“When I see them, I see us.” This was the refrain of a short video that was the prelude to the opening feature of last week’s DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. The video (which will be released Oct. 14) affirms Black-Palestinian solidarity and features more than 60 Palestinian and Black artists and activists—including Cornel West, who was lecturing audience members only a few blocks away as part of a separate event hosted by The Palestine Center & Jerusalem Fund. Fittingly, West had described Black-Palestinian solidarity in terms of unique but shared experience in politics as well as art. “Both people,” he said, “are blues people.”
The video highlighted the ways that Palestinian arts festivals in the United States are growing local roots as much as they connect a diaspora. Now in its fifth year, the D.C. festival’s organizers have remained committed to creating a space and an audience for Palestinian artists—not necessarily art just about Palestine. It’s a subtle distinction, but one borne out of the festival’s diversity, which presented stories not just about military occupation and borders, but families, immigrants, labor, and art.
The Wanted 18, an animated documentary by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan, headlined the festival. Through claymation, animation, and documentary footage, the film tells the story of one Palestinian village’s efforts to be self-sufficient during the First Intifada (1987-1991). A group of villagers purchases 18 cows to avoid depending on Israeli milk; the situation intensifies when Israeli officials insist the cows are a security threat, and the bovines are forced to go into hiding.
While the film tells a story of resistance in the face of violence, the ironies of its plot demand a dose of whimsy—delivered, in part, by its prima donna claymation cows. Director Amer Shomali jokingly described them as “Trojan cows:” a vehicle to make the Palestinian struggle more accessible across contexts. The film has received numerous accolades (Best Documentary, Traverse City Film Festival; Best Documentary from the Arab World, Abu Dhabi Film Festival; Palestine’s 2015 Oscar entry) and will be screened on Nov. 18 at Washington National Cathedral.
In Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma, Badia, raised in an orphanage, goes to live with her three unmarried aunts. The women seem to operate in a time warp, trapped in a past era of family prestige and potential marriages. Unapologetically bringing urban-rural and Christian-Muslim biases to the fore, the film carries a story of young love to a heartbreaking twist. Arraf herself has come under attack by the Israeli government—a funder of the film—for insisting on categorizing it as Palestinian.
Two shorts offered snapshots of the struggles of Palestinian immigrants. Mauricio Misle’s Hamule documents his family’s correspondence through audiotapes mailed between Palestine and Chile in the ’70s. The film recounts stories ranging from the Lebanese Civil War to a grandmother’s choice to conceal her Palestinian identity when she returns to visit family—lest her origins raise suspicions at the Israeli border. Pioneer High, by director Suha Araj, is less contemplative in tone but no less emotionally evocative, blending Mad Men kitsch and the absurdity of Ferris Bueller to tell the story of Hala, a Palestinian teenager who is dropped into a 1969 American high school that requires girls to wear skirts. Hala, along with her collection of stylish pants, unwittingly sparks a revolution that forces the school to change its dress code.
Baha’ AbuShanab’s stark documentary The Living of the Pigeons explores the routines of Palestinian laborers who are permitted to work, but not live, in Israel. The post-film discussion raised comparisons with the US-Mexico border and the strains placed on working families everywhere. Jessiva Habie’s Mars at Sunrise tested the limits of art and of empathy by delving into the consciousness of an interrogator and the artist he is tormenting. Musing on the tensions between violence and creation, it left the audience with a sense of unsettling sublime.
Besides film, the festival featured a range of other artistic media: literary programs in English and Arabic, the work of Eman Mohammed, a photojournalist from Gaza, and a concert featuring Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj and the Palestinian Wanees Zarour Ensemble.
With each event drawing a unique audience, the future of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival looks bright; events like these will continue to expand, complementing cinematic offerings and creating new spaces for conversations about intersections between Palestinian art and local communities.