By Yousef M. Aljamal
Palestinian cinema was among the first to emerge in the Middle East and North Africa along with Egyptian and Syrian cinemas. Egyptian cinema started production in 1923, followed by Syrian cinema in 1928 and Palestinian cinema in 1935. However, at the time, it was barely possible to separate Palestinian and Syrian national identities, which only emerged after the division of the region by imperial powers. Before then, Palestine was known as “Southern Syria” and was part of Greater Syria, which included today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Yet, with the start of the British mandate in Palestine in 1917 and the French mandate in Syria in 1920, national identities gained a strong meaning. This translated into political, social, economic, and military actions against the imperial powers of the time that acted as if the region was theirs, dividing it in a humiliating manner into chunks of land.
The film industry in Palestine, which in a period of a few years saw a mass displacement of its people, was among the political, economic, and social changes taking place in the region. This mass displacement was reflected in a series of films that addressed the injustice against the Palestinian people alongside their life prior to the Nakba.
The first Palestinian movie theater was established in Jerusalem in 1908 and was known as “Cinematographe Oracle,” showing films on Saturday and Sunday nights. In 1912, a silent movie theater was established in the city, known as the “Cinema International,” where shows were organized based on ticket sales. At the time, these shows were mostly attended by male audiences who came from elite backgrounds.
In 1927, a law regulating movie theaters came to light in Palestine, which established the conditions under which the British mandate authorities were to control the sector. he first Palestinian filmmaker was Ibrahim Hassan Sarhan, who shot a 20-minute short film of the visit of Saudi King Saud Bin Abdilaziz to Palestine in 1935. Other prominent Palestinians in the field included Ahmad Hilmi Alkilani who graduated from Cairo in 1945, and Muhammad Saleh Al-Kayali, who upon returning from his studies in Italy, established a cinema studio in Jaffa in 1940. He collaborated with the League of Arab Nations in 1945 to produce a film on Palestine.
Although the number of Palestinian films produced before 1948 was limited, the content of these films varied and provided important documentation of life before the Nakba. Such films include Realized Dreams, Studio Palestine, Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, and The Eid’s Night. Palestinian-Egyptian filmmaker Salaheddin Bardakhan produced the film A Night’s Dream in 1946, which was shown in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Amman, and Cairo at the time.
The impact of the Nakba on the film industry in Palestine
Following the Nakba and the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1965, more Palestinian films saw the light. The first Palestinian film that was shot under PLO supervision was No to Peaceful Settlement in 1968. At the time, all production units were factional, where the Fatah movement, for example, had its own production unit. The Palestine Film Unit, which was part of the PLO’s research center, published a 12-minute short film about Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967 and its impact on the Palestinian people there. Leftist Palestinian groups such as the PFLP and DFLP had their own production units, and produced films at the time such as The Path in 1973 by Rafiq Hajjar and Our Little Houses in 1974.
A dozen films unfolded carrying titles such as Why We Take Arms, Why We Plant Flowers, and Palestine in the Eye. Arab producers also contributed to the Palestinian film industry at the time; for example, Iraqi producer Muhammed Tawfik who produced dozens of films such as the Child and the Toy (1986), and Syrian Muhammed Malas who produced The Dream of the City in 1983.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1993, the Media and Culture Department of the PLO was converted into the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. In light of limited contributions, the Palestinian “Revolution films” could be considered dead today, as film productions by Palestinian factions outside the PLO are different in their approach and content from the productions of the Palestinian Revolution Cinema, including those produced by Islamic parties.
Emergence of Palestinian Cinema?
The last decade has seen an emergence of Palestinian cinema which had lost momentum in the 1990s and 2010s. Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman is among the top contributors to the Palestinian film industry with his masterpiece It Must Be Heaven (2019). In 2022, a storm of pressure on the film platform Netflix was launched after it published Farha, a Palestinian film that narrates the story of a 12-year-old Palestinian child during the events of the Nakba, which saw the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
In the film, Farha’s father hides her in a room to protect her, promising to be back. He is unable to return, and from her room, Farha sees the horrors of the Nakba unfolding in front of her eyes: a Palestinian family is executed in the backyard of her family’s house by a group of Jewish soldiers. The film reveals a snippet of what Palestinian refugees had to endure, while the implications of the Nakba are still very present today. Today, as Israeli politicians who threaten Palestinians with a second Nakba are becoming ministers in Netanyahu’s new government, films like Farha seem even more ominous.
Farha and other Palestinian films send a message that the Palestinian film industry is coming back into the spotlight after decades of being almost inactive. The second generation of Palestinian refugees educated itself and the third generation is now taking action, supported by the fine education it has received, which will translate into more Palestinian films and novels in the coming years. The cultural war between Palestinians and Israel seems to be taking a new turn, and it will only become more heated in the coming years.
The fact that Farha is among the top 10 films on Netflix, shows that the Israeli counter-campaign to defame it has failed. As the impact of the Palestinian film and cinema industry increases, more Palestinian films are likely to be made, creating more pressure on platforms by pro-Israeli groups. Yet, the message of Farha has resonated loud and clear: the Palestinian narrative cannot be stopped.
Yousef M. Aljamal is a researcher in Middle Eastern Studies and the author and translator of a number of books.
15 January 2023