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Palestinian Directors Overseas Watch the War at Home — And Wrestle With Cinema’s Role in Conveying the Turmoil

On Oct. 7, when the Israel-Hamas war broke out, Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir was just one week away from starting principal photography in Bethlehem, 45 miles from Gaza, on “All Before You.”
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s long-gestating project reconstructs the 1936 farmer-led revolt against British colonial rule and the influx of Jewish settlements in Palestine that has been at the root of the conflict. The latest outbreak of violence came after a Hamas-led terror attack that left about 1,200 Israelis dead while 250 were taken hostage, with more than 100 believed to still be held by Hamas.

Now Jacir, who is based in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, is anxiously waiting for a cease-fire that will put an end to the death and destruction and allow her to go back and shoot the drama. “It’s more important than ever to tell this largely forgotten story,” she says.

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As hopes of reaching a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip flicker, Palestinian directors like Jacir are grappling with despair while questioning how their art can better convey the suffering of Palestinians. Some 31,000 civilians have died as a result of Israeli military operations and starvation since the war began.

“Cinema never really achieves anything immediately,” said Palestinian auteur Elia Souleiman during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra workshop, held earlier this month in Doha, Qatar, where some of the cease-fire negotiations are taking place.

Paris-based Souleiman is known for work such as Cannes Jury Prize winner “Divine Intervention,” which depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in surreal tones. At Qumra, he said the time has come to ask what must be done “to take responsibility, and a moral and ethical position, on what films enable us to discuss about genocides, massacres and horrible violence around the world.”

Ending the war is the first priority, says director Lina Soualem, also based in Paris, “to save the people that are still there.” Soualem’s 2023 documentary “Bye Bye Tiberias” delves into how her mother, actor Hiam Abbass, and her family were displaced from the city of Tiberias by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

“Bye Bye Tiberias,” which launched from Venice and Toronto shortly before the start of the current conflict, “has since taken on an amplified resonance because people are craving human stories coming from Palestine,” Soualem says.

In thinking about what she could do next, “it’s not like I need to show a different Palestine,” she notes. “It’s still about giving back the humanity and the complexity to a people that is not so well represented or that is stigmatized.”

Berlin-based Palestinian director Kamal Aljafari is exploring the Palestinian displacement from another angle. His experimental doc “A Fidai Film” takes its cue from the looting of Beirut’s Palestine Research Center archives during the Israeli army’s 1982 occupation of the Lebanese capital. Some of those materials later resurfaced, and Aljafari uses the found footage to create a narrative documenting successive waves of forced Palestinian emigration. He hopes the film, which will play on the festival circuit, will shed light on the current war.

“The conflict has so many ramifications and so many, many different reasons,” Aljafari notes. “It’s very complicated to do any kind of reconstruction. But I think that any bit that can help right now is particularly relevant.”

Mohammed Almughanni left Gaza when he was 17 to study film in Poland, where he now lives. He has been shooting “Son of the Streets,” a documentary about a Palestinian teenager who is growing up in a Beirut refugee camp without citizenship.

When the war ends Almughanni plans to return home with his camera.

“Not just to film ashes, because the whole city has been destroyed,” he says. “I want to show the other side of Gaza, which is the beauty of how people live on a daily basis and the culture and so many other things besides the war.”

But of course the war is top of mind for these directors, who are watching the conflict from different parts of the world.

“All of us are like deer caught in the headlights,” says Jacir.

“There are days when I’m completely overwhelmed and frozen,” she adds, “and days when I actually have to stick my head in the sand and not look at all these images. And then there are days where all I can do is look at these images and try to figure out what can we do?

“We’re not passive. We have to do something. It feels helpless, but we are not helpless. I reject that idea.”

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