The beginnings of filmmaking in Palestine are no different from its beginnings in other Arab countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, where the Lumière brothers sent photographers to film in the late 1890s and 1900s. Foreign photographers took on the principal role in setting up filmmaking there, paving the way for indigenous initiatives after independence. The first known motion film footage shot in Palestine was by the Lumière filmmaker Jean Alexandre Louis Promio, who filmed some short scenes in Jaffa and Jerusalem in April 1897.
Critics agree that filmmaking remained almost unknown in Palestine before the Nakba in 1948. Exceptions include the few documentary or semi-documentary films made by Jewish directors that portrayed Palestine, its cities, and the lives of its inhabitants, such as the 29-minute film The First Film of Palestine, filmed and produced in 1911 by Murray Rosenberg, and Liberated Judaea by Ya'acov Ben-Dov, which shows British general Edmund Allenby entering Jerusalem in late 1917. A real breakthrough in filmmaking in Palestine took place after the emergence of the Palestinian revolutionary movement in the second half of the 1960s. In the following, we consider three areas of Palestinian cinema that interacted dialectically.
The Films of the Palestinian Revolution in the Diaspora
After the Nakba, Palestinian filmmakers took refuge in several Arab countries. Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan went to Jordan, where he made his film Sira' fi Jerash (Struggle in Jerash) in 1957. This was a long feature film, said to be the first film of its kind made in Jordan; the second, also in Jordan, was the film Watani habibi (My Beloved Country, 1964), by director Abdallah Ka‘wash. In 1969 Abdel Wahhab al-Hindi, a graduate from the High Cinema Institute in Cairo, made Kifah hatta al-tahrir (Struggle Till Liberation) and al-Tariq ila al-Quds (The Way to Jerusalem), long feature films that portray the Palestinian cause through stories about the liberation struggle and the heroism of Palestinians against the Zionist enemy. The Palestinian filmmaker Mohammed Salih al-Kilani, who emigrated to Cairo after the Nakba, made a collection of documentary films, some of them about Palestine, such as his short film Qaʻidat al-ʻudwan (The Base of Aggression) in 1964. In 1969, after moving to Syria, he directed a film titled Thalath ʻamaliyyat dakhil Filastin (Three Operations inside Palestine), a long feature film for which he wrote the screenplay in cooperation with Samir Nawar.
Revolutionary Palestinian filmmaking took off when the Fatah movement set up the Palestine Film Unit, which took shape thanks to the efforts of a group of filmmakers including Hani Jawhariyyeh, Salafa Mersal, and Mustafa Abu Ali. This unit helped to establish the Palestinian Film Group, which joined the research center of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which produced a single film in 1973, Mashahid min al-ihtilal fi Ghazza (Scenes from the Occupation in Gaza) by Palestinian director Mustafa Abu Ali, a 13-minute documentary on the harsh reality in the towns, villages, and camps in the Gaza Strip. After Palestinian forces left Jordan in the summer of 1971, Mustafa Abu Ali made a film called Bi-l-rūh wa-l-dam (With Soul and Blood), in which he analyzes the bloody events of September 1970 through live documentary footage, mixed with acted scenes.
The Palestinian Film Group later changed its name to Palestine Films—the Palestinian Cinema Institution, as part of the PLO’s Unified Information Office. Among the filmmakers who contributed to it were Mustafa Abu Ali, Samir Nimer, Qasim Hawal, and Rasmi Abu Ali. Other cinema groups emerged as part of the artistic committee of the information department of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for which Rafik Hajjar directed the department’s first film in 1973, and the artistic committee of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Qasim Hawal directed its first film in 1972 and director Jibril Awad also worked for it. The culture and information department of the PLO produced a film in 1972, directed by Qais al-Zubaidi; he continued to work in that department and directed several films, including Watan al-aslak al-sha'ika (Land of Barbed Wire, 1980) and Filistīn: sjjil shaʻb (Palestine: The Record of a People, 1984). The Samed Cinema Production Foundation produced its first film in 1976: al-Miftāh (the Key), directed by Ghalib Shaath.
In the first stage in building up the Palestinian filmmaking sector in the 1970s, film production was fragmented between the various Palestinian resistance groups and the culture and information department of the PLO. The total number of films produced in that decade amounted to about 50 documentaries of various lengths and one feature film—'Ā'id ila Haifa (Return to Haifa, 1982) by director Qasim Hawal, based on the novella of the same title by Ghassan Kanafani. A few issues of the Palestinian Cinema Journal were also published. Because of this fragmentation, the budgets for the films were meager and the output was not of high quality. Even so, some of these films did take part in international festivals, such as the Leipzig Festival and the Moscow Festival.
