'Naila and the Uprising': Film Review | Dubai 2017

Courtesy of the Dubai International Film Festival
Enlightening, dismaying and empowering.

Documenting the life of Palestinian resistance leader Naila Ayesh, director Julia Bacha shows the major role women played in the First Intifada.

Julia Bacha’s militant documentary Naila and the Uprising is by turns startling and dismaying as it traces the central role Palestinian women played in the First Intifada of the late 1980s. Integrating animated scenes with interviews and archive footage, it paints an indelible picture of how, with many men deported or arrested, women stepped into the arena of political and social organizing, only to be told their role was over when Yasser Arafat returned from exile to form the Palestinian Authority in 1994 with a crew of all-male leaders.

It’s a painful story, but also an illuminating one that is well worth watching. Whereas Bacha’s award-winning doc Budrus recounted the story of Palestinian leader Ayed Morrar, who created an unarmed movement to save his village from destruction, here she shows an iron-willed woman promoting the role of non-violent struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

That is the intrepid Naila Ayesh, an activist, nationalist and feminist who, like her husband Jamal, has spent hard time in Israeli prisons for political organizing. Wearing Western clothes and leaving her short hair uncovered, she is the kind of articulate, intelligent leader able to make change happen, given half a chance.

Her story begins as an 8-year-old living in Ramallah on the West Bank. One day at school, she and her sisters hear an explosion — the Israelis have demolished their home. An animated sequence expresses her hostility toward the military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which turns Arabs into second-class citizens subject to permits, curfews and censored school books.

On a student scholarship in Bulgaria, Naila meets her husband Jamal, who shares similar political views. Back in Palestine, they embark on the risky course of activism in the Democratic Front. And they are punished. Naila, who is pregnant, is thrown into prison, where she is dragged to interrogation sessions and forced to spend nights outdoors in the cold and rain, leading to a miscarriage. The episode is told in an extended animation sequence that somewhat mitigates the horror. She is released only after Jamal takes her case to an Israeli journalist who mobilizes a media campaign. In December 1987, the Intifada begins and Jamal is deported. Naila, who is pregnant again, makes the difficult decision to stay on in Gaza.

In interviews, she asserts that the original Intifada was a spontaneous uprising; significantly, it marked the first time that people rebelled without waiting for directives from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was in exile in Tunisia at the time.

With many of the men away, thousands of Palestinian women took to the streets to protest, waving the PLO flag. When shopkeepers went on strike, boycotting Israeli goods and produce, women formed farming coops. Their local committees kept society running and even addressed government issues. One can get a quick glimpse of utopia here, if women ruled the world. Naila is at the center of the resistance, but in 1988 she is arrested again. Another media protest is launched, and the military authorities concede that she can keep her infant son with her in prison. Eloquent animation steps in where archive footage is lacking.

The film’s final scenes succinctly describe the two important peace conferences that brought Israel and the Palestinians to the table for the first time. At the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, promoted by an irritated President George H. Bush, who withheld a $10 billion aid package to force Israel’s hand, the PLO was not present. But there were women from the local committees led by Dr. Hannan Ashrawi, the official spokesperson for the Palestinians. However, the Intifada leaders in Madrid were unaware of the secret talks taking place between the State of Israel and Arafat’s PLO in Oslo under the auspices of the Norwegian government.

Eventually, Arafat made a deal, but he brought back far less than the Madrid conference had promised. With the men’s return to Palestine, the women who had organized and protested in the streets were now expected to step back. They even needed a "guardian" to get a passport.

How Bacha manages to pull an upbeat message from this depressing situation is largely due to Naila's fighting spirit and resiliency. Shocked, disappointed but uncowed, she continues her political work and becomes the director of the Gaza-based Women's Affairs Center. Her family is reunited, and her grown son Majd is studying law in Canada with the intention of returning home to practice it.

The smart direction and tech work are as straight-arrow and determined as the protagonist, telling the tale without sentimentality or meandering. 

Production companies: Just Vision, in association with Fork Films
Director-screenwriter: Julia Bacha
Producers: Rula Salameh, Rebekah Wingert-Jabi
Director of photography: Talal Jabari
Music: Tristan Capacchione
Editors: Flavia De Souza, Rebekah Wingert-Jabi

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)

76 minutes

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