Last Friday marked the premiere of the 13th annual Boston Palestine Film Festival, which opened with a screening of writer-director Elia Suleiman’s acclaimed dramedy “It Must Be Heaven” (2019) at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. The festival, which is organized by an all-volunteer team in partnership with the MFA and numerous sponsors, including Arab America, has presented over 300 films since its founding in 2007.
Michael Maria, the BPFF’s Programming Director, attributes the success and longevity of the festival to its representation of an artistic tradition that is often ignored in the U.S.
“The team … found an audience in Boston starved for Palestinian voices and narratives, longing for a welcoming space for Palestinian cultural and artistic expression,” Maria told the Daily in an email.
The festival’s program includes appearances by filmmakers from around the world. The Daily had the opportunity to interview three directors of films screened at the festival, all of whom highlighted its importance in showcasing Palestinian culture and subverting commonly-ascribed narratives of oppression and disempowerment.
Jaime Villarreal Izquierdo, whose documentary “The Journey of the Others” (2019) had its world premiere at the MFA on Sunday, drew parallels between the conflict in Palestine and the protests currently unfolding in his home country of Chile.
“At the end of the day, you realize that all conflicts are directly related to selfish interests,” Villarreal observed. “With the Palestinian issue, the Israelis aren’t interested in what’s happening on the other side of the wall, and in Chile, we have the same things … a government totally disconnected and dissociated with the interests of people and what they need.”
“The Journey of the Others” follows actors based out of The Freedom Theatre, a playhouse and cultural center in the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp co-founded by filmmaker and activist Juliano Mer Khamis, on their 2017 journey to New York to stage their original play “The Siege.” The play, which was previously cancelled twice due to political pressure, depicts the true story of Palestinian fighters besieged for 39 days in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. In filming the documentary, Villarreal sought to challenge outside conceptions about the intersection between art and resistance in Palestine.
“[The Freedom Theatre] doesn’t use the concept of nonviolent resistance,” he explained. “They prefer to talk about cultural resistance … They don’t criticize any way of resistance.”
The subject matter of the play featured in “The Journey of the Others” heightens this focus on the interconnected nature of different forms of Palestinian resistance. The film additionally emphasizes this connection in its depiction of the Theatre’s ministry dedicated to children affected by the occupation and the Jenin residents’ memorialization of Juliano Mer Khamis, who was assassinated in 2011. For the film, Villarreal drew on these intersections to highlight the power of theatre as a revolutionary medium.
“On the other side, the Israelis feel that what they’re doing is terrorism,” he said. “So they don’t want to highlight the work, but this always ends up making more people interested in it … theatre is an amazing kind of resistance.”
For other artists, however, the idea of resistance can be simultaneously empowering and constricting. The five Palestinian artists featured in Areeb Zuaiter’s documentary short “Colors of Resistance” (2019), which screened on Monday at the Public Library of Brookline, find the relationship between their art and their heritage complicated by dislocation, political boundaries and loss. Zuaiter noted that some, like Samia Halaby, a New York-based painter who has lived in the United States since her teens, reject pressure to label themselves or their art in neat categories.
“[Halaby] doesn’t like for her art to be very directly related to Palestine,” Zuaiter explained. “She defines herself as an international artist; she refuses to pigeonhole her art by not being forward-looking and international.”
“Colors of Resistance” also explores the vastly different environment for artists within and outside Palestine. Zuaiter highlighted the harassment and censorship often visited upon artists working in the West Bank by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
“Living inside Palestine is a totally different challenge to living outside,” she mentioned. “While in both there is that existential struggle of being accepted, the situation in Palestine remains a distinct challenge.”
Indeed, two of the artists profiled in “Colors of Resistance,” musicians called Z the People and StormTrap Asifeh, have been forced to leave the West Bank after the conclusion of filming. To Zuaiter, the difficulties Palestinian artists grapple with share an intimate connection with the collective consciousness of the Palestinian people, both in their homeland and in diaspora.
“Palestine is, more than a place, a metaphor of belonging to a place,” Zuaiter observed. “It’s carried by its people, no matter where they are.”
The concept of a Palestine defined more by the bond between its people than by its physical borders is more somberly emphasized in “Imprisoning a Generation” (2018), a documentary featuring four Palestinian children who have been imprisoned or detained by Israeli forces. As director Zelda Edmunds detailed, Palestinians living near Israeli settlements in the West Bank face heightened risks of harassment and violence.
“In places like Hebron … there’s a deep connection between settlers and soldiers,” she explained. “In the story of Marwan, for example, his bike was stolen, and when he went to a soldier to report it, a settler overheard him and claimed he was throwing stones, so they detained him until hours later, they saw the video showing he didn’t.”
Edmunds emphasized that the four children featured in “Imprisoning a Generation” represent a minuscule fraction of a nationwide pattern of soldiers targeting children for arbitrary detainment or arrest, during which they often endure physical violence and emotional abuse.
“Five hundred to 700 children are imprisoned under the military court system in Israel every year, but there are many more who are arbitrarily detained and then released,” Edmunds said. “It’s often very scary; many times they don’t know why or what’s going on, and parents might not know where their kids are.”
From Edmunds’ perspective, the widespread detention of children represents one prong of a long-term Israeli strategy to quell Palestinian resistance at an early age.
“I think that children and young people are targeted because they’re the future, and destroying the innocence … and the belief in a future that holds freedoms for everyone is a way to destroy a generation of young people,” Edmunds explained. “There’s an ongoing attempt to disrupt any semblance of peace or safety for these kids and their families.”
The oftentimes harrowing footage of “Imprisoning a Generation” depicts children as young as nine being beaten, kicked or held at gunpoint. Edmunds, who shot much of the footage herself, drew attention to her own privilege in the ability to document this violence, as well as the Israeli government’s attempt to quash its subversive power.
“As a white American, I’m able to document and get away with a lot more,” she noted. “It’s always been dangerous for Palestinians to document things, but people still do it.”
The ability to film Israeli forces has been subject to attempted crackdowns by the government. In 2018, a bill proposing a ban on photographing or filming Israeli soldiers was approved for parliamentary debate by the Israeli Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The proposal’s restrictions were ultimately relaxed amidst a firestorm of controversy in Israel and abroad.
In the face of this mobilization, Edmunds expressed her faith in Palestinian resistance efforts, additionally mentioning a U.S. congressional resolution introduced in April that would prohibit the use of American military aid in the detention of children.
“There are amazing initiatives to get cameras in the hands of Palestinians, young Palestinians in particular,” Edmunds explained. “The people who are going to be the best at documenting what’s going on are the people living it.”
Edmunds’ sentiment — that amplifying Palestinian voices is critical to cultural liberation — was echoed by Maria. Accordingly, he stressed that the festival’s work does not go dormant with its final screening on Oct. 27.
“We‘ve ventured with our partners into organizing live Palestinian storytelling events, musical performances, our Arab Film Series featuring films from throughout the Arab world, and Palestinian-related programming throughout the year,” he said.
This consciousness-raising has been central to the festival’s mission since its founding. Maria defines it more aptly: “showcasing the extraordinary narrative and culture of Palestinians through cinema and art.”