Bristol Palestine Film Festival: Interview

This December marks the 10th anniversary of the Bristol Palestine Film Festival. To celebrate, BPFF have commissioned a mural by Palestinian artist Taqi Spateen, who is based in Bethlehem. The mural was painted in close collaboration with Spateen by the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft’s Benoit Bennett and a team of community volunteers, on the wall outside PRSC HQ on Jamaica Street. The mural features four notable figures of current Palestinian cinema: Annemarie Jacir, Muayad Alayan, Najwa Najjar and Mohammad Bakri.

Laura Cook recently spoke to David Owen, founder of the festival, and Karena Batstone, who curates the films selected for screening, over video-call. This exchange has been edited for clarity.

Laura: David, the festival began when you visited Palestine with your football team, the Easton Cowboys – can you tell me a bit more about that experience and how it came to start the festival?

David: I guess I grew up with Palestine as this thing on the news and ultimately something always felt wrong about it. I can remember being young and asking my Mum ‘What are they fighting about?’ and it was during probably the First Intifada and she just said ‘religion’. And you just have this blanket answer. So, when my football team the Easton cowboys wanted to go to Palestine, I thought yeah definitely. That inspired the film festival, it just planted a seed. 

You could be in a café in Hebron or in Nablus and you’re having a very normal experience that you would have if you were travelling in other Arab countries, but on CNN you’d be watching the stone throwing and there just wasn’t this sense that we were being told the whole reality. I came away from it thinking ‘what can we do to help?’, and the overriding thing that everyone said was ‘tell our stories’. You imagine you’re locked down, you’re only way into the world is what you see being told about you on CNN and on Fox and if that feels blatantly untrue or your stories not being told properly that would feel so disempowering. I didn’t set up the film festival straight away, that came about 2, 3 years later and it was a group of people whose idea it was, I just happened to take it on. 

Laura: Thank you, that must have been quite some experience to have. Karena, have you been over?

Karena: Yeah, I’ve done a few trips to Palestine. Last year was what we called a resistance tour which involved visiting lots of projects where Palestinians are resisting the occupation in interesting, beautiful and different ways. Whether through setting up natural history museums to document and preserve the indigenous fauna and flora of Palestine or through cultural resistance. For instance, we visited the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp. Music is also a form of resistance and there’s a great music scene in Ramallah, fantastic hip hop, techno and all sorts of kinds of interesting fusion music coming out of Palestine. My daughter was organising a music trip this year that I wished that I was going on but that was cancelled because of the pandemic.

You have to go there because even if you read about stuff, beyond the books and the magazines, you know as David said, the humiliation at the checkpoints of Palestinians trying to get to work or witness how water is rationed or you might see families standing on the ruins of their recently demolished houses – and then you know you can really understand the depth and breadth of how systematic and institutionalised and deliberate the occupation is and it’s frightening. It’s got nothing to do with security; it’s a racist, colonialist enterprise.

Laura: However much of the news we watch it can’t show us the reality.

Your festival focuses on the humanity of Palestinian people. Why do you feel this aspect is so important? 

Karena: I think that it’s so important that Palestinians have a voice because outside the region many people have a stereotypical view of who Palestinians are. And when we think about Palestinians, who are we referring to? Do we think about people in the West Bank cities? Do we think about Bedouins? Or youths in refugee camps? Or people of the diaspora.? The reality is that Palestinians are as diverse as we are, but so dispersed too, and we want to represent all of their voices. Within the region they’re separated by walls and laws and physically can’t get together, and that makes it difficult for them to co-ordinate with each other, whether they are in a relationship or trying to make a film. 

Laura: How do you ensure you get a range of films representing a diversity of narratives and backgrounds?

Karena: I think we always aim to do that and we’re lucky that there seems to be such a range – there’s always lots of documentary films coming out of Palestine but also increasingly really good feature films. Whatever the subject, the politics is always there. You can’t really make a film about Palestine that isn’t political.

David: In the first year I think we screened only documentaries and it was literally because we didn’t know about this Palestinian history of film making. But once you’ve started that journey then all of a sudden it gives you access to these directors that you would not normally be working with. But in Palestine everyone is so supportive. It was like something you dream of, and then once you break it down there’s just so many different layers to the whole thing. Like anything in life, you start somewhere, and it might be like a hobby or an interest – you know Karena was just saying that she just wanted to watch Palestinian film but now she’s choosing Palestinian film – it just grows doesn’t it. I think people say it gets under your skin, you know those topics or that passion that gets into you. I think it’s one of those.

