Palestinian films ‘more important than ever’, directors say in Cannes

CANNES – Veteran Palestinian film director Rashid Masharawi was abroad when the Gaza war broke out last year, so he decided to hand over the camera to other filmmakers still inside the besieged territory.

“They are the story” of Masharawi’s project, which he presented at the Cannes Film Festival in France, more than seven months after the conflict erupted.

“They were fighting to protect their lives, their families, to search for food, for wood to make a fire,” said Masharawi 

The result is a collection of short films called “Ground Zero” recounting the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and ensuing humanitarian disaster from the perspective of civilians on the ground.

In one, a mother displaced by the conflict plops her daughter in a large white bucket and, with a clean Turkish coffee pot, gently pours water over her to bathe her. 

In another, a man recounts his 24-hour ordeal under rubble after the building he was in collapsed.

Masharawi directed the 20 teams in Gaza from abroad — a process he described as “very, very, very difficult”.

“Sometimes we needed to wait one week to 10 days just to be in contact with somebody, or just to have internet to upload material,” said Masharawi, who was born in Gaza.

At other times, teams were busy searching for a tent, finding insulin for a director’s mother, or “an ambulance to go and save some kids”.

The films are part of several Palestinian tales screening at the festival, including Mehdi Fleifel’s Athens-set refugee drama “To A Land Unknown”.

‘Gatekeepers’

Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also took 252 hostages, 124 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Thousands of miles away from the conflict, Israel’s pavilion in Cannes is promoting its filmmaking.

Palestinian cinema does not have its own tent at the event, but Algeria has made space for its filmmakers at the other end of the international market in Cannes.

“Our narrative and storytelling is more important than ever,” Norway-based Palestinian director Mohamed Jabaly said.

He finished filming his latest project, “Life is Beautiful”, just before the war started. A close friend who shot the last scene of the film has not survived the war.

“He was killed while waiting for food aid,” said Jabaly.

Munir Atallah, of US-based Watermelon Pictures, is hoping to bring the quirky family portrait to North American audiences, saying Palestinians have “for too long been shut out by the gatekeepers of the industry”.

One Palestinian who has already found viewers in the United States is Cherien Dabis, who made 2009 film “Amreeka” and co-directed hit Hulu series “Ramy”.

But the shooting of her latest film — a historic epic — was disrupted by the Gaza war. 

One of the crew on the ground in the occupied West Bank town of Ramallah, Ala Abu Ghoush, has responded by making a documentary about the stalled project, which they are calling “Unmaking Of”.

“The film is really asking the question: What is the importance of doing films and art in this kind of situation, in this war?” said Abu Ghoush. –AFP