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Palestinian film festival stars gender-based violence

This year's Palestinian Cinema Days film festival took up the problems faced by women in the region and beyond.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The murder of Israa Gharayeb, a young Palestinian makeup artist from Bethlehem, by her family has placed violence against women firmly on the country’s agenda for the last two months.

The Palestinian feminist group Tala'at organized demonstrations in cities in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Germany Sept. 26. Women took to the streets to protest gender-based harassment, violence and abuse. They also called on their governments for new laws and better enforcement to protect women. 

Discrimination, violence and marginalization of women in Palestine, the region and beyond has also been taken up on the silver screen as the central theme of “Palestine Cinema Days,” an annual event organized by Palestine’s Filmlab, earlier this month. 

Filmlab: Palestine, established in 2014 in Ramallah, aims to promote the Palestinian film industry and offer a platform for Palestinian filmmakers to come together. Its annual international film festival as well as special screening events aim to showcase Palestinian cinema and explore areas of cooperation with the international film sector.

This year’s edition, which took place from Oct. 2 through Oct. 9, took on sexual and gender based-violence. It took its theme from an initiative called “No Means No,” which seeks to raise awareness on gender-based violence against women through cinema. Run by the non-governmental organization International Media Support (IMS), the initiative took part in the 2018 Carthage International Festival, addressing women's issues, particularly violence against women, and exploring ways that the film sector can make a difference in combatting them.

Lama Hourani, IMS' head of programs, told Al-Monitor, “[This] is a continuation of what the organization started last year at the Carthage festival by dedicating a program that focuses on violence against women in Arab societies. We were encouraged to extend this experience to several festivals, including the Palestine Cinema Days. In the future, the initiative will be part of several film festivals in Jordan, India and Latin America.”

“[The protests against] increasing violence against women and the rise of feminism in Palestine encouraged us to turn to cinema to raise awareness on gender-based violence [through films] from different parts of the world,” she said. “The program includes seminars and debates with international feminist leaders as well as Arab and international female directors and actresses. It underlines that violence is not specific to any religion or ethnicity but linked to social, political and economic conditions.”

The films shown in the festival — 60 feature films, documentaries and animations from 13 different countries — display a wide range of issues women around the world, such as forced second marriages, incest, poverty and being banned from sports.

Afghan filmmaker Sahra Mosawi-Mani’s “A Thousand Girls Like Me,” tells the story of Khatira, who took her father to court after years of sexual assault, defying her family and Islamic community, who advised her to keep quiet. The film focuses on how the young woman risks her family, freedom and personal safety in a judicial system that blames the victim.

In Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s “Poisonous Roses,” young Taheya tries to escape her impoverished life with her brother Sakr. The film, Egypt’s nominee to the 2020 Academy Award for international feature film, shows the brutal work conditions in the country's tanneries.

Soccer — a recurrent theme on the Middle East agenda as women approach the field as players, referees and spectators — is taken up by Libyan-British director Naziha Arebi in “Freedom Fields.” The director’s debut film, which took five years to complete, revolves around three women and a football team, shedding light on post-revolution Libya from a woman’s perspective and sharing her fears and struggle.

In “Amra and the Second Marriage,” Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh highlights the dilemma of a woman who discovers that her husband is planning to marry a younger second wife.

In “Violently in Love,” Danish filmmaker Christina Rosendahl reveals what goes on behind the closed doors of a Copenhagen women’s shelter, where children and women are slowly recovering from domestic violence and rebuilding trust. Rosendahl relies on recordings she made over five years that show how trauma victims began to gradually come to understand themselves and rebuild the confidence that was shattered by a vicious cycle of violence.

Khouloud Badawi, a media spokesperson for Palestine Cinema Days, told Al-Monitor, “We sought to benefit from the high public turnout to the festival to raise awareness of gender-based violence issues in the public. We also questioned the members of our own sector by addressing the stereotypes of women in cinema and whether we play a role in perpetuating violence."

She asserted that cinema is a vital tool to refine community awareness and spur change. “Cinema provides a new space to combat violence, … particularly as it can challenge the stereotypical image of women as a vulnerable and marginalized group in traditional Arab and Palestinian cinema. It can also highlight, with the language of art, the verbal, psychological and physical violence that these women face.”

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