The timing of the first weekend of the London Palestinian Film Festival could not have been more of a challenge for the programmers. The opening gala Zindeeq sold out, despite competition from the royal wedding taking place that morning and unseasonal good weather. Then on Monday morning the world awoke to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
The "war on terror" was making headlines again, and the pertinent questions that were features of the films showing on the first weekend of the festival were given a stark and real context. Indeed, reports that the al Qa'eda leader's teenage daughter had witnessed his death gave a certain unplanned resonance to two films about the offspring of infamous militants, Children of the Revolution and This is My Picture when I was Dead.
The opening gala was the UK premiere of the 2009 Dubai Film Festival award-winner Zindeeq. It tells the story of a European-based Palestinian filmmaker who goes to Palestine to work on a documentary based on eyewitness accounts of the 1948 expulsions. On arrival, the filmmaker – known only as M – receives a call from his sister in Nazareth telling him that his nephew has killed a man during a scuffle and that he and his whole family are now in danger. Though warned to stay away from Nazareth, he cannot resist the pull and, refused hotel rooms, wanders around waiting for dawn with memories stirring.
The director, Michel Khleifi, came in for the screening from his Brussels home and took part in a lively discussion at the Barbican, one of festival’s three venues – the other two, SOAS and the Darwin Theatre, were holding pay-what-you-can screenings as the festival continued to attract audiences in its 11th year.
Khleifi told me the next day he did not feel that living outside the Middle East meant that he understood life in Palestine any less. Explaining why he felt it was time to revisit 1948, he said: “There have been how many years since ’48? Sixty-three. It’s time to start to reflect on it and we have to do that as a people, we have to have the distance to look and so to work for the future.”
The principal protagonist appears to wander around like a lost soul, but Khleifi corrected this impression by stating: “No, he’s not lost. He knows what he wants; it’s the world which is difficult.”
The film builds on Khleifi’s impressive body of work. A past winner of an award at Cannes, the director has used footage from his previous films and mixed them into the narrative. As such the film is not just the past, present and future of Palestine but also about the filmmaker himself.
Nowhere is the cycle of life more apparent than in the documentaries Children of the Revolution and This is My Picture when I was Dead. Directed by the Irish filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan, Children of the Revolution seems on paper to be a strange fit for a festival about Palestine. That's because it's about the daughters of two of the most notorious female militants in history, Ulrike Meinhoff of the German Red Army Faction and Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army.
Each daughter tells her own story and each focuses heavily on the relationship that her parents had with Palestine. Bettina Rohl was 13 when her mother committed suicide in a German prison, but before her death the radical journalist and intellectual wanted to send her daughter to the Middle East to train for the revolution. Rohl’s position on the Middle East is one of fear and bewilderment.
Contrast this with Mei Shigenobu, who grew up in the Middle East in an Arab family after her mother was involved in planning the 1972 attack on Tel Aviv’s Lod – now Ben Gurion – airport, organised by the Japanese Red Army in support of the Palestinian cause. She went to the American University in Lebanon, but remained stateless until 2001, when she returned to Japan and received Japanese citizenship.
Both of these women now work as journalists in their own countries where they comment on politics. Articulate and engaging, the film mixes in archive footage and jumps between both stories to give an intriguing account of four women. There have been many films about the Baader-Meinhof gang in recent years, but this is one of the best.
Unfortunately, This is My Picture when I was Dead is not so successful. The film, directed by Mahmoud Al Massad, is about Bashir Mammon Mraish who was aged four in 1983 when his father, Mamoun Mraish, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was assassinated in an attack on the car in which they were driving through Athens. It was announced that Bashir had died at the scene too, but later an alert doctor discovered that his heart was still beating.
The film follows Mraish around Amman as he tries to understand the politics of his father, what his impact was on the Palestinian movement today and whether the movement will ever be able to achieve its goals. Unfortunately, his father’s name seems to be his only qualification for making such pronouncements and he doesn’t seem to be cut out to be an investigative journalist.
It says much about the difficulty of distribution and getting hard-hitting political films into film festivals that two excellent documentaries on the Middle East conflict, Tears of Gaza and Rachel are only just now making their UK debuts. Viebeke Lokkerberg's Tears of Gaza, which had its Middle East premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010, features no-holds-barred footage of the 2008-2009 bombing of Gaza by Israel. Rachel, directed by Simone Britton, is about the death of the US activist Rachel Corrie while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
One feature with a great concept that does not deliver on its promise is Fix by Raed Andoni, in which he plays a Palestinian who wants to receive treatment for what he describes as a tension headache. So he goes to therapy and the movie follows him through 20 sessions as he reveals just why as a Palestinian he can never relax. Perhaps five sessions would have been enough.
It was testament to the strength of the festival, which concluded yesterday, that so many directors and speakers were in attendance. And it wasn’t just films. There was also a dabka folk dance workshop at the Palestinian School and at the Barbican there was an exhibition of photographs by JC Tordai that consisted of a series of monochrome prints spanning three decades of reportage from across Palestine.
There was also a screening of the restored print of Far from Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam) a portmanteau film about war and politics featuring the talents of Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, William Klein, Alain Resnais and Claude Lelouche.
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