BERLIN: Film festival juries are people too. It’s easy to imagine an international juror being more receptive to the work of a friend from back home. Annemarie Jacir had no trouble dodging that bullet in Berlin.
Last month, the Bethlehem-born writer-director served on the competition jury of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, the first major cinema event of the calendar year – the balance of the year looking uncertain at present -- which it seems has never had a Palestinian film in competition.
“I don’t know why that is,” Jacir mused during a breakfast interview in Berlin. “You go to other festivals -- Cannes, Venice, Karlovy Vary – and you see more Arab films.”
The Berlinale’s online archive only provides a comprehensive list of competition films since 1982. For the previous 31 editions, only prize-winning titles are recorded. By this imprecise reckoning, seven Arab filmmakers have competed for the Golden Bear: one from Algeria (a U.S. film by Rachid Bouchareb); two from Tunis; one from Egypt; two from Lebanon (one of them a U.S. film by Omar Naïm); one from Iraq (whose filmmaker, Houshang Shafti, is regarded as Iranian.
That’s not to say films from the MENA region are routinely excluded from Berlin’s competition. At least 16 Iranian films competed before Mohammad Rasoulof won the 2020 Golden Bear for “There is no Evil.” At least 11 Turkish films have competed, and 13 by Israelis.
“It’s said that Arab cinema doesn’t play well in Germany, generally,” Jacir remarked. “Theatrically, I’ve only had ‘Wajib’ open in German cinemas, and it was a small release.
“I’ve managed to sell my films in most all European territories, but Germany is always the most difficult. I’ve had distributors tell me flat out, ‘Germans won’t want to watch Palestinian films.’ Is that true or not true? I don’t know.”
Yearly film releases from the Arab world tend to be modest in number – Jacir noted Palestine has never released more than three features in one year – so she’s excited about 2021.
“This year there are more filmmakers shooting than we’ve had in our entire history, ever,” she said. “Next year there’s going to be 12-13 films from Palestine. That’s huge. It’s going to be interesting and really different also, with both first-time filmmakers and veterans releasing.
“I’m not even talking about docs. These are the fictions. That said, I don’t know what’s happening funding-wise. The landscape keeps changing. Dubai’s gone. Doha’s still holding strong. There’s Cairo and Carthage. It’s very tough...”
Jacir has several projects in various stages of development, but this morning she was thinking about Haifa, where she’s lived for nearly four years. She’d planned to start shooting a documentary on this once-great Palestinian city in March but that may be pushed back. As this story went online, Jacir was in post-Berlin quarantine in Haifa, and unable to reach Bethlehem, which is in complete COVID-19 lockdown.
“It’s a very bizarre place,” she said, “Haifa was a major Palestinian city and 60,000 Palestinians were forced out of it in ’48. Only three thousand people were allowed to remain. They were placed in a specific neighbourhood, a ghetto, closed off, in other Palestinians’ houses.
“I like living there because it’s calm. People are not in your business. There’s a relaxed atmosphere that comes with living by the sea. Palestinians from all over Palestine have moved there, so there’s something not-small-town about it. At the same time, it’s very depressing because all over Haifa you see these beautiful Palestinian homes – the windows, the doors bricked up by the Israelis. The owners of those homes are refugees in other countries, some of them people I know, forbidden from returning.”
What remains of the Palestinian population is supplemented by several generations of Russian migrants.
“The town’s totally segregated. I’ve been there for three years and I don’t know a single Israeli. My daughter goes to a Palestinian school. There are Palestinian bars, Palestinian restaurants. It’s the big lie that Haifa is a ‘mixed’ city.
“Now they’re now restoring all those old Arab houses. They’re being gentrified in fancy housing projects and sold to Israelis.”
One quarter the filmmaker is interested in is the once-affluent Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi Salib.
“Residents of Wadi Salib became refugees all over the world – mostly Lebanon and Syria. The neighbourhood was emptied out and looted. Then the government moved in Mizrahi Jews from Morocco and it really became like a slum, because they were so discriminated against. In the ’70s there were the Wadi Salib riots against the Ashkenazi treatment of the Sephardi Jews. Police had shot a Moroccan while he was walking home one evening.
