Between Tel Aviv and Ramallah: United Colours of Cinemas of Palestine and Israel

The writer talks about the conflict films from Israel and Palestine that is about the human toll of war that scathingly critques the policies, authoritarianism, and the endemic nature of violence
Between Tel Aviv and Ramallah: United Colours of Cinemas of Palestine and Israel

5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi is a miracle of a film. Not just for its compelling and affecting narrative, but for how it managed to take shape in the face of one of the longest ongoing conflicts in the world—between Israel and Palestine—that escalated further this fortnight with a fresh round of clashes that have left thousands, including children, dead and no ceasefire in sight.

The most unbelievable aspect about this 2011 documentary is that it has been directed together by a Palestinian farmer turned self-taught photographer Burnat and an Israeli filmmaker Davidi and is a Palestine-Israel-France co-production. A case of cinema rising above disputes and dissensions—engendered by both legitimate governments and purported terrorist forces—to become a marker of artistic harmony and human solidarity.

The action starts off in 2005 when Burnat buys his first camera to film the birth and early years of the youngest of his four sons, Gibreel. But domestic and societal memories, shots of family members, neighbours and friends, soon make way for more engaged political documentation. Burnat diligently chronicles the protests in his hometown Bil’in in the West Bank where the agricultural lands and olive groves are getting seized by Israeli settlers, army, and police. Each of his five cameras becomes an ally of the people in their resistance to occupation as well as a victim of the violence the community is forced to face, getting badly damaged in the process of filming the oppression.

It was in 2009 that Davidi stepped in to help Burnat in crafting a self-reflexive film out of all the precious footage. Structured like diary entries of each of the five cameras, the film is all about stories in which the personal entwines with the political, the birth, childhood, and growing up of each of Burnat’s sons in turn marking a distinct phase in the life of his besieged homeland.

A similar heartwarming, albeit fictional, cross-cultural interaction plays out on screen in Eran Kolirin’s warm and compassionate Israel-US-France co-production The Band’s Visit (2007)As eight men of an Egyptian police orchestra land in an Israeli town, curiosity, wariness, fear and tentativeness come to underline the give and take between them and the locals. However, it doesn’t take long for them—and the audience—to realise that the professed political adversaries—the ordinary Arabs and Israelis—are ultimately cut from the same cloth, with similar feelings and thoughts, hopes and disappointments, experiencing the same loneliness, love and longing in life.

These are just two of the several films that have kept coming to life consistently across both sides of the turbulent divide, amid uprisings and aggressions, bombings and battles and rocket attacks and counter-offensives in the region.

It’s a distinct genre of conflict cinema that is all about the human toll of war that scathingly critiques the national policies, protests authoritarianism, shows how violence has become endemic to the lives of innocent people, especially the youth, and makes an urgent plea for humanitarianism and pacifism. 

Some of these films do it directly, others obliquely and at times in the face of censorship and pushbacks from their respective governments. Some of these films do it directly, others obliquely and at times in the face of censorship and pushbacks from their respective governments.

One such film to get noticed early on globally came in 2006—Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s thriller Paradise Now. About two Palestinian suicide bombers on a mission to Tel Aviv, it tries to delve deep into their psyche and shows two sides of the same individual, one driven by retribution and violence, other bathed in vulnerability and humaneness: one man’s terrorist, another’s martyr. Assad does take up the Palestinian cause—the physical as well as psychological occupation, of the land as well as the human minds—but also reflects on whether violence is the only tool available for resistance. “From the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace”, is the logline of the film that engages with the very core of the complicated conflict without offering easy explanations or random solutions.

Assad went on to make Omar in 2013, about a star-crossed love affair across the West Bank wall as a young Palestinian is forced to turn an informer. His 2021 film Huda’s Salon goes deeper and gets more metaphorical in dealing with espionage and the concomitant compromises and betrayals.

Like Assad a lot of Palestinian filmmakers are immigrants, many of their films made in exile, often co-productions with the West or the Arab world. Like Elia Suleiman’s comic drama on Palestinian roots and identity, It Must Be Heaven (2019)Or Darin J. Sallam, the Jordanian filmmaker of Palestinian descent whose Farha (2021) is all about a young girl coming of age while witnessing a violent slice of history during the Al-Nakba—also known as the Palestinian Catastrophe, that led to the destruction of the Homeland, the persecution and displacement of the Palestinians and the creation of Israel.

The most recent celebrated film has been Firas Khoury’s debut feature film Alam (Flag, 2022) that deals with the contradictions of being a young Palestinian in Israel. How to belong to a place that has denied you your own rightful home? It’s about the loss of innocence and essential politicisation of the young through acts of resistance with a flag as a tool and ally.

Unlike these Palestinian films, Israel has had a more robust though small filmmaking industry, independent as well as supported by the government. Its cinema also embraces a wider range of themes and experiences given the liberty and autonomy the country, its people and the society enjoy. Like Ofir Raul Grazier’s The Cakemaker, a beautiful, bittersweet tale about a German baker who travels to Jerusalem to meet the widow of an Israeli man he had been in a clandestine affair with. As they come together, and bond yet get pulled apart in shared grief, the mundane act of baking becomes a healing force.

The best of Israeli cinema, however, has been steadily, resolutely political. Far from furthering Zionist propaganda, its most celebrated filmmakers have cast a critical eye on the country’s internal issues as well as foreign affairs and have often been dubbed anti-Israel for that. For instance, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (2017), is a visually stunning, stylistically transcendental and politically audacious indictment of the absurd hostilities and needless wars. About a rich couple getting the news from the Israeli army of the death of their soldier son, it is as much about their profound grief as about the pointless army bureaucracy they are up against, and the trauma of war borne by the young soldiers on lonely outposts.

Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms (2019) was about his inner conflicts with the very idea of nationalism, and his own Jewish identity and his Ahed’s Knee (2021) had a filmmaker wrestling with the Ministry of culture for his artistic freedom. 

The latest film from the region to have hit the bullseye is Lina Soualem’s Palestinian-focused documentary Bye Bye Tiberias that won the Grierson award for the best documentary at the recently concluded BFI London Film Festival. It follows Succession actor Hiam Abbass who returns to her Palestinian village with her daughter Soualem, years after leaving it to pursue an acting career in France. A journey back a full circle to her home, country, culture and identity, but not quite.

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