x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A broad spectrum of Palestinian film

Something has triggered a cinematic renaissance in Palestine and cinema audiences are profiting most.

Camaraderie isn't something you normally get to experience as a member of a cinema audience. But there's no other word for the spirit that took over when Fermin Muguruza's Palestinian music documentary Checkpoint Rock played at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) on Saturday night. The screening was originally intended to take place outdoors but sudden rain ended that idea. It moved to the First Group Theatre in the Souk Madinat.

Hundreds of damp ticket holders queued for the best part of an hour to squeeze into the auditorium. The programme kept running late. A good portion of the crowd seemed to be Palestinian themselves which, if nothing else, can furnish a lot of practice at waiting behind barriers. And so the atmosphere was good-humoured and celebratory, only improving as the audience trooped into the theatre. The director was cheered; applause followed each recorded musical performance. The name "West Bank" appeared on screen and crowd erupted. The upside of diaspora, apparently, is you get a home advantage anywhere your people are free to gather.

Muguruza is a filmmaker from Spain's disputed Basque region, who took his film crew on a tour of Palestine's music scene, guided by Suhel Nafar from the rap group DAM. "When we knew that he was a Basque artist we felt sympathy with him," Nafar said. As Muguruza says: "There are some similar issues about culture, about language, about identity, that we know very well." Muguruza originally planned to interview Mahmoud Darwish, but Palestine's national poet died in August last year. Instead he met the traditional singer Amal Murkus, the Joubran Trio, the rock band Khalas and other talents who pursue their art in the shadow of occupation.

"There's a very special thing in Palestine," Muguruza tells me. "When you go to different countries, you know there's different kinds of music. Each one is saying that my music is the only one ... In Palestine, all the musicians want to be together. They want to be in contact. All of them respect the others' works very much." It's a community spirit that seems to be flourishing, not only in the sphere of music, but also in film.

DIFF has been showing 14 films from or about Palestine over the past week. "It's not really a Palestinian programme," one of the festival's selectors Antonia Carver explains. "It's just that as we started to programme the films through the summer, my colleagues and I realised that there was this incredible wealth of films coming out of Palestine this year." These range from harrowing documentaries about last year's Israeli offensive - To Shoot an Elephant, for example, which was assembled from eyewitness footage, and Gaza on the Air, a documentary about the psychological cost of reporting war - to family dramas like Cherien Dabis's award-winning Amreeka.

And if you think you know what Palestinian film is like, think again. The filmmakers are at least as bored of the familiar angles as their critics. "Every day you are hammering the same nail," as the director Rashid Masharawi complained at a conference on Palestine's filmic renaissance. "The previous film is just like the next one." He dodged that problem by making Little Wings, a film about child labour in Iraq that doubles as an indirect exploration of conditions in Gaza.

Few directors can be as anxious to avoid the obvious as Raed Andoni, however. His hugely entertaining and original documentary Fix Me grew out of a pathological resistance to being categorised. The film opens with the director seeking therapy for his stress-related headache. The stress, he believes, is caused by his sudden fury whenever someone attempts to put him in a conceptual box. And so he submits to 20 weeks of therapy, filmed through a one-way mirror by a non-Arabic-speaking film crew, so as "not to make the presence of the camera influence the therapy session," he tells me. "I can't say that we succeeded 100 per cent."

Andoni is an irresistible comic curmudgeon, less concerned with exploring the contours of life in Palestine than with luxuriating in his own neuroticism and misanthropy. "I decided to give up being Palestinian," he says. "I think, if I have to choose an identity, first of all I'm a human being." But his national identity reasserts itself despite his best efforts. "I'm born in that part of the world," he says. "But that's not my choice."

But even Andoni can't resist the appeal of Palestinian solidarity. "I'm proud of my history," he says, before qualifying that to: "at least, I want to live in harmony with it." It seems there's a lot of harmony to be found. * Ed Lake