Despite huge challenges, Palestinian film-makers, led by Hany Abu-Assad and Annemarie Jacir, are taking the international festival circuit by storm. Melanie Goodfellow reports.

Their statehood contested, economy in the doldrums, foreign aid on the wane and citizens scattered more than ever across the globe, the situation for Palestinians is critical. But against these odds, their film-making community has never been so productive or visible on the international scene.

“There is a tremendous need for Palestinians to express themselves, their frustrations and their hopes,” says Hany Abu-Assad, the director of Omar, the Cannes sensation and DIFF’s opening film. “Their politicians have failed to improve their lives or free them from the occupation and the world has forgotten them even though the situation hasn’t got any better.”

Omar is the story of a young Palestinian militant facing tough personal and moral decisions in a life lived under occupation. It won the Special Jury prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year.

Short Condom Lead from Gaza-born twins Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser (aka Tarzan and Arab), about a couple trying to make love during an Israeli lockdown of the Gaza Strip, also screened at Cannes. “They were the only two Arab films in Official Selection,” says Jordan-based Palestinian producer Rashid Abdelhamid of arts initiative Made in Palestine Project.

Rashid Masharawi’s Ramallah-shot Palestine Stereo, a drama about two brothers attempting to emigrate to Canada, and Rani Massalha’s Giraffada, set against the backdrop of the only zoo in the West Bank, played to critical acclaim at Toronto. Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You and Mahdi Fleifel’s documentary A World Not Ours have also been picking up prizes on the festival circuit over the past year.

At DIFF, Palestine Stereo is competing in the Muhr Arab feature-length competition alongside Omar, while Condom Lead and Rama Mari’s Izriqaq (Blued) are in the shorts competition. Jinan Coulter’s Searching For Saris and Mais Darwazah’s My Love Awaits Me By The Sea are contenders in the documentary competition.

Five Palestinian projects will also be presented at DIFF co-production events. Masharawi’s Gaza D.C., Fleifel’s tragi-comedy Men In The Sun, Firas Khoury’s debut feature The Flag, produced by Abu-Assad, and Ghada Terawi’s documentary Forgotten will be presented at Dubai Film Connection.

The Nasser twins will present their new Gaza-set feature project Casting in the Interchange programme.

Challenge of producing

While Palestine’s cinematic reach has expanded, the logistics of pulling together a Palestinian production on either side of the 1948 border have never been harder.

“Just because there’s this driving need, that doesn’t make it any easier,” says Abu-Assad. “In fact, it’s more difficult than ever. Beyond the usual financial challenges facing independent film-makers the world over, there’s no infrastructure and being under occupation and not being recognised as a country makes it impossible to build one. My cameraman supplements his income working as a salesman in between films.”

‘[Having local producers] is absolutely necessary in order to have an independent film industry’

Annemarie Jacir

“There’s definitely something of a film-making scene in Ramallah at the moment but it’s still sort of a miracle when we manage to pull off a production,” echoes Forgotten producer May Odeh.

Earlier this year, Abu-Assad suggested creating an independent Palestinian studio in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope in the 1960s. Abu-Assad believes the only way forward for Palestinian cinema is for its citizens to get behind their films. “I’m not nationalistic. I just think it’s important that Palestinians support their film-makers too,” he says.

Around 95% of Omar’s budget came from Palestinian sources - mainly the entrepreneurial Zuaiter family and Zahi Khouri, CEO of the Coca-Cola franchise in the West Bank and Gaza - with 5% provided by DIFF’s Enjaaz fund. The challenge now, says Abu-Assad, is recouping the money to encourage other Palestinian financiers. “If we want others to come forward, we need to show some returns,” he says.

The producers of Jacir’s When I Saw You were all Palestinian, encouraged by the performance of her previous film Salt Of This Sea. “It was quite special and remarkable, especially as Salt Of This Sea had almost no Arab support,” says Jacir. “They said this was embarrassing and wanted to change things. This approach is absolutely necessary in order to have a truly independent film industry.”

Abu-Assad is also considering the possibility of crowd-funding on his next two productions: Khoury’s The Flag and his own film Lamya.

He will not be the first Palestinian to do so. Jacir raised some $10,000 via the Dubai-based crowd-funding site Aflamnah, to help roll out the film internationally, and Jinan Coulter pulled in around $20,000 for her documentary Searching For Saris through the same site.

