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French Version

Cinema for Palestine : so many images, so few movies

Ramallah Film Festival organizer discusses creating a culture in a hostile environment

Cinema's profile is tiny in Palestine. This beggars the imagination, when you consider the sheer number of images that emanate from Palestine each year, from press pictures on the front pages of daily newspapers to the big screen.

Some of the documentaries coming out, whether composed by Palestinians themselves or by foreigners, are of quite good quality. And, though minuscule in number, the Palestinian feature film scene has also produced notable successes - Michel Khleifi's "Wedding in Gallilee," for instance, and more recently Elia Sulayman's "Divine Intervention."

Film, however remains a low priority among Palestine's cultural institutions. The most prominent features on the cultural landscape are folk dance - there is, thus, a dance school - poetry and prose writing.

The marginality of cinema is reflected, too, in the fact that there simply aren't very many movie houses for people to go to. According to May Odeh, the media officer and one of the organizers of the Ramallah Film Festival, there is one cinema in Ramallah - the administrative center of the Palestinian Authority. It's owned by an Israeli- Arab. Only three or four other movie theaters can be found throughout Palestine.

Unveiled this July, the Ramallah Film Festival is the region's newest. You don't have to be an expert on the recent history of Palestine to imagine the challenges involved in making such a festival work. Odeh is matter-of-fact about the affair.

"First of all we live under occupation," she shrugs, "so we had to be ready for any surprise circumstances. You never know, the day of the opening may find that you have a curfew or a checkpoint to get around.

"So we had to take many steps to make sure that everything ran smoothly from beginning to end."

Based in Bir Zeit, Odeh ordinarily works as a correspondent with Orbit Satellite Network and Dubai Television.

She was in town recently to accompany a selection of Palestinian documentaries from her festival that screened at the American University of Beirut. She is 23.

"Second," she continues, "we wanted everyone from throughout Palestine to come see the films.

"We brought some great films to the festival. For some of them, Ramallah was their second screening after Cannes. We had great films and great workshops, not just screenings, and we had a lot of volunteers to make sure that as many people as possible came."

The festival was put together by the Ramallah Film Institute, a newly formed non-profit organization dedicated to developing Palestine's audio-visual sector through education, training and exhibitions.

Generally speaking, festival organizers work in countries where there is some kind of state structure to provide assistance - if not financial then organizational or at least facilitative. The Palestinian Authority is not quite a state, and a besieged one at that.

"The Ministry of Culture helped us in some things, but not everything.

"As volunteers we took the responsibility to make the festival. Fortunately there were no curfews or road closures.

"Ramallah," Odeh smiles, "is sometimes a little calm."

Since the powers of arbitrary closure happened to be with them in July, Ramallah's five young organizers carried off a remarkably successful festival.

Eighty films - a mix of European features and Palestinian documentaries - were scre-ened. In its next incarnation, Odeh says, the committee plans to include a focus on Arabic cinema in the festival.

"People were so interested. We didn't expect that so many people would come wanting to see the films, because we don't have very many cinemas in Palestine, nor do we often get to see the kind of films we brought to the festival. ..."

She had thought there might be some resistance to documentary shorts, "but when the people came to see the films they also wanted to see how the film-makers went about making their films. They were very supportive of the film-makers. The response was very positive."

As Odeh describes it, Palestine's cinema culture sounds rather like the one in Lebanon, though for a host of reasons it is in a far less developed state. The cinemas tend to show films that are void of local content. "There is a lot of Hollywood-style cinema - not European, not Palestinian, not documentaries," says Odeh.

"We don't have proper cinema in Palestine. This is why we made this festival. We think that people in Palestine should see films that have a meaning, that leave a message."

As there is no institutional support for Palestinian film, it relies completely on what resources can be drummed up by individual film-makers and most of them rely on European funding. This is less of a problem, though, than the lack of local training facilities.

"The most important thing is that we have no film schools," explains Odeh.

"All of the film-making in Palestine relies on the talent of the directors, that's it. They hold their camera and go to the street without any education or resources to make good films. This is why Raed al-Helou [whose film "Hopefully, For the Best" took top honors at the Ramallah Festival this year], was given scholarship to go to London and study film for one year. This was his prize.

"I hope they let him in."

For more information, visit www.ramallahfilmfestival.org

Beirut,10 25 2004
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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