A Brief History of Palestinian Cinema
By Khaled Elayyan
Political events in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine, have had a great influence on Palestinian cinema. Colonialism has always been a major obstacle that has hindered the natural development of the various sectors within Palestinian society. The Nakba in 1948, the Naksa in 1967, and the Beirut War in 1982, were dramatic events that augmented instability in Palestine and created a feeling of uncertainty among its indigenous people. Nevertheless, the Palestinian cinema managed to keep itself immune from all external obnoxious influences and to survive despite all odds. Indeed, and in spite of the lack of cinema-industry fundamentals in Palestine, the international and local scenes are witnessing a proliferation of Palestinian filmmakers and films.
The roots of Palestinian film production can be traced back to the year 1935. The first short documentary, which focused on the visit of King Suud Ben Abdel Aziz to Palestine and his travels between the cities of Jerusalem and Jaffa, was produced by Ibrahim Sarhan. Later, Sarhan also produced two other films, one was a feature called Dreams Come True, and the other was a documentary about Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, a member of the Higher Arab Commission. In 1945, Palestine Studio was established and launched its career with a feature film titled On the Night of the Feast.
In the mid-1950s, Mohammad Saleh al-Kayyali left his homeland, Palestine, and went to Italy where he studied cinematic art and film direction. However, he opted to live in Egypt after graduation.
Cinema in Palestine failed to become a socio-cultural phenomenon due to the prevalent social traditions at that time. In addition, the British Mandate censored the copying and screening of films that contained violence or were thought to contain any form of incitement. Thus the production of films was an individual endeavour that soon vanished because of the lack of basic, fundamental components of cinema production. Moreover, the British Mandate and the political situation in Palestine after the 1948 Nakba occasioned a total social mishmash and political mayhem.
In 1948, the northern part of Palestine was occupied by Israel, and thousands of Palestinian civilians were dispossessed and displaced. A considerable number of them fell under Israeli military hegemony; others became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; while others established direct relations with Egypt. In addition, thousands of them became refugees in neighbouring Arab countries. Consequently, Palestinian identity was fragmented. Between the years 1948 and 1967, Palestinian filmmakers were unable to produce films due to the onerous political situation in which they were living. In fact, the Palestinian people became subordinates and marginalized subjects in alien countries.
In contrast, the Arab cinema in general managed to produce several films that addressed the Palestinian cause. But those films merely reflected the vision of the official political regimes and were committed to their political agendas. The Arab political system in the mid-1950s and 60s evaded the issue of the Nakba and its causes. Likewise, it steered clear of the Arab masses and sidestepped any public agitation.
Following the revolution on July 23, 1952 in Egypt, films about the Palestinian cause were produced as part of the national movement. Most films, however, were made by Egyptian producers who gave priority to and sought to highlight the Palestinian dilemma. At that time, the Palestinian director Mohammad Saleh al-Kayyali, who was living in Egypt, produced a number of documentaries.
As a result of the June 1967 War and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian people living in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank re-established connections and communication among themselves after nineteen years of total segregation. In fact, a common feature of the Israeli occupation was that it brought back together all Palestinians and reinforced their national identity. Henceforward the Palestinians shouldered the responsibility of preserving their national identity and initiating liberation activities.
Palestinian cinema prospered in singular and unusual circumstances. Photographer Salafa Mirsal formed her first photography club after graduating from the Higher Cinema School in Cairo. She photographed and displayed snapshots of Palestinian life and Palestinian martyrs and, as a result, there arose the need to create an archive that documented the Palestinian struggle. Palestine Film Unit was thus established and the first Palestinian documentary, No to a Peaceful Solution, was produced in 1968 by Mustafa Abu Ali, who was considered one of the founders of Palestinian revolutionary cinema. Following the exodus of Palestinian revolutionaries from Jordan to Lebanon, the PLO and its factions set up cinema departments in Lebanon, including Media and Culture Department, Samed Institute for Cinema Production, PFLP Art Commission, and PDFLP Cinema and Photography. These departments produced fifty-nine documentaries and one feature film called Return to Haifa produced by the Iraqi director Kassem Hawal.
During that period Palestinian cinema played a major role in disseminating knowledge about the Palestinian cause and the struggle against the Israeli occupation. In fact, the aim of Palestinian cinema was to expose the suffering of the Palestinian people and their resistance. According to the Lebanese film director Jean Chamoun, Palestinian cinema at that time “responded to and fulfilled a temporary political need without stressing the cultural and historical dimensions that related to the existence of a people. The accumulation of events drowned the Palestinian cinema in the whirlpool of current events.”
Irrespective of the artistic level of these films, which were actually produced in dire conditions and employed only basic technical equipment, their value was immense since they documented important historical information about the Palestinian cause. Researcher and film critic Adnan Madanat noted, “We could say that these films have contributed, through international film festivals and Palestinian film festivals and screenings organized by international solidarity movements, to communicating and conveying the image of the Palestinian people, even though partially, to international public opinion.”
Palestinian film production and Palestinian film institutions and departments continued to work until 1982 when Palestinian revolutionaries were forced out of Lebanon. Palestinian filmmakers, producers, and directors were scattered in different parts of the world. Gradually, Palestinian cinema receded.
The June 1967 War led as well to the emergence of new cinema trends in the Arab world. Features addressing the Palestinian cause were produced by the private and public sectors, expressing their rejection of defeat. In Egypt, for example, film directors Ali Abdel-Khaleq, Youssef Shahin, and Tawfiq Saleh produced several films, such as Song on the Passageway and The Bird, in support of and solidarity with the Palestinian people. In addition, international filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Costa Gavras produced films that showed empathy with the predicament of Palestinians.
At the end of the 1970s, more filmmakers appeared in Palestine especially when resistance was carried to the occupied territories. These professionals produced documentaries that contributed to the spread of cinema culture among Palestinians.
The 1990s were years of full growth for Palestinian cinema, as the Syrian director Bashar Ibrahim has noted. Several Palestinian films were screened in Arab and international film festivals. Today, there is a hectic and lively cinema movement especially among the young generation.
However, Palestinian cinema still depends on individual experience in spite of the existence of a number of institutions that contribute to this vital sector. In order for Palestinian cinema to continue to grow, it needs adequate funding, screening halls, advanced equipment, and human resources.
1. Hassan al-Odat, The Cinema and the Palestinian Cause. Dar al-Sawar: Acre, 1989.
2. Adnan Madanat, “Palestinian Cinema,” Encyclopedia Palestine, Vol. II.
3. Bashar Ibrahim, The Palestinian Cinema in the Twentieth Century. Syrian Education Ministry - Public Cinema Institution.
Khaled Elayyan is an artist and choreographer who currently works at Al Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque in Ramallah.