I had the pleasure of speaking with Naser Shakhtour, founder and director of the Palestinian Film Festival (PFF), about his life and work. Naser described in subtle and illuminating terms the way in which his personal experience as a Palestinian in Australia compelled him to start collating movies from Palestine to screen around Australia in this multi-city festival, the first of its kind.
Born in Palestine, Naser grew up between Kuwait and Palestine. As a teenager, these events shaped his awareness of what it meant to be a Palestinian, and the importance of the land to his parents and wider family. Years later, living in Sydney and settled here as many others in the diaspora, the importance of Palestine has not waned in his life and work; on the contrary. ‘There is so little representation of Palestine in Australia,’ he told me over Skype, ‘and I really wanted to address that.’
The PFF has been increasingly successful each year that it has been put on, since it was first launched in 2007, when there was still relatively little interest in Palestinian cinema. It has been a very positive experience, Naser explains, gaining much community support and positive reviews, despite any issues that might arise, as one might expect, when establishing a national event of this magnitude. Naser is focused on letting the art speak for itself. Some parties might see the PFF as an opportunity to promote an agenda, but not its director, whose main message is to work in solidarity with those that inspire and empower each other to better represent Palestinian life and reach out more widely.
Film, theatre and the arts remain excellent avenues to do just that. Last year we were glad to see Samah Sabawi’s play about Gaza, Tales of a City by the Sea, join a list of works to be studied for the Victorian Certificate of Education, only to lead the Anti-Defamation League’s chairperson to appeal to the State and attempt to have it removed from the curriculum, because, as he saw it, the play incited people against Israel. Around the same time, Israeli Culture Minister, Miri Regev, protested what she perceived as an anti-Semitic performance by Palestinian Tamer Nafar and Mizrahi Jew Yosi Tsabari, who recited a Mahmoud Darwish poem together at an Israeli film awards ceremony. These artists’ non-violent, honest expressions touched people worldwide, and the positive responses to them have far outweighed those who’ve spoken against them, deeming them hate-filled. You’ll be able to watch Tamer Nafar and others in Junction 48, directed by Udi Aloni, at the PFF later this year, along with many more new films to move and inspire you.
As conditions have worsened for Palestinians, Palestinian cinema has become more critically engaged with the national struggle, conveying life under occupation and reality in perpetual statelessness while inhabiting a disputed homeland. Contemporary Palestinian cinema continues to be produced under highly prohibitive circumstances. And so, the role of the Palestinian filmmaker remains double: to continue making films, and to gain support from hostile or at best indifferent institutions. It is encouraging to hear that in Australia, promoting Palestinian cinema is increasingly embraced and recognised as a great investment.
Read more from Just Voices #13, June 2017 – Israel/Palestine.