Palestinian voices emerge in Dubai

Five female Palestinian directors' films screening at fest

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- When Cherien Dabis thinks back to her school days in rural Ohio, it's not the cheerleading team or prom night that first come to mind.

Instead, the filmmaker daughter of two Palestinian immigrants to the U.S. recalls an incident that occurred during the first Gulf War.

Her sister, Nazih, was paid a visit at school by the U.S. Secret Service investigating a claim that the 16-year-old had threatened to assassinate the U.S. president. Within days of that first American invasion of Iraq, her father's doctor's practice emptied.

Dabis' experiences form the basis of her debut feature "Amreeka" ("America" in Arabic), which will make its debut in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance next month -- a first for a Palestinian film.

The film is in the Dubai International Film Festival's Film Connection program in the hope of raising a final $50,000.

"I went from being the all-American girl to only wanting to speak Arabic (and) spend time there," Dabis said, recalling the experience which proved a pivotal moment in setting her on her career path. "We received death threats. People at school started calling my sister the Palestinian Nazi. I began to realize how the depictions of Arabs in the news were totally affecting me as a 14-year-old girl in Ohio."

Thus began the Columbia University graduate's journey into filmmaking.

"Amreeka" tells more than the tale of a family of Palestinians living the American nightmare. The film forms part of a recent explosion in films from the Palestinian territories that are regularly appearing everywhere from Cannes to Cairo. What's more, many of these film are by women.

Case in point is the Dubai festival, which is showcasing works from five female Palestinian directors. (One has to ask if there were ever five U.S. female directors on display at one film festival to compare?)

Annemarie Jacir's debut feature "Salt of This Sea" holds the distinction of being the first Palestinian feature made by a woman. Premiering in Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, "Salt of This Sea" centers on a Brooklyn-born Palestinian who returns to Palestine at age 28 to find that she is blocked from claiming assets taken from her family in 1948. The film is among the contenders for the 2009 foreign-language film Oscar.

First-time director Najwa Najjar's feature "Pomegranates and Myrrh" made a big splash here in Dubai as the Arabian Nights section's gala film. The film is about a free-spirited dancer who finds freedom in the face of repression after her husband is taken by the Israeli authorities.

Premiering in the Sundance documentary competition section back in January, the Palestinian-Syrian director Jackie Salloum's first feature-length documentary, "Slingshot Hip Hop," meanwhile, focuses on the thriving Palestinian hip-hop scene.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian-born multimedia artist Larissa Sansour's "A Space Exodus" is making its world premiere in Dubai's Muhr Arabic Awards Short competition. The film is a reimagining of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which Sansour floats through the universe on a mission to become the first Palestinian on the moon.

"You now have a Palestinian voice," said the British-Iraqi director Maysoon Pachachi, who attributes the trend in part to a steady growth of filmmaking classes and initiatives taking place between the mayhem and madness that is daily life in Palestine.

Pachachi was in Ramallah teaching film when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. "There used to be only one Palestinian filmmaker back in the 1990s, but now there is a whole movement," she said. Pachachi's film "Open Shutters Iraq" is making its world premiere at DIFF.

"There is a lot of interest in Palestinian stories right now and a lot of stories to be told," DIFF consultant Antonia Carver said. "You have always had waves of Palestinian feature films, but there is certainly a lot happening right now."

Dabis puts the trend down in part to an increase in funding. "Five years ago, we were absolutely disappointed in the lack of support for the arts," she said. "There has been an absolute shift in what's happening in the media world with Arabs."

Challenges to the fledgling industry include finding crew and dealing with restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.

Jacir used a lawyer, a DJ, a jeweler and an ambulance driver as crew, and then had to switch out her entire group after the Israeli government wouldn't give them permission to shoot outside Ramallah -- one of 80 locations used to make "Salt of This Sea."

Jacir also had to reconstruct the Israeli airport from scratch as she could not get permission to shoot there, unlike her Israeli counterparts.

"It was far easier for us to shoot in the West Bank than in Israel," said Jacir, who has not been able to get back into the country since making her film. She is currently exiled in Jordan.

Such is the interest in Palestinian films that Hollywood has taken note, with Danny Glover's company, Louverture Films, becoming one of a myriad of financial partners that made "Sea" possible.

Jacir turned to foreign investors after she was warned not to make a film about the controversial subject of the return of Palestine's millions of exiled people. "I did it anyway," she said.

One common trait among these films is a move away from political to personal stories. "Of course, if you know anything about Palestinian history you can recognize places in the film, which have a political connotation," Jacir said. "But this film is a love story. The politics are there because that is the reality here."

"There is a definite shift away from political films," Dabis said. "This is a human drama. I am loving that there is a shift to human stories and Palestinians telling their own tales. There have been a lot of stories told about Arabs by the West."

In making their films, both Dabis and Jacir said they experienced far more obstacles in the West that in Palestine.

"There is less of an expectation of what the film industry is in Palestine as there hasn't really been one," Dabis said. "People are just really grateful that someone is telling their stories."