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Bye Bye Tiberias

5 films to watch at the London Palestine Film Festival

The acclaimed festival returns to London this year, featuring a documentary on the imprisonment of Marwan Barghouti and a touching teenage love story

Since 1998, the London Palestine Film Festival has been presenting a vibrant selection of documentaries, features and shorts by both emerging and established filmmakers. The festival returns this autumn, and in our current political moment, learning about Palestinian history and culture from Palestinian filmmakers is more important than ever.

From the personal documentary Bye Bye Tiberias where we see actress Hiam Abbass and her filmmaker daughter return to her village of Deir Hanna, to a political coming-of-age romance in Firas Khoury’s award-winning debut Alam (which translates as ‘The Flag’), to the beautiful archival experimental shorts by auteur Mohamad Malas, there’s an eclectic selection of films which reveal the resistant force of storytelling through time. As universities, churches, homes and other physical monuments of memory and history are being destroyed, these films reveal that the ability to keep a memory and the stories alive is a powerful act of resistance in the face of erasure.

Here are five films to watch at the London Palestine Film Festival this autumn.

R21 AKA RESTORING SOLIDARITY, MOHANAD YAQUBI

R21 AKA Restoring Solidarity began as director Mohanad Yaqubi’s process of cataloguing and restoring archival Palestinian films from 1964 to 1982 which had previously been safeguarded by Japanese activists. It all began after a screening of one of Yaqubi’s films, when a Japanese professor of Middle Eastern studies approached him with a collection of rare 16mm films commissioned by the Tokyo office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which had been gathering dust for 30 years in his bedroom. The film centres around these hidden histories of global solidarity movements: we see the history of Japanese grassroots organisations in the 60s and 70s which sought to protect revolutionary Palestinian histories through a shared sense of struggle against Western hegemony.

Yaqubi weaves together archives which speak to each other across time – interviews with Yasser Arafat are set against the ruins of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, while a black-and-white stylised film shows children pretending a rocket launcher is a musical instrument. Rather than being firmly consigned to history, the films’ images are evocative of our present ones: Israeli forces also used white phosphorus and cluster bombs against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Beirut in 1982, while during the siege of West Beirut Israeli forces cut off gas supply too.

Throughout the film, we see the struggle of survival, and the labour of preserving these fragile histories. As Yaqubi explains in an interview to Filmmaker Magazine, “Colonising is about capturing not only the land, but the memory, and then leaving people without land and without memory, keeping them in a state of being only here and now. Being able to find a way to stop time to look past that becomes an act of struggle. That’s what I was doing in R21.”

BYE BYE TIBERIAS, LINA SOUALEM

Lina Soualem’s personal documentary follows four generations of women in her family, tracing their histories of dispossession and exile. Concerned with the limited ways that we can represent the past, Soualem becomes the custodian of her family’s matrilineal history. Soualem starts the story from the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948 (commonly referred to as the Nakba or “the disaster”) with an account of her great-grandmother: “I can’t imagine Um Ali as a young girl. For me, she only began to exist in 1948, and she, her husband Hosni, and their children were driven out of Tiberias and propelled into history.”

A distinctive kind of feminist storytelling that does not seek to define or to fix any histories; instead, it accounts for all layers of varying voices, and the scattered sense of the past. Frequently, discussions between Lina and her mother, actress Hiam Abbass (who portrayed Marcia from Succession), veer into exasperation as they struggle to communicate their varying experiences of exile. Abbass left Palestine and everything she knew in her twenties to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, and Lina contemplates her own relationship with her homeland as the daughter of the one who left. Through old photographs, home movies, letters and poems penned by a teenage Abbass, personal texts written by the director, and present-day journeys to Deir Hanna and Tiberias, Soualem weaves both a personal and collective history with a sense of urgency. As Soualem says of the archival photos, “These images are my memories’ treasure. I don’t want them to fade. I know they too might sink into oblivion.”

