RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // The Palestinian girl is thrilled: she's been offered a full scholarship to a US university. Bubbling with excitement, she first phones her father, then her boyfriend, to share the good news. Her dad's delighted but the boyfriend is not so keen. She can't go, he says, because their relationship won't survive the distance. The girl's eyes well up as she wonders what to do. It's a familiar scene of teenage angst, but one that has rarely made it to the big screen in the Palestinian territories. But now, with the debut of Confession, a series of seven short films made by teenage Palestinian girls, the territories' adolescents are finally finding a voice.
"It's the first time I have seen films showing us like this and I'm so happy to see it - it's great!" said Allaa Awwad, a 20-year-old computer science student, as she left a screening of the film at the West Bank University of Birzeit. "I liked these films so much because they touch on our feelings and our lives." The film opened this year's annual Palestinian Women's Film Festival, offering a younger viewpoint to the usual diverse fare of female-directed films from across the Arab world. The festival, which wraps up tomorrow, has screened a total of 11 films over the course of the last month, including Confession.
Over the last few years, Palestinian directors have been gaining prominence on the international movie scene, with celluloid representations of their lives in the occupied territories. In 2006, the film Paradise Now, about two West Bank friends who agree to carry out suicide attacks in Israel, was the first Palestinian movie to be nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars. The nomination caused an outrage among the families of Israelis who were killed by suicide bombers and the Academy came under pressure to disqualify the film.
This year, they have tried again, submitting Salt of this Sea, about a Palestinian refugee in New York who returns to her ancestral homeland. Confession also has been causing a stir, with some opposed to its subject matter; mobile phone romance, resistance to parental authority and general girl-boy relationships. "[Audiences] did not think that our young women would be like young women all over the world, with the same problems and the same concerns about love, relationships and so on," said Yousef Shayeb, a film critic for al Ayam, a Palestinian daily newspaper.
Commentators have applauded the first-time film-makers for challenging assumptions that Palestinian society is increasingly religious, traditional and conservative and for spurring debate about social issues. "Some people criticised the films because they thought there are more important things to talk about than love," Shayeb said. "But I think it is important to talk about all our problems, all these subjects, without any limitations."
But others have been horrified, accusing the organisers of staging a "festival of rebellion" and even of promoting phone sex. Fareed Majari, director of the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, which sponsors the festival, said Confession hinted at the development of a new genre. "There are a lot of movies that deal with kids and other things for adults, but these films talk about a particular theme of being young and coming of age in Palestine," he said. "That has not really been dealt with and it covers issues such as parent-child relations and relations between the sexes, issues that are in flux right now."
Zainab al Tibi's short film, Love on the Mobile, tackles the burgeoning practice of mobile phone courtship, popular among Palestinian teenagers who, for the most part, socialise in same-sex groups. "Young people escape to the mobile phone, which seems like it is safe," Ms al Tibi, 19, said. But far from condoning this practice, her film warns of the pitfalls of falling for a charmingly voiced, poetic text-messaging suitor: her protagonist is attracted over the phone to a young man she actually knows and dislikes in person.
"This is the reality that I live in," Ms al Tibi said. "I wanted to talk about teenagers in Palestine because nobody else is." Also part of Confession, Dara Khader's film, Remote Control, depicts a young female student who is offered a US scholarship but feels pressured by her boyfriend to stay behind. Ms Khader, 20, from Jenin, said she drew from real-life examples among her peers. "A lot of my friends have controlling boyfriends," she said. "Love should be a source of strength, so it is not love when a boy reduces his partner's options by being domineering. I don't mean that women should be superior, but we have rights and they should be respected."
Ms Khader said she was delighted by the university audience's reaction to her film. "When I heard everyone cheer and applause at the point where my film character accepts the scholarship, it was the happiest moment of my life." Perhaps the most entertaining short came from 21-year-old Israa Diab, from Tulkarem. We're all in the Same Boat is a sharp and cheeky critique of a young Palestinian shopkeeper who completely misreads a female customer's neutral, innocent interaction with him, turning it in his imagination into a full-blown flirtation.
"Situations like that always happen, in any Palestinian street, any market, any university," said Ms Diab. "It is a big problem because the girl always feels that she is being judged, that her rights are eaten away by everyone misunderstanding her." By making films about their personal lives, the young filmmakers have brought these overlooked social issues into the public domain, said Alia Arasoughly, the director of Shashat, the festival organisers founded in 2004 to promote women's cinema.
"These are girls with little resources, from Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem - very deprived areas economically and culturally," she said. "They did not come with a standard left-of-centre fare or with a feminist ideology. They just talked about how they feel and the power of that really touched audiences." Confession, along with the complete Shashat festival programme, toured all over the West Bank and screened in Gaza too - electricity shortages and Israeli border closures permitting. With only one functioning cinema in Ramallah, the rest of the Palestinian territories usually suffer a chronic lack of access.
Screening to packed auditoriums at university campuses and other venues across the Palestinian territories, Shashat's festival is frequently lauded as breaking a cultural siege, but also providing an opportunity of discussions other than political. "We have talked enough about the occupation," said Ms al Tibi. "We are tired of this subject and talking about it does not improve our lives anyway. We want to talk about ourselves, our problems, our society - and our right to live like other teenagers all over the world."
* The National