Palestinian Cinema: An Example for the Region?

By Omar Al-Qattan


1. The Artist and the World

An artist often seems to stand between the devil and the deep blue sea but a work of art can momentarily lift us out of that trap, briefly allowing us to understand our past and present and glimpse what could potentially happen in the future.

But what if the reference points are fading, if the fundamental objective realities and moral certainties we took for granted are no longer valid? What if the physical world itself has been changed beyond recognition? This paradigm of disorientation applies to several Arab nations but for Palestinians there are none of the illusions and complacency of demarcated borders nor the comforts of a state with an army and police force to protect us. Only a battered, brittle sense of being and a fierce desire to survive.

Perhaps this is why we have produced artworks which, in their rebellious energy, proved revolutionary and avant-garde in contemporary Arab culture; the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the fiction of Emil Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani, the historiography of Hanna Batatu and the criticism of Edward Said, among others. But, with the exception of Said’s work, no other medium in Arabic has reached a universal audience as widely and effectively as cinema and Palestinian films have increasingly transcended Middle Eastern geographical and cultural borders. International audiences, often in solidarity, have been generous not only with outstanding work but also the mediocre, the grand and the quirky, the banal and the profoundly moving.


With the inevitable disenchantment and dismay caused by the apparent collapse of our national liberation project, will this public acceptance last? A perceptive audience – one must always assume that audiences are perceptive – may wonder how such a brave and creative people can produce a society and leadership so retrograde, so lacking in ideas and imagination, as to slip into civil war. Can artists be forgiven their impotence in such situations? What can we expect of them – of ourselves – when the geography of our homeland continues to shrink daily and our people descend into despair? Can our artists reveal the mechanisms of injustice that have gripped us and, at the same time, persuade us that change is still possible? Only if we can continue to ensure free, independent and distinguished cultural production, not least since (lest we forget) colonial projects such as Zionism only succeed if they culturally eradicate the colonised society.

One strategic element that has always been crucial for the survival of the Palestinian struggle is the powerful bond between those ‘inside’ historical Palestine‚ (whether the West Bank, Gaza Strip or the State of Israel) and those in exile. In the past, when that bond became tenuous, the economic and political price has been onerous, leading to deep anxiety about our culture’s survival, but key moments of cultural transformation within Palestine have often happened when a significant event strengthened this bond: the publication of the anthology Diwan el-watan al-muhtal in the 1960s introducing the work of Palestinian poets living in the State of Israel to their exiled brethren and Arab communities and paving the way for Mahmoud Darwish’s voluntary exile from Israel to Beirut; or the showing in 1981 throughout the Arab world of Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memories, the first film made after 1948 by a Palestinian inside the occupied homeland.

2. Economics

But, symbolic moments aside, let us not forget that culture is not simply dependent upon an economy but cannot exist outside the laws of that economy (to which it is also an important contributor).

National liberation means trying to rebuild a national economy by democratically re-appropriating its most basic components. The Occupation has systematically decimated the Palestinian economy, making it entirely dependent on that of Israel. But until Oslo and the Second Intifada, it was a working, if dependent, economy. Then came the strategic Israeli decision in 2000 physically to separate the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza from the citizens of Israel without allowing the possibility of alternative Palestinian outlets for their workforce and trade and imprisoning them in non-contiguous areas between which movement is always difficult and often impossible. The result has been slow societal and cultural death and an alarming rate of emigration among the talented.

As after 1948, exile Palestinian economies make significant contributions to the prosperity of Israel, through its 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, and of Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf countries. How can this vibrant exile economy serve the struggling economy at home? The answer is not through profit-driven speculation but through long-term, employment-generating and capacity-building investment.


If I want to make a film in Palestine, what will I find there? The stories, for sure; the enormous wealth of human situations which are deeply and universally moving, interesting and often funny. But no qualified technicians and actors, not to mention directors and producers, no cinemas, no reliable equipment, no significant public or private finance. Virtually all contemporary films seen internationally were made with foreign finance, foreign crews, sometimes even foreign points-of-view! Some have been made with Israeli finance and crews. So if the primary concern of artists is to be in full control of their means and tools of expression, it is essential to create the know-how and the means of production that can allow for this autonomy.

How to address this situation? The answer lies in education, training and culture. The transfer of technology is inadequate on its own. Anyone lacking in self-confidence after centuries of colonial humiliation may be trained to operate a foreign-made machine, but how is s/he to believe that s/he can appropriate it to the point of making it her or his own?

3. The Palestinian Audio-visual Project

It was with these challenges in mind that we launched the Palestinian Audio-visual Project in 2004, co-funded by the A.M. Qattan Foundation and the EU. The project has three areas of intervention. First and most significant is a major training programme in the arts of filmmaking designed and headed by the Palestinian director Michel Khleifi. The programme began in summer 2005 with a five-week foundation course for twenty-nine students from all over historical Palestine and Jordan. A few months later, nineteen students were invited back for a further three weeks. Over the following months, they participated in a scriptwriting competition and workshop resulting in three features and one documentary project being selected for production in summer 2007 (they are currently being edited). Some have begun careers in production, sound recording and camera, others in writing and directing. Three of them have also worked on Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea, one of the few full-length feature films to be shot in the country in recent years.

Our aim was not only to create competent technicians but, more importantly, to offer students a rigorous work methodology enabling them to translate their ideas and projects into reality and to instil a sense of the profound importance of cultural knowledge and an understanding of their medium’s history. To quote Khleifi, “to encourage them to build their artistic projects based on a continuous reflection upon the nature of the relationship between their subjective universe and the external, objective world.” We also wanted to offer a sense of possibility – in other words, that they too can do outstanding work in spite of the Occupation.


This educational/cultural dimension, so vital to any creative industry, informed the second aspect of the project, namely the School Film Education Programme. Screening facilities and film clubs were established in 46 separate schools in historical Palestine, Arabic-subtitled DVD copies of more than thirty classic international films were distributed, additional cinema masterpieces subtitled and teachers in those schools trained to use film as a pedagogical tool.

This is not simply a general initiative aimed at widening the film culture of a new generation. It is imperative that, in the absence of cinemas and viewing facilities (apart from commercial and state-controlled television), school children should have the democratic right to see films that would otherwise be inaccessible.

The democratic principle also informed the third aspect of the project, which has provided distribution and DVD publishing grants for more than twenty-five films with a Palestinian theme to be distributed through the school film clubs and Shabaka, the Network of Arab Cinéclubs that has a growing number of entirely voluntary members among community centres in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In this way, Palestinian films are now to be seen among the communities which they directly concern. This, it is hoped, will lay the modest foundations of a grass-roots film audience and, perhaps, a film economy.

Why is this so important? Without a grassroots, democratic film culture and a local market, there can never be an autonomous industry, whether in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world. Only that ‘natural’ market, which speaks Arabic and is concerned with all things Arab, will make it possible for Arab and Palestinian films to be truly independent and persuade public and private finance that they are worthy of investment. Otherwise, our films will be for export only, exiled and severed from their home cultures.

One way forward is the establishment of a privately-funded, independently managed investment fund, catering for outstanding Arab audio-visual projects on condition that they also create capacity, encourage innovation and are properly distributed in the region. This fund could be involved in founding a first-class, multi-disciplinary pan-Arab audio-visual academy. If these ambitious ideas do come to fruition, even if in exile then, who knows, perhaps Palestine may once again set a pioneering precedent.

Omar Al-Qattan is a filmmaker and the director of the Palestinian Audio-visual Project. He is also a trustee of the A.M. Qattan Foundation. For more information, visit