To combine production efforts, the culture and information department of the PLO proposed to set up a general institute for Palestinian filmmaking that would take the form of a cinema academy, with an independent legal personality and a special budget, bringing together the departments of all the Palestinian factions in the PLO. Abdullah Hourani, the director-general of the culture and information department, adopted the proposal with enthusiasm, and a special committee of experts was commissioned to set out the bylaws of the institute. The proposal was submitted to the executive committee of the PLO for approval and endorsement of its bylaws and budget. But the executive committee kept postponing a discussion of the proposal until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as a result of which the PLO and the Palestinian factions withdrew from Lebanon.
“New” Films Produced in the Diaspora and in Historic Palestine
In the second phase of filmmaking, many Palestinian feature films that were produced were successful at film festivals and were screened in commercial cinemas in many countries. Unlike the first phase, the fact that many entities produced films was a positive factor because it contributed to the emergence of Palestinian feature films and to their success.
This section describes the way in which the first directors whose films reached a significant international audience dealt with the problem of Palestinian identity. The work of four directors is reviewed: Michel Khleifi, Elia Suleiman, Rashid Masharawi, and Hany Abu-Assad.
Michel Khleifi, a Palestinian from Nazareth who studied in Belgium, began his artistic career by directing four films produced by Belgian television in conjunction with Belgian director André Dartevelle. He then produced the film al-Dhakira al-khasiba (Fertile Memory, 1980) and the documentary film Maʻlul tahtafil bi-dimariha (Ma‘lul Celebrates Its Destruction, 1985), before directing the long feature film Urs al-Jalil (Wedding in Galilee, 1987), which is about the ceremonies at the wedding of a Palestinian village chief's son, attended by the Israeli military governor and his officers. This film, which was a joint Palestinian-Belgian-German-French-British production, won several prizes, most important of which were the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Festival in 1987, the Golden Shell at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in 1987, and the Tanit d'Or at the Carthage Film Festival in 1988.
Elia Suleiman, who is also a Palestinian from Nazareth and who has US nationality, began his filmmaking career with a short film entitled Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990), co-directed by Jayce Salloum. He followed that up in 1992 with Homage by Assassination, a short feature film, and in 1996 with a documentary/feature film called Chronicle of a Disappearance, which addresses the identity problems of Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel. That last film won several prizes, including the Best First Film Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 2002 he released Yad Ilahiyya (Divine Intervention), which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 2009 al-Zaman al-baqi: Sirat al-hadir al-gha'ib (The Time That Remains). The consensus among critics is that through these three films Suleiman brought about a qualitative leap in Arab filmmaking, in narrative technique and in cinematic style and language, a leap that made it possible to make out details of the Palestinian cause and follow its course, in a language that does not drift into the revolutionary rhetoric that Palestinian filmmaking had adopted in the 1970s.
Rashid Masharawi, who grew up in the Shati’ (Beach) Camp in the Gaza Strip, began his artistic career by directing several short feature films and one short documentary. His first feature film was Hatta ish‘aar akhar (Curfew), released in 1993, a joint Palestinian-Dutch-French-German production. The film is about the lives of Palestinians in the Shati’ camp, which was set up as a temporary refuge and then became a permanent home for thousands of families who pinned their hopes on the Palestinian Authority to ensure their return, but to no avail. The film won several prizes, including the Golden Pyramid Prize at the 17th Cairo Film Festival in 1993 and the Best First Film prize at the Arab Cinema Biennale in Paris in 1994. Masharawi then directed a number of films, especially after he set up the Cinema Production and Distribution Center in Ramallah in 1996.
Hany Abu-Assad was born in Nazareth in 1961 and has Dutch citizenship. He started his artistic career in 2002 by directing Urs Rana (Rana’s Wedding), but his reputation began to grow after the release of his second film, al-Janna al-ann (Paradise Now), about two Palestinian men preparing to go on a suicide mission inside Israel. The film won several prizes, including the Golden Globe award for best foreign language film in 2006 and the Golden Calf prize in Utrecht for the best Dutch film. In 2013 he released Omar, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival and was very successful with critics and audiences. The film tells the story of a young man who works in a bakery and has to climb the wall the Israeli authorities built in the West Bank in order to meet his girlfriend Nadia, until he is detained by the occupation authorities and subjected to severe psychological torture. At the Dubai Film Festival in 2013, the film won the Golden Muhr Award for best Arab feature film. In 2020 Abu-Assad released Salun Huda (Huda’s Salon), which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021. The film, which is based on real events, explores concepts of loyalty, betrayal, and freedom, through a story about events in a hairdressing salon in Bethlehem owned by a young woman called Huda. A young mother called Reem comes to the salon often to change her hair style, and things are turned upside down when she is photographed in compromising poses because of Huda, who is trying to blackmail her to do something that is against her principles. In the end Reem has to choose between her honor and betraying her country.