TOMORROW’S FREEDOM, GEORGIA AND SOPHIE SCOTT

The Palestinian political leader Marwan Barghouti, often described as the ‘Palestinian Nelson Mandela’, has been serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison since 2002 following his unlawful arrest and imprisonment. Through the eyes of his wife Fadwa and their family, alongside notable academics and political figures from Palestine, Israel and South Africa, Tomorrow’s Freedom traces the origins of Barghouti’s activism to his imprisonment, documenting his unshaken struggle for Palestinian freedom. Above all else, we see the brutality of occupation through the Israeli military prison complex and the torture faced by Barghouti and his family members. Placed in solitary confinement for two years, Barghouti writes of the psychological and physical torture he was subjected to: “During long periods of suspension; the world passed by dark, dim and dismal, swarming with terrifying ghosts.” 

The documentary details the inhumanity of the prison system: since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, more than 12,000 Palestinian children have been detained by Israeli forces, and 95 per cent of all detainees and prisoners are tortured. Throughout the documentary, we see the unshakeable fortitude of Barghouti’s wife Fadwa and her active campaigning for Barghouti’s release, even while she is constantly humiliated by prison guards who frequently turn her away after she has travelled hours to visit her husband. Although direct contact with Barghouti is impossible due to his ongoing incarceration, this documentary pieces together testimonies of those who know him in order to depict a man of kindness, resilience and intelligence with an unwavering dream for the end of occupation and the freedom of Palestine.

ALAM, FIRAS KHOURY

The award-winning debut feature by Firas Khoury explores the everyday lives of young Palestinian citizens of Israel and the pressures they face living under occupation. But Alam is also a classic coming-of-age love story, of a boy who wants to impress a girl and coincidentally experiences a political awakening after joining her for a peaceful demonstration. 

The protagonist Tamer (Mahmood Bakri) is a tepid teenager, who shares the concerns of a typical adolescent boy: how to pick up girls, find weed, appease his stern father, and graduate without too much hassle. Yet we also witness him struggle with the existential contradictions of being a Palestinian who is also a citizen of Israel. Their village, located near the ruins of other expelled Arab villages, is planted over with trees by the Jewish National Fund, and Israeli vehicles patrol constantly, taking down Palestinian flags on walls and in homes. In school, Tamer learns only the Israeli curriculum, a course that celebrates Israel’s ‘Independence Day’, while failing to acknowledge the displacement of Palestinians during the Nakba. Running throughout the film is a sense of teenage bravado and urgency – of a generation that refuses to forget its roots, and questions the apartheid state’s revision of the past.

THREE SHORTS, MOHAMED MALAS

Born in 1945 in the Golan Heights, Mohamed Malas is considered an auteur of Syrian cinema. The screening of his three short films interweaves the Palestinian struggle with the lesser-known history of those who were displaced by the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria.

The 1981 documentary The Dream is composed of interviews with different Palestinian refugees from the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, shortly before the massacre of 1982, where many of the interviewees were killed. Conducting interviews with up to 400 people, Malas chose to ask them about their dreams rather than their waking reality. We see how their memories and experiences still permeate their dream worlds – a child recounts his nightmare of running through an olive forest to escape from the overhead bombs; a woman dreams of seeing her dead brother again, just to tie his shoelace and give him a kiss; another man dreams of meeting a Gulf emir who ignores him. The dreams are boundless, travelling across borders, back to a homeland to which they are forbidden to return. 

The other two films, The Memory and Quneitra 74, are situated in Quneitra, a city in the Golan Heights that was occupied and subsequently destroyed following the Israeli army’s departure. We witness two accounts – in The Memory, we follow an elderly woman who remained in the city during the occupation and listen to her dreams and her daily reflections, and alternately, in Quneitra 74, we witness a young woman who returns to see her hometown destroyed as she picks her way through the bombed, derelict buildings. Throughout both shorts, the use of light and shadow, the vitality of camera’s movements, and dynamic editing exemplify the richness of Malas’ cinematic language that builds mythical and mysterious worlds out of ruins.

The London Palestine Film Festival runs between November 17 and December 1. Tickets are available here.

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