“Jinan ran an amazing campaign, reaching out personally to people in her inner and outer circle to get them on board,” says Vida Rizq, the founder of Aflamnah.

Ghada Terawi’s Dubai Film Connection project Forgotten, meanwhile, has managed to secure a small amount of support - roughly $20,000 - from national Palestinian TV.

“It’s not much. They don’t have huge resources but there’s a realisation that we need to start telling our own stories,” says Terawi.

International investment

Most Palestinian film-makers, however, still turn to foreign financiers to make their films, mainly from Europe and increasingly from the Gulf.

Massalha’s Giraffada was a Palestine-France-Italy-Germany co-production between Paris-based Mact Productions, Milan-based Lumiere & Co and Heimatfilm from Munich.

‘One advantage of international partners is they help support the film’s release in their territories’

Habib Attia, Cinetelefilms

Ramallah-based Masharawi’s Palestine Stereo was financed by a long list of backers from seven countries including Gaza Media Centre, France’s Mille et Une Prods, Norway’s Ape & Bjorn, Dubai Entertainment and Media Organisation, Film Market Initiative and Produzione Straordinaria with a host of state and institutional funds including France’s National Cinema Centre, Dubai’s Enjaaz fund and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

“Raising the finance was a long but fruitful job. It took us a year-and-a-half to raise the $1.5m budget,” says Habib Attia of Tunis-based Cinetelefilms, who produced the film alongside Masharawi and Abdel Salam Abu Askar’s Ramallah-based Cinepal. They are all at DIFF.

“We do what I call mosaic financing, pulling together as many sources of finance as possible,” Attia explains. “It’s a reality for all independent productions from the region. One of the advantages of working with lots of international partners is they then help raise awareness of the film and support its release in their territories.”

French producer Palmyre Badinier - who is based between Ramallah and Paris - is taking a similar approach for her partner Raed Andoni’s next film Ghost Hunting. “We’ve got support from France’s Centre Region and Abu Dhabi’s Sanad and are setting up a co-production between France, Palestine and Switzerland,” she reveals. “It’s taking time but it’s slowly coming together.”

Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser and producer Abdelhamid shot their short film Condom Lead on a shoestring in just 24 hours. They are now trying to piece together a budget for their feature Casting with the support of French co-producers Thomas Anargyros and Edouard de Vésinne’s of Paris-based Incognita Films.

Being a Palestinian film-maker presents its own unique challenge: as they have Gaza IDs, rather than West Bank, it is impossible for the Nassers and Abdelhamid to meet up with the other Palestinian film-makers in Ramallah or Nazareth. “We meet up at festivals or when they come to Jordan,” says Abdelhamid.

DIFF will be an important event for the Palestinians in attendance in more ways than one.

New Palestinian projects

Ghost Hunting

Dir Raed Andoni

A docu-drama about a Palestinian prisoner’s interrogation at an Israeli detention centre.

Contact Palmyre Badinier,

Men In The Sun*

Dir Mahdi Fleifel

A black comedy following two illegal Palestinian immigrants trying to survive in Athens.

Contact Signe Byrge Sorensen,


Dir Hany Abu-Assad

A young girl goes in search of her mother who abandoned her family for her lover.

Contact Hany Abu-Assad,

Gaza D.C.*

Dir Rashid Masharawi

A US activist and a Palestinian refugee fall in love in the Gaza Strip.

Contact Habib Attia,


Dir Ghada Terawi

Documentary about Japanese activist Kozo Okamoto, who spent years in Israeli jails for his role in the Lod Airport killings in support of the Palestinian liberation movement.

Contact May Odeh,


Dir Annemarie Jacir

A young Palestinian journalist living in the West Bank must confront her demons.

Contact Annemarie Jacir,

The Flag*

Dir Firas Khoury

Coming-of-age tale about teens who try to swap their school’s Israeli flag with one from Palestine.

Contact Hany Abu-Assad,


Dirs Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser

A comedy about a director trying to make a film in Gaza, capturing the absurdities of life there.

Contact Rashid Abdelhamid,

The Eyes Of A Thief

Dir Najwa Najjar

A Palestinian man tries to reconnect with his daughter after a decade in Israeli prison.

Contact Najwa Najjar,

Sharon And My Mother-In-Law

Dir Cherien Dabis

Adaptation of Suad Amiry’s wry account of life in Ramallah during the Israeli re-occupation in 2002.

Contact Cherien Dabis,

* Projects presented at DIFF 2012