The Palestinian Women Behind a New Wave of Great Israeli Cinema

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A scene from Maysaloun Hamoud's 'In Between' ('Bar Bahar'), which won the award for the best debut film at the Haifa Film Festival 2016.
A scene from Maysaloun Hamoud's 'In Between' ('Bar Bahar'), which won the award for the best debut film at the Haifa Film Festival 2016.Credit: Yaniv Berman

“A great thing has happened,” declared filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz in the wake of this week’s Haifa International Film Festival. “Two women — two female Palestinian directors — are speaking cinema in their unique language, each one individually and both together. They bring the reality straight to the heart, combining emotions and intellect in a moment whose intensity is equal to ten films.”

Elkabetz was speaking of the directors of two films that garnered the most prestigious prizes at the festival: Maysaloun Hamoud’s “In Between” (“Bar Bahar”), which won the award for the best debut film, and Maha Haj’s “Personal Affairs,” which was named best feature film. Both directors have Israeli citizenship, but identify as Palestinian.

These prizes do seem to gain added importance when the filmmakers are strong, independent women who use their films to expose the heavy double burden of life under occupation and in a patriarchal society. And they do so with a fresh point of view.

“Maha Haj and Maysaloun Hamoud in a volcanic eruption, back to back. One can only stand and cheer,” said Elkabetz, who produced “In Between.”

The films by Haj and Hamoud have hit the local cinema scene right after “Sand Storm” received the Ophir Award — the Israeli Oscar — for best film and won much praise by critics in Israel and worldwide. That film by Elite Zexer offers a critical look at the status of women in Bedouin society. The leading roles are played by Arab actresses Ruba Blal-Asfour, who got the Ophir prize for best supporting actress, and Lamis Ammar.

The Haifa Film Festival 2016.Credit: N/A

The power of both “Personal Affairs” and “In Between” is in the direct, feminine Palestinian point of view they bring to the screen. The plot of “Personal Affairs” follows an older couple living in Nazareth at a time when on the other side of the border, in Ramallah, their son Tarek wants to remain an eternal bachelor, their daughter is about to give birth, and the grandmother is losing her sanity. “A work that is entirely a love of mankind, flowing and funny, captivating and good-hearted, a contemporary human mosaic, both local and universal,” wrote the judges in their decision to award the prize to the film, which was produced by Baher Agbariya.

“In Between” is about three young Palestinian women who live in Tel Aviv under the watchful eye of Arab society and in the heart of liberal Israeli society, which will always define them as second-class citizens. The judges of the feature film competition called it “a powerful work about women who are fighting to shape their own destiny by means of confrontation, friendship and courage, victory and breaking free, and the prices they have to pay.”

Hamoud’s film, which concluded with a long standing ovation by the Haifa audience, also received two additional prizes: the Audience Award and the Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean’s award for artistic achievement, which was given to its three actresses: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammalieh and Shaden Kanboura.

Without borders

Haj, 46, a native of Nazareth, never studied film. She completed a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master’s in Arab Language and Literature. She has always known that she wanted to write, she explained in a conversation with Haaretz, but she never thought she would write film scripts.

She came to it almost by chance, when in 2005 a friend asked her to help him turn a story he had into a script. The attempt was successful – she received a grant for developing the script from the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television – and four years later she had already written and directed a short film, “Oranges,” which was screened at a series of international festivals.

Maha Haj, the director of 'Personal Affairs,' which was named best feature film at the Haifa Film Festival 2016.Credit: N/A

Afterwards she joined Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, also of Nazareth, and was the artistic designer of his film, “The Time That Remains;” she held the same task in several other films. Haj got the idea for the film “Personal Affairs” early in 2003, while visiting her brother in Sweden in a house on a lake.

“We were there and the lake was completely frozen, snow-covered, and suddenly my brother said to me, ‘I want to invite our parents here for a week next summer,’” she says. “I thought to myself what a wonderful thing that was, and started to wonder how such a visit would affect my parents, who are over 70, to be in such a place, what it would do to their relationship. I returned home and immediately started to write.”

The film focuses on the private lives of one Palestinian family scattered in various places. It follows the crises in their marital relationships, unfulfilled dreams, dealing with old age and with emotional obtuseness, and various human limitations. Politics erupts into the frame and pushes aside the humor and life itself in only a few instances.

“I would like my people to always choose life, instead of blowing itself up in anger,” Haj tells Haaretz. “This life is very precious, and there’s an alternative, there’s the life that one can love, and dance to its rhythm and go to the beach – and these are simple things that you can miss because of all the difficulty that we, as a people, are living. And I’m talking about the three parts of the Palestinian people: The part that lives within the 1948 borders, the part that lives on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the part that was forced to leave and to be exiled from its country.

“As far as I’m concerned these are three parts of the same people, I don’t see borders. As far as I’m concerned, someone who lives in Nazareth and someone who lives in Ramallah are parts of the same family, of the same people, which cannot be divided into two. And therefore Samar [one of the characters in the film] is a native of Nazareth and married to George, who is a native of Ramallah, and we all live the same problems, with the same intensity of emotion, and are in the same boat. For good and for ill.”

In “Personal Affairs,” Haj says, she wanted “to give an answer to simple people, like me, who have needs, who aren’t freedom fighters or heroes in the classical sense of the word, but ordinary people with ordinary dreams, with strong passions. Perhaps because of the difficulty of their lives, perhaps because of the occupation, and perhaps because they’re intense people, their passion to live becomes strong.”

Liberating cinema

Hamoud, who was born in Hungary to a family from the village of Deir Hanna in the Galilee, is a graduate of film studies of Tel Aviv’s Minshar for Art School. “A new wave of Arab cinema is beginning to appear, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” she said in Haifa, after receiving the prize. In a conversation with Haaretz she explained why.

“My film is about liberation in many senses, but especially in the feminist sense. It’s a political film in the sense that it places women in the center; it’s a sharp and clear statement. The Palestinian women in the Tel Aviv urban space, through the city’s view – that’s political.”

Elkabetz, the producer, said onstage in Haifa: “We create cinema, and at our best we are able to liberate awareness. I’ve been saying these words in my head for quite a while, and not because I expected a prize, but because these are the things that I have repeated to myself since the day I met Maysaloun and the reality that she aspires to describe and to liberate.

“When I spoke to Ronit [Elkabetz, his sister and artistic partner who died last April] during the filming, she told me ‘You mustn’t release a film that is less than brilliant.’ And this film is brilliant for me, because it proves that cinema is not only the film you saw, but a distilled form of freedom and life, a world not subject to the laws that define us, and in that way it liberates and is liberated. No man, or woman, will make us stop dreaming. We won’t give up the freedom to create, the freedom to be.”

“The decision to award the prizes to these films is a cultural and quality-related statement, and I think that any thinking person will agree that these were the best films by far,” says Era Lapid, an editor of feature films and documentaries, who served as the chair of the judges’ panel in the Haifa festival’s Israeli feature film competition.

Until now, Lapid says, “it was mainly Jews, myself among them, who handled the Palestinian issue in the cinema, and I’m happy that now finally they’re taking the story into their own hands, with their own unique nuances. After all, a Palestinian who is an Israeli citizen can say more about himself than can a Jewish Israeli, and that also includes a kind of self-criticism, and I’m very happy about that."

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