In addition to these four directors, other Palestinian directors have emerged, including Nizar Hassan, Eyad AlDaoud, Sobhi al-Zobaidi, Fajr Yacoub, and Hicham Kayed.
Films by Palestinian Women
Shashat (Screens), a Palestinian NGO set up in Ramallah in 2005 and run by film director Alia Arasoughly, is one of the most prominent Palestinian film institutions that has focused on films by Palestinian women since it was founded. It shows women’s films as part of its Let’s See a Film project and has produced about 60 films of various lengths that show the lives of Palestinian women in all sectors of Palestinian society. Shashat won the award for excellence in filmmaking from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in 2010. In addition to the films that Shashat has produced, there have been prominent films by Palestinian women directors such as Mai Masri, Annemarie Jacir, and Najwa Najjar.
In 1983 Palestinian film director, editor, and photographer Mai Masri, who had studied cinema in San Francisco, finished her first film Taht al-anqad (Under the Rubble), a 40-minute documentary about Beirut and the Israeli invasion of 1982. Over the next two decades Masri wrote the script for, photographed, edited, or directed several films, sometimes in cooperation with her late husband, Jean Chamoun. Her films include Beirut: Jil al-harb (War Generation, 1988), Atfal jabal al-nar (Children of the Fire Mountain, 1990), Hanan Ashrawi. Imra'a fi zaman al-tahaddi (Hanan Ashrawi: A Woman of Her Time, 1995), Atfal Shatila (Children of Shatila, 1998), and Ahlam al-manfa (Dreams of Exile, 2001). In 2015 her long drama film, Thalatat alaf layla (3000 Nights), was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and won several international prizes. The film is about a Palestinian female teacher who is detained in an Israeli prison on a baseless charge and gives birth to a son in prison.
Annemarie Jacir was born in Bethlehem in 1974 and has US citizenship. Her first feature film was Milh hadha al-bahr (Salt of This Sea, 2008), which showed the practices of the Israeli occupation, the checkpoints, and the Israelis’ contempt for human dignity in the West Bank, through the story of Thoraya, a young Palestinian woman who is born in Brooklyn in the United States and decides to return to her homeland to start a new life. But she soon collides with harsh reality when she discovers that she cannot reclaim her grandfather's pre-1948 money, which was deposited in the Palestine-British Bank. In an attempt to overcome the bitter reality in the Palestinian territories, Thoraya links up with Emad, a young Palestinian man who is also in dire straits. The two of them decide to rob the bank where her grandfather deposited his savings. The film was screened at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2008 and won the International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize and the Special Jury Prize at the Osians Film Festival in New Delhi. Annemarie Jacir has been the only director interested in Palestinian revolutionary films and has tried to rewrite the history of films of the revolution and its beginnings in cooperation with a group of directors and critics. She has organized various screenings in Palestine, starting with the Dream of a Nation cinema project, and a program of Palestinian revolutionary films in the United States. In 2012 she released Lamma shuftak (When I Saw You), a feature film that was a joint Palestinian-Jordanian-United Arab Emirates production. It tells the story of a Palestinian family that is displaced to Jordan after the 1967 war with Israel and settles in the refugee camp in the town of Jerash. The film has won prizes in Cairo, Oran, Carthage, and Abu Dhabi.
Najwa Najjar was born in Washington, DC, in 1973. Her first long feature film was Pomegranates and Myrrh in 2008, which addresses the sufferings of Palestinians under occupation through the story of a Palestinian Christian family from Ramallah. The son marries a young woman from Jerusalem and the occupation authorities confiscate the land she owns. In 2014 Najjar directed her second film Uyun al-haramiyya (Eyes of a Thief), which was inspired by an operation carried out by a young Palestinian sniper called Tha’ir Hammad in Wadi al-Haramiyya near Ramallah. Hammad was able to shoot and hit 23 Israeli soldiers, using a World War II rifle and only 25 bullets, before he escaped.
Between 1916 and 2005, a total of 799 films about Palestine were made involving 204 directors. Between 2006 and 2019, 547 films were made involving 369 directors. How should we explain this cinematic interest in Palestine, despite the decline in Arab and international interest in the cause of the Palestinian people?
One of the most important reasons for the continuation of Arab cinematic interest in Palestine is the growing number of Arab film festivals, some of which finance and subsidize the production of feature films and documentaries, organize screenings, and give valuable prizes to the winning films. International festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Locarno, and Toronto have also opened their doors to Palestinian feature films and documentaries of various lengths, and festivals dedicated specifically to Palestinian films of all kinds have appeared in several European cities, such as London, Paris, Strasbourg, and Brussels, which have helped to promote Palestinian films, introduce the directors to the world, and give them a chance to cooperate with one another.