Women filmmakers shine at Palestine’s first student film fest

The first Bethlehem Student Film Festival included a strong showing from Palestinian women from both sides of the Green Line, with films tackling patriarchy, gender stereotypes, and the occupation.

By Suha Arraf

Palestinian students seen onstage at the first ever Bethlehem Student Film Festival. (Bethlehem Student Film Festival)
Palestinian students seen onstage at the first ever Bethlehem Student Film Festival. (Bethlehem Student Film Festival)

The Bethlehem Student Film Festival kicked off last week, showcasing 74 student films from all over the world, including France, Algeria, Egypt, China, Syria, the UK, and, of course, Palestine. The event, the first of its kind, was organized by the film department at Dar Al Kalima University College in Bethlehem.

While globally the number of women directors stands at less than 10 percent, among Palestinians that number is equal to that of men, setting a world record. That balance was reflected at the festival as well, where about half of the Palestinian films screened were created by women.

“The number of male students at the college is equal to the number of female students, and this reflects the respect that Palestinians have for creators and intellectuals,” said Saed Andoni, the head of the Dar Al Kalima’s film department. “Society has come to understand that artists are astute people who try to tell people’s stories, their suffering, and distress.”

Women-led movies are typically characterized by their sharp criticism toward Palestinian society. Some of the young women decided to tackle feminist-social issues, while steering away from directly taking on explicitly political subjects.

Andoni explains that while some of the films made by Palestinian students were received by international film festivals, the students weren’t able to travel and participate. “Some couldn’t get a travel permit from the Israeli occupiers, other couldn’t afford the expenses involved. Some of the families wouldn’t allow the women to travel abroad on their own.” As such, he said, there was a strong need for Palestinians to hold their own student festival, “to afford our students the experience and show them what international festivals involve.”

“We live under siege and cannot escape into the world from this jail — so we brought the world to us.”

Shayma Awawdeh’s film, “4th Floor,” was one of the short dramas that stood out. The movie tells the story of a student who attempts to move apartments in Bethlehem on her own. The apartment she’s moving into is on the fourth floor, and the entire film takes place in the elevator, as the student carries her suitcases and boxes under the watchful eyes of judgmental and curious neighbors. Some disapprove of her decision to live alone as a woman. Others aren’t keen on her secular, non-traditional appearance. The student eventually decides to get off the elevator move her belongings up the stairs.

Shayma Awawdeh seen with Saed Andoni, the head of the Dar Al Kalima University's film department. (Bethlehem Student Film Festival)
Shayma Awawdeh seen with Saed Andoni, the head of the Dar Al Kalima University’s film department. (Bethlehem Student Film Festival)

Alaa Dayeh, 21, a resident of the Old City of Jerusalem, won best Palestinian experimental film in the festival for her film “Exit.”

“I have always loved photography and drawing. I bought my first camera at 14,” said Dayeh. “I enrolled in college to study photography, but I discovered a whole new world. I realized that I also want to direct and not only take photos. I wanted to merge drawing and photography, and directing experimental films has helped me do that.”

Exit tells the story of the Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem from the perspective of a ghost who tries to escape its grave and look for fellow ghosts. “I have kept track of the cemetery for the past seven years,” said Dayeh. “I used to love to visit. I’ve seen how, over time, the cemetery disappeared and only a handful of graves remain. I wanted to film a documentary but I felt that it wouldn’t be the best way to tell the story, so I went with the experimental genre. The dead can’t defend themselves, so I found it as my moral duty to protect them and their existence.”

To her, the film is an allegory of what is happening in real life: “The occupying powers took our land and put us in a jail by building a separation wall and erecting checkpoints. Even the dead have no place to exist.”

Dayeh’s own fascinating life story was documented by Louay Awad, another student at the university. Three years ago, on Jerusalem Day, Dayeh thrust her way between settlers who showed up at the annual Flag March in the Old City with a Palestinian flag in one hand and a camera in the other. Soldiers broke her camera, and a few of her ribs. Dayeh was arrested after confronting one of the soldiers. As part of a plea bargain, she was forced to perform community service for a full year at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Another film that stood out, “The Pink Bicycle,” was created by Shatha Wazouz, a 22-year-old from Nazareth. It tells the story of a seven-year-old girl who dreams of riding a bike but is forbidden from doing so by her family, who fears it might cause her to lose her virginity. With the help of her cousin, the girl learns how to ride without her family’s knowledge, until one day she falls off the bike and hurts herself. The wound festers into a deep, emotional scar; just as her family had feared, her hymen breaks.

Wazouz is the first student from ’48 (inside Israel) to attend the college. After her parents’ divorce, her father relocated to Jerusalem, which is how she ended up at Dar Al Kalima. “Nothing compares to studying in your mother tongue,” she said. “Creation is an emotional endeavor, and it’s very challenging to express and discuss your emotions in another language.”

A still from Nur Abu Jnayeh's documentary 'Visit.'
A still from Nur Abu Jnayeh’s documentary ‘Visit.’

“Visit,” a documentary filmed by Nur Abu Jnayeh, 27, is filmed entirely inside a Red Cross bus, which takes the families of Palestinian prisoners to Israeli prisons, to visit their relatives. The film begins at 4 a.m., when the families are picked up, and ends once they are dropped off in the occupied territories.

“I wanted to make a movie about the families of prisoners and not the prisoners themselves, because there’s a tendency to focus on the suffering of the prisoners — but nobody talks about the suffering of the families, their sense of loneliness and pain, the harassments, the deep longing, and the difficulty in securing permits to visit their loved ones,” explained Abu Jnayeh. “I’ve come across children, seven-year-olds, who have had to visit their father on their own because their mother couldn’t get a permit. I wanted to focus on the women because we are a patriarchal society and the voices of women are rarely heard.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.