The venue is small but packed with stories. They came from North Africa, the Gulf or the neighborhood down the street to attend the fourth edition of the Haifa Independent Film Festival (HIFF) on March 20-26. Inside the Khashabi Theatre is an eclectic crowd made of internationally recognized filmmakers, emerging talent and a mostly Palestinian audience longing for movies they can relate to.
Haifa, located almost equidistant from Tel Aviv and Beirut, is no ordinary Israeli city. It has become in recent years a growing cultural hub for the local Palestinian population. The city had already been hosting a film festival for more than three decades, showcasing a wide range of Israeli and international movies but few Arab stories. HIFF's organizers saw a need that needed to be fulfilled. Now, the festival organizers say, is time for the coastal city to find its rightful place on the map of Middle Eastern cinema.
“The idea was to give a stage for local talent and connect with the rest of the Arab world … and show locals here a Palestinian cinema that they don't usually get to see,” HIFF director Rojeh Khleif told Al-Monitor. “Local filmmakers create movies and just don't have a place to show them. There are films I have seen overseas that I couldn't watch here,” he added.
The idea for the festival was born from the need for a cultural platform dedicated to Arab Israelis, who often feel excluded.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, who often call themselves "48 Palestinians," are part of the communities that remained inside the Green Line drawn after the 1948 war. They include Christians, Muslims, Bedouin and Druze and make up about 20% of the country's population. An estimated 30,000 of them live in Haifa, making it an important urban center for Arab culture.
The fourth edition of the festival is showcasing 59 short and feature-length films as well as workshops and masterclasses across seven venues that are landmarks for the city's Palestinian community. They include the Kabareet club, known for welcoming Arab DJs, and the Arabic-language theater Al-Midan.
“To me, as a filmmaker living in Haifa, it's great to finally have a place to participate in something that is truly independent, free of the government and censorship. That's what is really special about this festival. There are not a lot of spaces like this inside Israel,” Palestinian filmmaker and poet Annemarie Jacir told Al-Monitor. She is known for such critically acclaimed movies as “Like Twenty Impossibles,” “When I Saw You” and “Salt of This Sea,” which was an official selection of the Cannes international film festival in 2008.
Her latest feature film, “Wajib”, which she presented last year at HIFF, tells the story of a father from Nazareth and his estranged son coming together to hand-deliver his daughter's wedding invitations to each guest, as local Palestinian customs dictate. In Israel's largest Arab city, tension simmers between the two men with conflicting views on emigration, Palestinian armed resistance and one's “complicit” attitude toward Israelis.
“We are Palestinians. We tell our own stories. We have been marginalized for so long, so our cinema is still in a new phase, in a way,” said Jacir, who gave an archive workshop. “There are still so many stories that need to be told. It's also a way of having a dialogue with our community. A big part of it is also to be able to criticize ourselves. It's about asking the tough questions.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, organizing an Arab film festival inside a country regarded as an enemy by most neighboring countries has proven challenging. Many Middle Eastern directors cannot make it because it is difficult or impossible to obtain a visa, while others simply refuse to participate.
"The main challenge is to bring Arab movies here. For some filmmakers, presenting a movie in Haifa, which is under Israeli authority, would be normalization,” the festival's production manager, Samaa Wakeem, told Al-Monitor, referring to a concept broadly defined as the political act of refusing to engage with Israel in any form.
“So we have to convince them that it's a Palestinian festival in Palestinian venues for a Palestinian audience. It's the fourth edition now so more and more people trust us — but some still refuse."
But the event's location in an Israeli city also means many Palestinians are not able to attend. Residents of the Gaza Strip have been living under a decade-long blockade, making travel nearly impossible, while many of those living in the West Bank need permits to enter Israel.
According to the organizers, some Middle Eastern directors say they would like to attend but cannot because of their government's policies.
“We still have a bit of a problem with Lebanese directors. They won't send their films for now. They really want to, but it's too risky. They are afraid,” said Rojeh Khleif.
Some still dare to make the trip. Filmmaker, poet and writer Hind Shoufani, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Dubai, presented her feature-length documentary “Trip Along Exodus” for an emotional audience. The film explores the past 70 years of Palestinian politics seen through the prism of the life of her father, Elias Shoufani, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and an academic and leftist intellectual who was one of the leaders of the opposition to Yasser Arafat within Fatah.
“I felt so disconnected from this place for 40 years. When you grow up like me in Beirut or Damascus, this place is completely inaccessible, even though it's just a couple of hours away by car. So it's really kind of mind-boggling to be here now,” Shoufani told Al-Monitor, smiling. “As someone who grew up thinking this whole region was my homeland, I find that including Haifa, Nazareth and my dad's village of Mi’ilya into my world is a true pan-Arab nationalist dream come true.”
Having presented her film in over 20 festivals in both the West and the Arab world, Shoufani said she felt particularly proud to show her work to a Palestinian audience — proud and nervous. “Because it touches on some details of the resistance and history, for a Western audience that is more than enough information, as they do not have the inside knowledge, but here when you play it in front of people who have possibly studied these events and lived through them, then any mistake you may have made becomes very clear,” she said. “The level of scrutiny and discussion is very high. So it's very interesting and humbling.”
The festival has grown every year and its organizers dream of making it even bigger despite a very limited budget and the struggle to find proper venues to host the screenings. Haifa has no independent Palestinian cinema, so most films are shown in theaters and bars with rented sound systems. But more than the festival, the ambition is for a proper cinema industry to grow.
“We need more people to produce films here. For now we don't have a place to rent equipment, for example. We don't even have a cinema,” sighed Rojeh Khleif. “So that's our hope: to one day have a real industry to tell our own stories and motivate people to consume, research, remember and create our own culture.”
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