Palestine Film Club X Sarha Collective: cultural regeneration for occupied territories

The people of Palestine continue to strive for better. After enduring pain for over 70 years,  witnessing the emergence of art to tell Palestine’s stories is akin to seeing a flower bloom through concrete. Stories that have been muted for so long and denied access to the world are now being shared through the PFC (Palestine Film Collective), who are determined to mark Palestine’s place in the art world. This ultimately marks Palestine’s place in the world full stop, no matter who tries to deny it. Film transcends language, it can convey messages of the heart, soul and experiences of existence in the most powerful way which is why the PFC is so important in today’s current political and economic landscape. We can understand so much about our world and people through the making and sharing of film. Although it must have been a difficult journey to create work in Palestine where everyday life is trying enough, several artists came together to do exactly that. Based in the West Bank and diaspora, the PFC are keen to explore wide ranging issues that aren’t necessarily apparent in mainstream coverage of Palestine.

It was an honour to cover the Palestine Film Collective’s first ever launch in London; the event also featured DJs Jazar Crew to play their first ever London set. Every aspect of the launch was to provide artists and youth across the Arab world with safe spaces to express themselves and grow whilst including the world as an audience. I interviewed Nadia Jaglom of the Sarha Collective who hosted the event and Mo’min Swaitat of the Palestine Film collective as they shared the purpose and aims of their work.

What are the aims and purposes of Palestine Film Club?

Nadia: Palestine Film Club is a collective comprised of filmmakers, producers, artists and others dedicated to the production and growth of a homegrown Palestinian film industry. We are a network of industry professionals whose goal it is to support and inspire one another through the promotion of Palestinian cinema, both domestically and on an international stage.

We aim to create a bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world by building a free, independent cinema movement and a safe space for new forms of art and creativity. We also wish to build stronger ties between Palestine and the rest of the Arab world and to showcase new, emerging Arab filmmakers, wherever they may be.

Mo’min: We aim to create a space that is open to all: the Palestinian community within historical Palestine, those in the diaspora – whether in refugees camps or anywhere else in the world – and of course the international community. We are working on cultural exchange to make up for the fragmentation of Palestinian culture and the targeting of Palestinian identity, which is an ongoing saga. Despite everything we have undergone, we want to move away from the idea that we are victims, and focus instead of building a generation who will take an active approach to cultural regeneration and expression through film, art and other forms of creativity.

And what about Sarha Collective?

Nadia: Sarha Collective is a London-based organisation, providing a platform for unheard perspectives from the Middle East through exhibitions, film screenings, performances and other events. It works closely with creatives from a wide array of fields, commissioning new work and bringing artists to London, particularly those who have never shown their work in the UK previously. Sarha is always looking to connect with young initiatives and collectives who are at the forefront of experimental creative work in the Arab world, so PFC was a natural choice for a collaboration.

What has it been like for the filmmakers and others in general, creating art in a place that has been put under so many constraints?

Mo’min: You can’t separate making art in Palestine from being a freedom fighter. It is hugely meaningful making art in Palestine. Of course it is difficult, but the motivation can be immense. I believe that art is born out of hardship and suffering and, once you know and you feel that your art can make a difference, it is hard to turn back. Art which seeks to overcome obstacles, generate debate and discussion and touch communities – that’s the art I think we need right now. Because all these things can actually generate political change which is needed as much in Palestine as in the rest the world. What is interesting for me is that at a time where everyone is talking about displacement, being pushed out of their home countries and into new ones, Palestinians are talking about return which opens up a whole new space for political debate and a particular way of making art.

How have you/the filmmakers you’ve worked with navigated the representation of Palestine through film?

Mo’min: Our generation haven’t had the opportunity to speak about our everyday experiences living in and outside of Palestine. Many of the films that come out of Palestine focus on the 1948 Nakba, they highlight the oppression we face or they look at certain aspects of Palestinian life as a kind of “cultural grotesque”. In some cases, Palestinian filmmakers have made films that are only really understood by the Palestinian community or those who are already familiar with the Palestinian struggle and that is a shame because there are so many aspects of our lives that could resonate with audiences around the world and which everyone can relate to.

To add to this, so much filmmaking to date has been very safe. We now have a generation which is interested in exploring other realities. We are experimenting, trying to imagine different scenarios are looking to the future and we are particularly interested in new kinds of fiction filmmaking, not only being the objects of documentary footage but creating new worlds on screen. Palestinian filmmakers can feel great pressure to make films about Palestine and Palestinian identity, but first and foremost I don’t want to stand for nationalism, borders, armies and flags. I am interested in the universal struggle…as seen from a Palestinian perspective.

Nadia: For me the priority is for Palestinian filmmakers to have a safe space to navigate their own interests, ideas and priorities through cinema – to speak directly to audiences without interference or censorship, on their own terms. Palestinian visual culture has been under assault since the establishment of the Israeli state. Palestinian film and photography has been seized, censored or destroyed and of course that has an impact on the collective memory of Palestinians. They have been robbed of their own image. And this continues to this day via mass media. Palestinians are only ever seen through the lens of foreign correspondents, with their own particular agendas.

The results from our filmmakers are of course varied – everyone has their own particular relationship with and concept of Palestine and Palestinian identity though of course themes of exile, displacement and return often occur and that is necessary because so much of the political discussion around Palestine tries to sideline these issues. But we showcase comedies, tragedies, fiction, non-fiction and everything in between. We don’t have any agenda – we are just providing a platform for young creatives to share their work.

