Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

Annemarie Jacir: 'Next year is going to be amazing for Palestinian cinema'

The Palestinian filmmaker is in Berlin this week as jury member for the international competition at the Berlin International Film Festival

Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir attends a press conference during the 70th annual Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from 20 February to 01 March 2020. EPA 
Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir attends a press conference during the 70th annual Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from 20 February to 01 March 2020. EPA 

There are no films from the Arab world competing at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which is something of a disappointment after a period of celebration for regional film at major festivals and awards ceremonies around the world. Highs included consecutive Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations for Ziad Doueiri's The Insult in 2018, Nadine Labaki's Capernaum in 2019 and Best Documentary Film Oscar nominations for The Cave and For Sama in 2020.

Some consolation for the lack of locally-produced films up for awards this year in Berlin can be found in the numerous Arabic movies screening outside the festival’s main competition, but perhaps the most high-profile Arab representative in the German capital this year is the fact that Wajib and Salt of the Sea director Annemarie Jacir is sitting on the competition jury alongside fellow panelists, including Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons and Manchester by the Sea writer/director Kenneth Lonergan.

I can tell you that, right now, there is the highest number of Palestinian films in pre-production, production or post-production ever, and next year we’ll have an amazing year

“The best thing about being on the jury is watching all these films I wouldn’t normally have chance to see,” she tells The National from the festival on Saturday night. “Some may get a release, some may get a limited release, some may not release at all, but you have these amazing programmers who make these amazing selections, and you’re lucky enough to watch them.”

Jacir is also impressed with the calibre of her fellow jurors, and it sounds like, even at this early stage, the deliberations over this year’s prize winner are getting heated: “It’s a really interesting jury this year, and we’re having some really intense, great conversations,” she says. “It’s great to meet people where we challenge each other, and think about things, and don’t always share the same point of view. It’s like my own family, my cinema family, expanding.”

'Finance is the Arab filmmaker's biggest challenge'

Jacir’s family may be expanding in Berlin, but should we be concerned about the lack of representation for her friends in Arabic cinema in this year’s competition, including, of course, Jacir herself? “Of course wish I had a new film, and I’m working on it,” she assures me. “But I don’t think we should be worried about the lack of Arab films. It is a slow year and there are none in competition, but we shouldn’t worry too much about that in itself.”

The director notes that what we should worry about more than one quiet festival line up is that perennial quandary of the Arab filmmaker – how to get films from the region financed – although even on this issue she sees cause for optimism: “The finance is always our biggest challenge, but I also can say that next year is going to be an amazing year for Palestinian cinema. I can tell you that, right now, there is the highest number of Palestinian films in pre-production, production or post-production ever, and next year we’ll have an amazing year. I know of about 14 Palestinian films coming out. It’s huge and it’s never happened before, so that’s really exciting.”

Palestine often seems to punch above its weight in the global cinema industry. Hany Abu-Assad perhaps leads the pack with his two Oscar nominations for Paradise Now and Omar, but he’s not alone – Basil Khalil, for example, saw his 2015 short Ave Maria nominated for an Oscar, while Cherian Dabis’s 2009 Amreeka remains the highest-grossing Arabic language film at the US box office.

These, like the predicted 14 films due to release next year from a country with a population of just five million and some very unique challenges for all its citizens, not just filmmakers, represent an amazing feat. I ask Jacir how such a small country, under occupation for decades, manages to feature so highly in the filmmaking world.

“Because we make good films,” she laughs, before adopting a more serious tone: “We have a small population, but when you are a Palestinian filmmaker you have to really think about what you’re doing and work harder to make it happen. We have all the challenges of filmmaking that all filmmakers go through, plus on top of that all the challenges of doing it in Palestine. You have to be really convinced and stubborn. That makes you think harder about your work and that in turn makes it better.”

Despite the challenges, Jacir once again assures me that she’ll be back in competition before too long: “I’m working really hard on a new project I can’t talk about yet, but I can’t wait to make it happen,” adding that she is “also working on a smaller documentary in the meantime – it’s hard to sit waiting for funding, so I need to keep busy.”

The trailer for her film Wajib

Until then, Jacir will have to content herself with watching, and judging, other people’s films. As a member of the jury, she understandably doesn’t want to give me too much in the way of recommendations from this year’s programme until the winners are announced, though it’s no great surprise which film she is looking forward to seeing the most at this year’s festival – Jacir is joined in Berlin this year by her sister Emily who's at the festival for her latest Letter to a Friend: “I can’t be too specific about my favourite films or the ones I’m most looking forward to seeing, but of course I’m really excited to see my sister’s film which is showing in the expanded forum – I haven’t seen it, so that’ll be my highlight. Well, one of them.”

Updated: February 24, 2020 11:18 AM

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