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Cinema for liberation: new visions from Palestine

Farrah Koutteineh surveys the work of women Palestinian filmmakers resisting Israeli efforts to bury the past and present of colonial violence

5 to 6 minute read

A montage of film posters and stills from Bye Bye Tiberias and Farah, all showing Palestinian women in their homes

Recently, female Palestinian filmmakers have been blazing a trail in the industry, including Darin Sallam with her groundbreaking historical drama Farha, and Lina Soualem’s powerful documentary Bye Bye Tiberias

Especially now, following Israel’s bombing of Gaza and its repression of Palestinians in the West Bank, these stories must be told. Both films underscore that the current horrors continue a 75- year history of murder, theft, displacement and unending trauma.

For decades, ‘Palestine’ was a word not dared uttered in films for mainstream western audiences, let alone its plight be told through the medium. Years of erasure transitioned to non- Palestinian filmmakers depicting Palestine on cinema screens, with storylines that often blurred the reality of Israeli settler colonial violence.

In this context, a year of releases about Palestine, directed by Palestinian women, is even more significant. It has felt revolutionary, not just for us Palestinians in the filmmaking world, but because they are preserving the weighty, collective memory of our people during a time of increasing silencing.

Millions of viewers

Farha has reached millions of viewers around the world via Netflix. Targeted by Israeli government officials seeking to ban the film in some countries, it is a prime example of what liberation cinema means to the oppressed.

Sallam’s first feature-length film, Farha is based on the true story of a 14-year-old Palestinian girl who lived through the beginning of the Nakba (‘the catastrophe’) in 1948. The film paints an accurate picture of what took place: thousands were massacred through ethnic cleansing and land theft during the formation of the Israeli settler colony, and over 750,000 were displaced from their homeland. 

Sallam’s own family were forced to flee from Palestine to Jordan during the Nakba, which visibly adds to the compelling and earnest details seen throughout the film. It opens with Farha, a young teenager in pre-1948 Palestine, sitting on a swing draped in a vividly coloured traditional tatreez thobe (an embroidered dress), talking with her friend, Farida. 

A simple scene to many viewers, for Palestinians it evokes an emotional response. It is incredibly rare to watch images of Palestinian life that aren’t surrounded by colonial violence and the physical presence of Israeli occupation. Despite knowing what follows, Sallam gifts us a window into what life in Palestine could have continued to look like.

Farah is a prime example of what liberation cinema means to the oppressed

Over seven million Palestinian refugees are today waiting for their right to return. The majority have only heard stories from family elders about their homeland: the olive tree harvests, our pink autumnal sunset skies, the collective tradition of rolling vine leaves while singing folklore songs. 

But even our grandparents’ recollections are followed by violent forced departure. Farha is more than a visual recreation of those very events, it feels like being transported back in time. 

Later, young Farha is witness to the unrest of the Nakba unfolding. Beautiful, richly coloured natural landscapes and everyday life of Palestinian families is taken over by brutal, blood-drenched violence when Zionist militias arrive, forcing Palestinians out of their homes and murdering many within their villages. The contrast is striking. 

These scenes are painful to watch, especially for those who have carried generational trauma over decades. They are informed by the real experiences of people who survived the ethnic cleansing that facilitated Israel’s creation.

Sallam’s depictions have awoken such awareness of the Nakba that she and her production company have been attacked by the Israeli government, with ministers threatening to cut funding to theatres, youth clubs and publicly funded facilities that screened it.

The ferocity of the Israeli government’s response to Farha is testament to the power of film for narrating struggle. It is a reminder that art can serve as a powerful tool of resistance for the oppressed because it confronts you with the truth.

That Sallam does this through the eyes of a teenage girl, whose fate is defined by death and destruction, evokes sadness and rage – even among audiences unfamiliar with the history of Palestine.

Colonial trauma

This method of storytelling is also used by Soualem in Bye Bye Tiberias, and its strong emotional elements should not be underestimated in terms of how it challenges mainstream narratives on Palestine. They correct the erasure of what existed before, a violence used to justify the Zionist claim that Israel was a ‘land without a people, for a people without a land’. 

Bye Bye Tiberias tells the story of Soualem’s mother, the world-renowned Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass. Abbass left her village in her twenties to pursue her acting dream, leaving behind her mother, grandmother and seven sisters. In the documentary, Abbass returns to her village, Deir Hanna, with her daughter – who also brings her camera. 

Bye Bye Tiberias corrects the erasure of what existed before the Nabka

The director takes the viewers on a journey of four generations of Palestinian women, navigating their lives through the realities of colonial trauma. It is revealed early on that the family were in fact not originally from Deir Hanna but from the coastal town Tiberias. Soualem’s grandparents had been forcefully expelled from their native village by Zionist militias during the Nakba.

The documentary uses archival footage to flicker between images of Tiberias before, during and after the Nakba, allowing the viewer to take in the horrors and meaning of settler colonialism. Tiberias, now a city, has been ethnically cleansed of its native Palestinian population. It is an Israeli hotspot for ‘party boats’ along its ports. 

Soualem captures her grandmother’s final visit to Tiberias, her frail body pushed in a wheelchair by her daughter along the port. As eerie laughter and loud music spill out from the boats cruising past, her grandmother is frozen still, seemingly remembering what Tiberias was like before. It is a scene that stayed with me long after I’d watched the film. 

Both Farha and Bye Bye Tiberias – in their tragic beauty, emotional power and stunning historic scenes – exemplify the need for Palestinians to narrate their struggle. Their films and others like them serve an important role for a people continuing to fight for their liberation. 

They also reinforce the centrality of Palestinian women to that fight, not just as storytellers but as resisters, preserving all that the Israeli settler colony and its political allies are attempting to bury.

Farrah Koutteineh is founder of KEY48, a collective calling for Palestinian refugees’ immediate right of return

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