Palestinian Films With a Woman’s Touch
New America Media, News Feature, Jalal Ghazi Posted: Sep 13, 2009
Four Palestinian women have started a new kind of Intifada. But instead of stones, bullets, or bombs, they are using words, images and music to create films that tell their own stories and highlight the lives of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and America.
“Amreeka” which means America in Arabic tells the story of Muna, a single Palestinian mother whose husband left her for a young and a thinner woman. Muna flees the West Bank town of Bethlehem with her 16-year-old son to live with her sister in Illinois.
Suffering from homesickness, Muna struggles to fit in, though she is ashamed of her new job at a local White Castle. Back home, she worked in a bank. Her son, Fadi, also struggles to fit in at school and gets in trouble instead.
The film, set in 2003 at the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stars Nisreen Faour as Muna Farah, mother to Fadi (Melkar Muallem). It deals with the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, and according to film critic, Robert Levin, “draws out the common humanity underwriting even the most divisive of hot button issues."
“Amreeka” was screened in San Francisco last August, and it brought tears to many in the audience. Arabs and Palestinian Americans have been negatively portrayed in Hollywood and the media for far too long, but now they have a film that they can identify with.
Speaking at the Islamic Society of North America Conference, the film's director Cherien Dabis spoke about growing up in Ohio and encountering prejudice against Arabs. She said, “My father who is a physician went from the town local hero to enemy overnight. We got death threats on a daily basis.” She added, “people walked into my dad’s office, asked for their medical records and walked right out because they did not want to be seen by an Arab doctor. His name is Nezih, but [he] was called the Palestinian Nazi.”
Dabis also talked about how difficult it was for her to fund the film. It was a big challenge, she said, and it took five years. She was told it was too “culturally specific.” “I think what they meant was that it was too Palestinian, too Arab,” Dabis said.
National Geographic Entertainment, which supported her short film “Make a Wish,” decided to acquire “Amreeka” which will be released in the United States this month. The film grossed $1 million in France.
Dabis told Al Jazeera English that the film was based on the story of her aunt and her son, but it also tells her own story while she was growing up. She told Al Jazeera English, “My experience is probably most like that of the oldest niece in the film, Salma.” However, Salma not only represents Cherien Dabis, but also depicts many Arab American women who are treated differently from their brothers. While sons are allowed to go out late, have girlfriends, and study abroad, Arab young women are often not allowed to have any of that.
“I did not see my life represented anywhere in the media,” Dabis said. “Where are our stories, where is our humanity, where is our every daily life, where are our relationships, our love lives and scandals?”
SALT OF THIS SEA
The second film, “Salt of this Sea” by Annemarie Jacir, also screened by the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, follows the story of a 28-year-old Palestinian woman, Suraya. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she decides to visit her homeland for the first time.
Suheir Hammad, who played Suraya, said that the character is “also looking for herself as a woman. She has an idea that she came from a place and she wants to experience it for the first time.”
Suraya, an American citizen, falls in love with a Palestinian man from a refugee camp but the Palestinian Authority would not let her live in the West Bank because her family was from Palestinian land that was occupied in 1948, which now is inside Israel. Surarya, however, is not allowed to live in Israel, not even in her grandfather’s home, which is occupied by a Jewish family.
In some way, Suraya’s story parallels the real life story of its filmmaker. Jacir, who was not even allowed by Israel to attend the screening of her film in Ramallah, told CNN that Israel is using the separation wall and checkpoints “to keep the Palestinians inside, and ghettoized and separated, while keeping the Palestinians outside out.”
As an act of defiance, the 25-feet high separation wall was used for the screening of her film by the Palestinians.
SLINGSHOT HIP HOP
The third film, “Slingshot Hip Hop” by Jackie Reem Salloum, documents how Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel use rap to tell their stories of social injustices and hardships.
DAM, a Palestinian rap group in the heart of Israel, sings both in Arabic and Hebrew to reach both Arab and Jewish Israelis. The lyrics say in Hebrew, “Maximum Jews on Maximum land. Minimum Arabs on Minimum land.”
Another lyric says, “Who is the terrorist? I’m the terrorist? How am I a terrorist when this is my homeland? You have taken everything while I’m living in my homeland. Go to the law? What for? You are the witness, the lawyer and judge...tell me how do you want me: On my knees? With my hands tied?”
American musician and writer, Mark Levine, told Al Jazeera English, “it’s so hard to get the reality of Palestinians’ day-to-day life through to an American audience. But you can do this through the back door and hip hop is the easiest back door because of its cultural significance. So if the Palestinians can do hip hop and sound so good, maybe they are a bit like us and we should listen to their story.”
While DAM rap lyrics are about racism and home demolitions that the Arab Israeli minority encounter inside Israel, P.R rap from the heart of Gaza is about death, war and destruction. Levine points out how “sound catchers” are used uniquely in Palestinian rap as compared to other rap music around the world. “You really hear the sound of war," he said.
According to "Russia Today," at least 11 rap groups have emerged in Gaza, which is one of the most conservative societies.
One can also hear the sound of the first female Palestinian rap singer, Abeer. She insisted on singing DAM despite death threats from her own family. Her lyrics challenge not only unjust Israeli policies, but also sexist and tribal Arab traditions.
Her lyrics tell the whole story: “Not girls who just sing but women who give back to singing its original dignity. I’m Sabeena Da Witch, and these are my true colors. I do not want your house, and I don’t need you to come to the rescue and marry me. I want to hear and make Eastern provocative hip hop that will make you stop laughing and feeling shame when you hear my name. I can do what you do and better, and I never feel weak in front of a man or a tradition.”
POMEGRANATES & MYRRH
The fourth film is Pomegranates & Myrrh by Najwa Najjar. She described her film to Al Jazeera English as, “a story about people, I do not have to show you the Intifada, I do it in another way."
The film is based on a love triangle set in Ramallah. The main character Kamar finds herself facing multiple problems. Her husband, who she just married, is arrested by the Israeli authorities for refusing to give up his land, which is now occupied by squatters. She struggles to fulfill her duty as a wife, but at the same time she wants to continue her passion to dance. Things get complicated when she falls in love with her dance instructor Kai.
Some movie critics noted that Najjar failed to fully develop the central love triangle arc, but Najjar has a very good reason. She told Al Jazeera English, “In Ramallah, this (love triangle) made huge controversy because some of the people saw it in much different light.”
Najjar probably left the relationship ambiguous, because she did not want to create very strong reactions in the Palestinian and Arab community. Najjar’s film, however, shows a side of suffering that is often overlooked: the agony of thousands of wives of prisoners. Love is yet another casualty under the Israeli occupation.
The film will be screened at the Arab Film Festival's opening night in San Francisco on October 15th.
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