interest in Palestinian cinema, such as the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. The goal is to share information and connect with local talents.

"We do our best to curate a selection that provides an array of narratives that reflect Palestinian culture, history, life today and stories of the diaspora community that have been trying to stay connected with their roots,"Al Sadek says.

Eight feature films and 10 shorts will be shown as part of this year's festival. Among them is It Must Be Heaven, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's latest satirical film. It won the Jury Special Mention award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is Palestine's submission for the Academy Awards. The film follows Suleiman as he goes from Paris to New York alongside co-star Ali Suliman (Homeland, Lone Survivor). It's a semi-autobiographical tale of a Palestinian man seeking a new home, only to find similarities with his own homeland wherever he goes.

Meanwhile, Gaza, directed by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell, is an elegantly crafted portrait of Palestinian life that offers a rare chance to be immersed in the heart of Gaza, to glimpse behind the walls of this misunderstood land to get to know real people who inhabit it. It is Ireland's submission for the Academy Awards this year.  

Also showing is Ibrahim: A Fate to Define, a documentary about the disappearance of director Lina Al Abed's father and the impact it had on her and her family. Ibrahim Al Abed was a secret member of the Abu Nidal group, a Palestinian militant organisation that was notorious for its intelligence affairs. The film won El Gouna Star for Best Arab Documentary at El Gouna Film Festival and had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Soufra, another documentary screening, follows the inspirational story of social entrepreneur, Mariam Shaar, a refugee who has spent her entire life in the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. The film follows her journey as she attempts to change her fate by launching a catering company called "Soufra", and then expand it into a food-truck business with fellow refugee women. It's a wonderful success story that warms the heart. 

Western Arabs, meanwhile, is an intimate documentary based on director Omar Shargawi's experiences. Shargawi feels torn between his Danish mother and his Palestinian father as is the case with thousands of families around Europe and the rest of the western world. Through fictional scenes, he explores how this has affected his own identity

The Journey of Others, directed by Jaime Villarreal, is a documentary set in the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. A group of actors rehearse a play, risking their lives to fulfil a dream they are not willing to abandon: to perform their play on the stage of the theatre of New York University. A Q&A with the director will take place at 9pm on Saturday, January 18.

This year, Reel Palestine will also host a marketplace. A curated collection of unique crafts, souvenirs and flavours made and inspired by Palestinian traditions will be for sale at the Reel Palestine Souq, from colourful embroidery, dolls and keffiyehs to delicious jarred confections and pickles.

Camil Karam's private and unique archive collection of vintage posters will be on display at the Ya Hala Studio Exhibition. The collection focuses on Palestinian narratives dating from the early 1930s up to the current day.

A three-course feast, hosted by award-winning chef and author, Dima Sharif will also take place at the Palestinian Communal Breakfast. Plus, co-founders of the Haifa Independent Film Festival, Rojeh Khleif and Lena Mansour will be talking about independent cultural film production in Palestine as well as creating independent cultural autonomy in Haifa.

More information about the films being screened and the programme is available at