It should be said that are movies also included two fantastic films – one sci-fi mockumentary from Beirut and a documentary made by a young Syrian-Scottish filmmaker about her family in Sweden so we are not only dealing with the representation of Palestine but the Arab world more broadly. This is very important as London can be a hub for filmmakers from across the Arab world to meet and collaborate, but it’s also vital that work made by Arab filmmakers is seen locally in Palestine. Cinema can be a window into another world and – with all the travel restrictions facing artists across the Middle East – our screenings allow the opportunity to be exposed to alternative realities, some taking place just twenty minutes across a border, which are otherwise impossible to access.

Mo’min: We need this platform in the diaspora. Because of how the political situation in the Middle East we can’t physically meet and cross the borders that we used to. Europe has become the only viable place for us to connect. There’s a lot of difficulties facing artists who want to travel to the UK, but we have an amazing amount of talent living here amongst the diaspora and it’s such a beautiful thing for us to connect with people from Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and to find new opportunities to work together here.

Can you tell us about the launch? How did the whole thing come about?

Mo’min: I happen to be based between the West Bank and London, as I ended up studying at LISPA (London International School for Performing Arts), a Jacques Lecoq school built around new kinds of storytelling. I’ve been here long enough now to understand how many opportunities there are for creative work in London, but I want to draw on all the talent, expertise and knowledge in the film industry back home in Palestine and introduce audiences to this amazing work. We also aim to generate better ties between British and Palestinian film and filmmakers. It’s a long-term process which has only just begun but one of our main aims is to find ways to connect Palestinian cinema with the rest of the world. The UK has an amazing history of producing ground-breaking film and TV, and London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, so it made sense for us to hold a launch here. Our London launch was synchronised with Jerusalem, organised by co-founders Aida Kaadan and Muhannad Halawani, and this is very important to us not only symbolically but because it enables us to build a bridge between Palestine and the international community through a shared love of cinema.

What kind of response have you had from people so far?

Nadia: We’ve been overwhelmed by the response honestly. The nicest thing was the diversity of the audience and how many people joined us from so many different backgrounds. London’s amazing in that sense. I was very moved by a woman from Shujayya (in Gaza) who told us during the Q&A that it was her first time since moving to London some years ago that she felt reminded of and connected to her own community. We had audience members from across the Arab diaspora. So many British people joined us who have developed a newfound interest in Palestinian and Arab cinema. And we have heard from many young filmmakers who are now keen to come to Palestine and create work there, which we can facilitate. That’s what it’s all about really – reaching new people and offering them something meaningful. Cultivating a space for creative talent across borders. It makes this work worthwhile in my opinion.

What are you hoping the PFC can achieve in the future? What other plans do you have?

Mo’min: We’ve got big plans for the future. Apart from providing a platform for those who are currently working in the Palestinian film industry, we work in a number of other ways. We are determined to bring cinema to the wider community in Palestine through workshops and mobile screenings which has become increasingly important with the routine closure of cinemas across Palestine. We also have a team who can support pre-production, production and location services for film/TV companies looking to work in Palestine. We want to make it the number one cinematic destination in the Middle East. We also want to encourage more creative exchange and collaboration through international co-productions and residencies held in Palestine, and we have an educational wing, dedicated to supporting emerging talent.

Nadia: The educational component is particularly important as there is currently a huge ‘brain drain’ in Palestine, with emerging talent suffering from lack of opportunity, having to leave Palestine to study abroad, so we want to provide workshops and educational facilities that enable young people to develop talent at home. This applies as much to Palestinian filmmakers within the 1948 borders – who have no option but to study in Israeli institutions – as to West Bankers, for whom there is no dedicated school to study filmmaking, editing, cinematography, sound design etc. We don’t currently operate in Gaza due to travel restrictions, though of course we aim to provide a platform for Gazan filmmakers to share their work and would love to have a base in Gaza in the future.

Can you tell me more about the upcoming filmmakers’ exchange programme between the UK and Palestine?

Mo’min: The exchange programme will involve reaching out to both Palestinian filmmakers in Palestine and the diaspora to take part in workshops, courses and gain experience on set here in London. We also want to bring filmmakers from the UK and beyond to Palestine, to take part in residencies where they create short films produced by PFC, as we already have a team of cinematographers, producers, location managers etc. who can help facilitate this. We hope this will lead to new kinds of collaboration.

What are you hoping people will take away from your work and events?

Nadia: I hope people will come away with an appetite for more and feeling inspired – particularly to create their own work, to experiment and to make cinema. Even with the most difficult content, our events are intended to be a celebration of Palestinian art, identity and culture so people should hopefully feel uplifted.

We want to break down the mystique of film and filmmaking by inviting filmmakers (wherever possible) to our events so they can speak about their work and can communicate with audiences directly. Hopefully this will lead to all kind of industry meetings and connections too – I hate the term networking but these kind of events can be a great informal way to approach someone you’ve wanted to meet or work with.

The social aspect of our events is very important. Combining film and music – as we did at our London launch by bringing Jazar Crew to the UK from Haifa – rarely happens in London but it’s a very powerful thing to bring together creatives from different fields who share the same values and are working towards the same goals. For me film has always been a very social thing. I always think it’s such a shame when you go and see a movie, sit in the dark for a couple of hours and go home again without exchanging a word with anyone else in the audience. So we want to change that and our film club is as much about seeing films as connecting with other filmgoers afterwards, building a genuine community in a city where cultural events are held every single night but where no one ever strikes up a conversation with a stranger.

You can follow the Sarha Collective here and keep up to date with Palestine Film Club here.


Words by Hanna Johara-Dokal

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