Houston, if you can spare the time for a memorable experience, allow yourself to be immersed in a different world or two the coming two weekends.
The festival very appropriately opens with Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You,” which beautifully portrays the potential of the human spirit and new possibilities for the future, even in the face of devastating dispossession. The main character Tarek, a 11 year-old refugee of 1967, teaches us that there is no sense in waiting for saviors. Taking matters into his own hands, he is determined to return to Palestine even if on foot, refusing to accept a life of exile. This is not a new theme for award-winning director Jacir. Her previous film, “Salt of this Sea” starring Suheir Hammad, also leads with fantasy and away from utter despair and victimization. While the power differential between occupier and occupied / colonizer and colonized is never denied, the mere possibility – the space given to imagine those possibilities, as Jacir is obviously aware, is much needed. If there ever were a world needing more imaginations at work for a different future trajectory, it is Palestine – even if it draws on the past to re-write that trajectory. Jacir’s film, the work of painstaking archival research, is a rare treat, a vision, a remembrance, a reminiscence of Palestine via breathtaking landscapes, reincarnation of old freedom songs, and incredibly charming and unforgettable characters – including the troubled beauty Ghaydaa (mother of young and disobedient Tarek, played by Ruba Blal), the handsome freedom fighter Layth (played by Saleh Bakri, also of “Salt of this Sea”), and the amusing “officer” Abu Akram (Ali Elayan). Do not miss this one, and keep a close watch on Jacir as she continues to assert herself as a trailblazer in various realms – Palestinian filmmaking, Arab filmmaking, Arab women filmmaking, and just plain good filmmaking – no qualifiers necessary.
The festival continues its second night with “A World Not Ours,” which offers a deep dig into the despair of modern-day Palestinian refugee realities. Here, the viewer bears witness to the rarely seen guts of Ein El-Hilwe, a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Lebanon, the entry and exit points points of which are manned by Lebanese soldiers Israeli-checkpoint-style. Residents of Ein El-Hilwa have for decades been in a post-1948-dispossession stagnation. The central figures of the documentary are friends and family members of the (mostly) Western-raised and educated Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel, who narrates the film, supplemented by his own personal family archives, and who is very aware of his own privilege to leave the camp when things get dicey. Lives in the camp are put on display, and there is no refuting that they are indeed trapped, a theme echoed by harrowing scenes of the camp’s alleys, power cuts, emotional confessions and venting of frustrations. The residents of Ein El-Helwe may have “voice” and “agency,” but they remain victims of the Zionist project and ongoing modern-day politics. One might hope that this type of exposure would put to shame all government officials and full-fledged citizens of the two worlds from which these refugees are refused (Lebanon and Israel). This film also sheds light on why, for many Palestinians, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is non-negotiable; we too have the right to a life of dignity in a place we can call home.
Last night I finally managed to catch the NYC premiere what might be one of my favorite films in a long time, and not only because it hit so close to home. Rola Nashef’s “Detroit Unleaded” is a brilliantly written and executed narrative that will have you laughing, crying, and even cringing – especially if you are familiar with the experiences of Arab girls raised in the West. This is about Arab gas station culture set in Detroit; my personal parallel experience was Arab gas station culture set in New Orleans. As my childhood friend and I left the theatre, she a daughter of gas station owners in New Orleans and I more on the peripheries of that world, we both agreed that Rola “got it.” There was nothing about her depiction that felt strained, dishonest, or unnatural – the dialogue and tension was spot-on, masterfully constructed. The tension between the Arab gas station owners and the mostly black clientele was tastefully and honestly shown through the relationships that could at times, and often not, transcend the bullet-proof glass that separated them. Houston is fortunate to have the director coming to the screening. This incredibly rich and unforgettable film could serve as an opportunity for several conversation – about Arab–Black relations and tensions in the United States (which Houston’s community knows too well), about the double standards many Arab girls are raised with in the United States, and most importantly about why the Houston Palestine Film Festival is an important fixture that must continue to be supported as a space to host these films and the exchanges they bring about. I digress… such wonderful work by Rola Nashef. This rising star revealed that she is shooting a new project in the summer; after seeing “Detroit Unleaded,” you also will likely be eager to see what is coming next.
These and the two other films not reviewed here (Susan Youssef’s “Habibi” and Larissa Sansour’s “Nation Estate”) have all been met with wide acclaim, premiering at prominent film festivals (Toronto, Berlin, Dubai, etc.), winning numerous awards, and traveling the world over. We are seeing a real renaissance in Palestinian and Arab cinema, and especially exciting is the fact that Arab women are leading the way (all but one film are directed by women). This exciting program for HPFF is not to be missed; this year it even features local Palestinian businesses including my family’s own goat-cheese producing enterprise Laziza Farms (yes, shameless promotion).
For more details, visit www.hpff.org.
FPH Gotham Film Correspondent