Stories about teenage heartbreak, Gazan surfers, embroidery communities, and more can be accessed this month in a diverse line-up of Palestinian films curated by the arts nonprofit Arab Film and Media Institute (AFMI). The organization has made a growing list of feature-length films, documentaries, and shorts available for audiences on a pay-what-you-wish basis through its Palestinian Voices film program until November 30. The series, screening both online and in select in-person events, is one of several film initiatives launched in recent weeks to cast a light on Palestinian stories.
AFMI released the program after postponing the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco last month. The event, which has been hosted annually across cities in California since 1996, is billed as a celebration of pan-Arab culture, history, and communities through film. But as AFMI Executive Director Serge Bakalian told Hyperallergic, the timing of this year’s festival didn’t feel appropriate in the context of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian territories.
“In light of current events and the speed at which catastrophes are unfolding, we feel the need to be present and hold space for each other in a different way,” Bakalian wrote in a public statement. “Some of us are mourning, some are angry, some are experiencing anxiety or shock. The Arab Film Festival has always been an annual celebration of Arab cinema and Arab storytellers, unfortunately this does not feel like a moment of celebration.”
Since Hamas’s October 7 attacks that reportedly killed nearly 1,400 Israelis and foreign nationals and took over 200 hostages, Israel military forces have killed over 10,328 Palestinians in relentless airstrikes, a deadly siege, and a large-scale ground invasion in the Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health and data compiled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This rising death toll is in addition to 2,260 Palestinian people reported missing, and 158 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank. An estimated 1.5 million people have also been internally displaced within the Gaza enclave, which is more than half the territory’s population. Within the past few weeks, multiple human rights groups have called on Israel to ceasefire and characterized its assault against Palestine as “genocidal.”
While new dates for the Arab Film Festival have yet to be confirmed, Bakalian said that organizers are tentatively planning to reschedule the event for the spring. In the meantime, audiences can access the selection of films on the AFMI website, which will be continually updated throughout November as AFMI adds more works to the Palestinian Voices series.
“These stories that our filmmakers have put together really provide an insight of what’s happening on the ground that we are not seeing on the news and social media,” Bakalian said of the films featured in the virtual program.
He explained that organizers wanted to select films that focused on personal stories, such as Gaza Surf Club (2016), which examines Gaza City’s surf community; 5 Broken Cameras (2011), a first-hand account of the non-violent Palestinian resistance to Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and Fadia’s Tree (2021), a film centered on Fadia Loubani, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, who yearns to return to her homeland.
“There’s always been so much hate and misunderstanding of Arab people, and we always find that film and storytelling is the best way to break through that barrier and establish a common humanity,” he added.
In recent weeks, other cultural groups and collectives have organized similar screenings and compiled helpful film and media resources to spotlight Palestinian creators and accumulate support for Palestinian community members. On social media, users have also gathered lists of Palestinian films including Born In Gaza (2014), Habibi (2011), 200 Meters (2020), and Farha (2021) that are currently available to watch on Netflix. And this Friday, November 10, audiences in New York City can also see revolutionary Palestinian cinema works in person at a screening hosted by Queens-based experimental collective Woodbine. The event will also function as a benefit fundraiser for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
Bakalian said it has been heartening to witness other film industry groups “embrace” the Palestinian Voices program, as more than 20 film non-Arab organizations, screening collectives, studios, and cultural groups have partnered with AFMI on the series since it began.
“Most people, particularly outside of [Arab] communities, have always been so afraid to talk or have an opinion about Palestine or Israel,” Bakalian said, adding that many widespread misconceptions have been the result of “decades of misinformation” about the region.
“I think we are seeing a shift and I think that’s where I’m hopeful,” he said.