A look at some of the highlights from this year's event, some of which make for tough viewing.
Films of hope: London Palestine Film Festival
It's difficult to shoot a film about Palestinian history in Israel, as you might imagine. Elia Suleiman, the celebrated Palestinian filmmaker, screened The Time That Remains at the London Palestine Film Festival last week. As he told the audience, getting it off the ground was no picnic.
"I had trouble during the second intifada," he said, in the same measured, wry tone that characterises his sparsely worded scripts. "When we were shooting, [the Israeli Army] were shooting as well." He describes how he was forbidden to film in east Jerusalem, but shot some scenes there in a "hit and run operation" before relocating to Nazareth. "And then they started to shoot people in Nazareth. There were Israeli snipers shooting people there, just hunting them."
A softly spoken but fiercely principled filmmaker who will turn 50 later this year, Suleiman is one of Palestine's most acclaimed writer- directors. Although he's currently based in Paris, he was born in Nazareth to Palestinian parents. Many of his award-winning films have been set in the region, and have dealt with the conflict happening there. The Time That Remains is Suleiman's third feature film - the others have scooped up top awards at both Cannes and Venice - and won a Black Pearl at the Middle East International Film Festival. It was chosen as the opening film for the London Palestine Film Festival (LPFF), which kicked off on the last weekend of April. A well-attended annual event, the festival helps show the West that stories being told by and about Palestinians are thriving, even under the harsh conditions Suleiman describes.
The festival began in London in 1999, when 30 films were shown at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. Over the years it has grown into a fortnight-long bash, partly held at the imposing Barbican Centre, with visiting speakers flown in from around the world. It currently comprises more than 50 shorts, documentaries and features as well as a photography exhibition showing images of life in refugee camps and in the Gaza Strip.
Khaled Ziada, one of the LPFF's organisers, praises the diverse output of the region, pointing out that it's difficult for Palestinian filmmakers to produce work "for many reasons", including lack of freedom of movement and lack of equipment. "But if you look at the work and the outcome," he adds, "I think they're doing a great job." He cites high production values and an important message as two of the reasons why Suleiman's feature has been chosen for the festival's opening gala.
When asked if there's something that characterises Palestinian film, Ziada doesn't hesitate: "So far they only talk about Palestine. I'm looking forward to seeing films in the next couple of years talking about issues beyond Palestine, but you can see that for obvious reasons, Palestinian filmmakers are still trying to present [these issues to the public] as much as possible." Ahmad Habash's animated short Fatenah (billed as the first of its kind to come out of Palestine) is one example of the trend Ziada talks about. Over a half- hour period, it tells the true story of a woman living in the Gaza Strip who is forced to embark on a dangerous struggle when she diagnoses herself with breast cancer.
Funded by the World Health Organisation, the film highlights health issues affecting Palestinians in the occupied territories; it has been festooned with awards, and was screened as part of an all-dayer focusing on medical aid. Fatenah was followed by the seven-minute short No Way Through, which imagines the life of a Londoner whose city was subjected to the same sort of military rule that residents of the Occupied Territories endure; and also by the short documentary The Silent War: Israel's Blockade, which explores what the blockade means for the people of Gaza. The films were followed by a panel discussion hosted by Medical Aid for Palestinians, a British charity that offers medical services in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
Another highlight of the festival was a screening of Najwa Najjar's debut fictional feature Pomegranates and Myrrh, a film that has attracted almost as much controversy as acclaim in the director's homeland, provoking calls for her arrest. The film follows a free-spirited Palestinian dancer who marries a man imprisoned over a land dispute. She's torn between supporting him and carrying on with her life as a dancer, which is complicated when a smouldering new dance instructor comes into her life.
"The idea started during the second uprising, when we were locked in," the writer and director Najjar says about the film. "I started thinking about how you survive imprisonment, whether it's living in a conservative society which forces you to act in a certain way; whether it's being a prisoner of your own body, as a dancer; or whether it's living under occupation." Like Suleiman, she has talked about the frustrations of shooting in the Occupied Territories. "What you see on TV is the violence," she points out, "and that's there. But in addition to that is the arbitrariness. You can be waiting at a checkpoint for 10 hours, or you can pass immediately. You can have a very peaceful day or you can be confronted with two jeeps filled with soldiers. You need a tremendous amount of planning."
Checkpoints and restrictions on movement are topics addressed in more than one of the festival's films. Home, which will be screened at SOAS, focuses on the West Bank village of Beit Iksa, which lies between two Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and the separation wall, and is accessed via a checkpoint. It explores the situation from the perspective of both Palestinian villager and Israeli settler. Home will be followed a few days later by Welcome to Inspection Point, a documentary that looks first-hand at the day-to-day life of Palestinians forced to constantly deal with roadblocks, check points, surveillance towers and soldiers.
Other films in the programme zone in on specific groups of Palestinians who have more to deal with than restrictions on their freedom. Orphaned children and the lack of state-run facilities for them are the focus of Sahera Dirbas's documentary 138 Pounds in My Pocket, while Samer Salameh's 25 Thousand Tents Or More tells the story of the hundreds of Palestinian families who took refuge in Iraq after 1948, and who are currently stranded in a detention camp after the US invasion of the country in 2003.
Raising international awareness about these sorts of issues is one of the key reasons behind the film festival, according to Ziada, who grew up in Gaza and moved to London more than a decade ago. "It's very, very important to present these films to a wide audience," he says. "When we started the film festival, it was only attracting people concerned about Palestine, but we've noticed that, for the past three or four years we've been attracting audiences that don't just come because they are interested in the issue of Palestine, but they come to see different cinema, different views."
Many of the films make tough viewing, focusing on hardship and aggression. But, in the words of Suleiman, filmmaking itself is an expression of optimism. "One is making a film, which means that one has hope," he told London audiences last Saturday. "I'm beginning to suspect, in a very dark way, that hope might have something to do with genes and chemicals in the brain, rather than socio-political possibilities. However, I'm still here, talking to you, so there is hope."
The London Palestine Film Festival runs until Thursday.