“So they cleared out the neighbourhood again and left it abandoned. Now they’re doing this deluxe, gentrification project for the elite.”
For the better part of the past three years Jacir and her sister Emily -- herself an internationally celebrated contemporary artist -- have devoted much of their time to running Dar Jacir. This Bethlehem cultural space is located in the 130-year-old central hall house the sisters’ great grandparents built.
The sisters have launched an artist residency programme in Dar Jacir, which works in tandem with a public programme. An artist-run space, Dar Jacir has three co-directors -- Aline Khoury and the Jacirs -- with hands-on management of the space. Currently Emily Jacir is effectively the full-time administrator.
“It’s not a space that’s open to the public all the time,” Jacir said. “When we have a resident it’s really quiet. When we do have events, they’re always open to the public.”
Residents can use their time to research or create work. “It’s a place of experimentation,” she said. “It’s not a residency that demands that you produce something. If nothing comes out of it, it’s okay too. We like failed projects. You don’t have this pressure to perform or come up with a final project at the end.
“Aside from the residency, there’s [local and international] workshop programmes and seminars. We have a sound residency run by Nicolas Jaar.
“When there’s no visiting artist, it’s a community space -- if local artists or writers or researchers need an office space during the day. Right now a local filmmaker is writing a script there.
“Public programming has a couple of different aspects,” Jacir said. “We collaborate with many local organizations including the Haifa Independent Film Festival -- not the international festival, which is Israeli, but the independent one which is Palestinian – and with Palestine Cinema Days and Film Lab in Ramallah.”
Among Dar Jacir’s Bethlehem partners is the Dar al-Kalima art school.
“Every time we have an artist, we send them over to Dar al-Kalima to do a talk. It’s very special for our city to have an internationally renowned artist present, and we’re keen to share and collaborate. When I brought Mahdi Fleifel to do a residency, it was also important he met the students there. He’s like a star to them, plus he’s a Palestinian working in the refugee camps in Lebanon. The kids from the camps really wanted to know how life is in the Lebanese camps and how it’s different than their lives.
“There is also a music and dance aspect. In December, Emily ran a project in collaboration with Andrea de Siena for a first encounter between a Southern Italian Pizzica dance group to join local Palestinian dabka dancers and musicians, to see where these two dances meet and explore possibilities. They plan on a performance in September. But this first meeting was to experiment and learn from each other.”
The filmmaker stresses that Dar Jacir has a unique relationship to Bethlehem – both the town and its three refugee camps. The house happens to be located on the main street where the Israeli military regularly confronts Palestinian demonstrators. The location is one of the most heavily tear-gassed in the world. During the last intifada, when young men were wounded or killed, their friends took them through Dar Jacir’s garden to escape the army and get to medical help.
“Dar Jacir has our own history in it, but ... it has a whole other history and meaning for those boys who for years have been protesting in front of the house. Their whole lives they’ve been running from the army, the garden symbolizes their resistance. It’s theirs too, as much as ours.
“It’s a community space. We bring artists who run workshops or seminars but the space is also available for anybody in the community that needs a space to meet or to work on a project – for a garden project, a book club, or a movie club. The space is there and the garden is there. There’s no other green space in Bethlehem. The camps have no green space at all.”
Like other non-profit art spaces in the MENA region, this one struggles to secure the support needed to sustain its programmes. As there is no local support, the balance of funding is foreign. Jacir is aware of the existential challenges facing Lebanese cultural centres nowadays and thinks their predicament is not so different from those in Palestine.
“They may be similar,” she suggested. “There’s no local funding. We’re surviving with cultural grants and donations – that how we’re keeping above the water. Our programming and everything is really scaled down. It’s gonna be a struggle every year.”
The economic woes of Lebanese and Palestinian non-profits aren’t identical. Lebanon’s current crisis has been marked by the devaluation of the Lebanese lira vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar, to which it’s pegged. No such problem exists in Palestine which, financially dependent on Israel, uses the shekel. In Palestine and Lebanon, the mechanisms of financial dysfunction differ.