They've been out for a month and a half now, Netflix’s “Palestinian Stories,” the 32 dramas, documentaries and short films that the streaming site says help tell the Palestinian story to audiences around the world. The roster includes award-winners like Hany Abu Assad’s “Omar,” which captured the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2013.
But despite the great diversity within the 32, it can be said the common motif is the depiction of the Palestinian as weakened, a prisoner and underprivileged, confronting the Israeli army in various arenas under occupation but too exhausted to keep on fighting.
Ameen Nayfeh, a Palestinian filmmaker and producer from Ramallah, is among observers with a positive outlook. He told CNN of his reaction when he heard that his drama “The Crossing” had made the cut.
“I was very happy, and very surprised to be honest. This was a bold thing to buy 32 titles especially after what happened early this year,” Nayfeh said, referring to Israel’s latest round of fighting with Gaza and the accompanying mob violence across the country.
“Our stories are not well known. While we make films that travel internationally, our reach has never been so big,” he said, adding that a platform like Netflix gives him hope that more people will understand the Palestinian narrative.
Shadi Ballan, author of a book on Palestinian film and an editor and host on Radio Makan – Israel’s public broadcasting corporation in Arabic – told Haaretz that the Palestinian narrative reflects the reality Palestinians live with in the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora.
“These films are important because the story comes from a local viewpoint. This is the first time that Palestinian films are being made accessible to the wider public. Usually they only make it to festivals,” he says.
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“It’s important to remember that these are films without an audience, because even in the Arab world, Palestinian films aren’t broadcast on television. The Arab media is reluctant to touch them, as they raise issues of national identity and freedom of expression.”
Alongside the accolades, there have been opposing and even angry reactions to Netflix’s move, mostly among Palestinian filmmakers in Israel whose works haven’t been included in the category. These creators declined to comment on the record but all conveyed the same message: “Included or not, we don’t need Netflix to tell the Palestinian story.”
Samah Bsoul, a critic and film scholar, says it’s important to expose millions of viewers around the world to Palestinian films, but she has reservations. “I would have preferred clear criteria,” she says. “There’s a broad collection there with no unifying thread, and the choice seems to me to be random and unconstructive.”
According to Ranin Boulos, who appeared in the 2004 film “The Syrian Bride,” there is a problem with partial depictions, ones that don’t necessarily reflect the daily reality.
“The category ‘Palestinian Stories’ indeed includes films important to the Palestinian narrative,” she says, but adds that the roster leaves out films such as “Jenin, Jenin” by Mohammed Bakri or “Arna’s Children” by Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was murdered in Jenin in 2011. “It raises questions that the category lacks films that explore the debate with all its complexities.”
Bsoul agrees and gives examples of how Netflix chose movies that don’t reflect the Palestinian narrative. “Omar,” for instance, in the suspense category, is described as a film that contains violence. “Bonboné,” about a prisoner smuggling out his semen, is classified as a movie about social issues.
The drama “3000 Nights,” about female Palestinian prisoners, is in the “Emotional Films” category. And “The Present” by British-Palestinian director Farah Nabulsi is presented as a movie about Yusef from the West Bank, a normal guy searching for a present for his wife, with no context about Yusef’s real problem – the occupation.
From Israel? No Thanks
Director Bilal Yousef of the village of Daburiye in northern Israel says Netflix’s lineup doesn’t include topics of concern to Palestinians in Israel and doesn’t address the identity aspect.
“The definition of Palestinian identity in Israel is very complex and there isn’t much [cinematic] tackling of it,” he says. He contrasts this with his film “Back to One’s Roots,” which won the documentary award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2009.
He says the status of Palestinian directors in Israel is disputed; they’re often discriminated against or marginalized because they live in Israel, so the “Palestinian-ness” of their work is dubious to foreign production companies. He says this is the reason the work of Palestinian filmmakers from Israel is so underrepresented on Netflix.
“Most of the films in the Palestinian category are by Palestinian creators from abroad or the West Bank,” he says. “There are hardly any by Palestinian filmmakers or directors who are citizens of Israel, and this situation repeats every time with other platforms as well.”
Bsoul emphasizes the difference between Netflix’s classifying of these films and its categories for other movies and series. “All the definitions are totally sterile, descriptions devoid of any political connection to the occupation, to a 74-year national conflict,” she says.
“If anyone thinks the Netflix descriptions are apolitical, I suggest they read the synopsis of ‘Munich’ by Steven Spielberg, which includes the term ‘Palestinian terrorists.’ In the description of the series ‘Fauda,’ an Israeli agent is said to have gone ‘to hunt’ for a Palestinian fighter.”
Bsoul says that “after Fauda’s success and ratings in the Arab world – unrelated to the anger over the content – I’m afraid that this choice by Netflix is an attempt to create ‘balance’ between the two narratives.”
According to Ballan, the consideration in creating the Palestinian category was largely financial: competition for the heart and dollars of the Arab audience.
“You can’t ignore the heavy competition. Netflix has rivals in the Arab world like the Shahid channel that belongs to the Saudi MBC network and the Egyptian Watch Channel,” he says. “So to encourage viewership from the Arab world, it launched a lineup of Palestinian stories that aren’t on rival platforms.”