Laura: Annemarie Jacir and Najwa Najjar were two women chosen for the mural – can you tell me why these women in particular were chosen?

David: Annemarie Jacir, for me personally, has been a bit of an inspiration. I think the first time I came across her was at the Dreams of the Nation project. I read an article that she’d written, and it just took the right angle. Her politics is perfect, real human rights. She’s open-minded, a staunch activist and she’s been a bit of a mover and shaker within Palestinian film. She has to make different decisions, like I’m not accepting funding from that organisation, like the Israeli Film Council. Other Palestinian film makers have, and I don’t have a judgement on that, but her choice to not has made her journey tougher and all the time she’s been really supportive to the film festival.

She studied in New York; she lives in Jordan so there’s different access to networks that come from that. She’s living in Jordan, she wants to live in Palestine, but she’s not allowed. I think her first feature film they were filming in a load of illegal places where they weren’t allowed to shoot. So ground-breaking in that sense. Mini rebellions all along the way. 

Karena: I remember hearing her talking about how incredible young women now are. She says they’re a lot braver than she ever was and she thinks the future is very bright for young women in Palestinian filmmaking. 

Then Najwa Najjar, she was a documentary filmmaker and she’s a fantastic scriptwriter. Oh, somebody’s brought me a cup of coffee. And one of those.

David: Ooh IKEA biscuits! I’ve got those at home. They’re lovely.

Karena: Yeah, ‘Between Heaven and Earth’ is what she (Najwa Najjar) calls ‘a love story about divorce’ and divorce is a theme within Palestinian society that people often discuss. I love the fact that she has set it between two very cool, middle-class people and it sort of breaks the stereotype. She just won best scriptwriter at the Cairo International Film Festival so another person that we really admire.

Laura: They both sound incredible. The mural in stokes croft was created in collaboration with an Taqi Spateen, a Palestinian in Bethlehem – how has that process been?

Karena: Surprisingly not difficult at all. Quite hard finding the right person, we had a bit of coming and going and there were so many people that we could have represented in that sort of film loop, but there was a limit. It’s a really nice thing to have that connection and the artist has been thrilled and it will just get people asking who they are? But there’s Banksy who went out and set up the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, so there is already a kind of Bristol-Bethlehem connection.

David: In advance of this interview actually I did do a bit of thinking about women in Palestinian film. I think maybe it’s about (women) knowing how to be proactive in the face of conflict? And I think also, within the conflict, some of those old patriarchal structures are a little bit looser – somehow there’s a bit more of a gap that’s emerging so that you can become an advocate for xyz.

Karena: The other thing is that there was a film industry in Palestine and then it went quiet, but it has been restarting since the early 80s. There’s room for women, it’s not as established as say Hollywood or France and I read that only 4.3% of directors in Hollywood are women and I think in Palestine it’s 50%!

Laura: Oh wow, I had no idea. And finally, how can our readers get more involved? 

Karena: We’re always looking for volunteers in any number of different areas – in marketing in curation and outreach. Outreach is something we really want to develop but haven’t really been able to this year. We’re very open to anyone who wants to volunteer in any small way.

David: There’s obviously the Palestine solidarity campaign, and then the Palestinian Museum in Bristol is the place to go, when we’re not in lockdown… I would encourage people to find the activism that resonates most with who they are. Like you know if it’s about feminism or women’s rights – look up women’s rights organisations in Palestine and start to do a bit of digging around that. I would always encourage people to look for the things that are closest to their hearts; that’s the only thing that you would stick to. 

Laura: I hope everything goes well this year. I’ll definitely be watching!

Message from BPFF: 

‘Bristol Palestine Film Festival will this year be streaming a variety of short films online for 10 days to celebrate our 10th anniversary year. The films will be available to watch for free to make our festival accessible for everyone in this strange year, although a £10 donation would be very welcome from those who can afford it. There will be an excellent range of documentaries, dramas and experimental shorts on offer – please see our website or social media for festival updates, including our forthcoming programme for this year. The online festival will be held from the 4th through to the 13th December.’

Bristol Palestine Film Festival website: https://bristolpff.org.uk

Photo by Alix Hughes.

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