Palestine Square recently sat down with Nehad Khader and Michael Kamel, co-chairs of the 5th annual DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival’s programming committee. The festival opens tomorrow (October 1st) with the DC premiere of the highly praised animated-documentary about a Palestinian village’s exemplary resistance to Israeli occupation, The Wanted 18.
Nehad is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and has been involved with the festival since its first year, and Michael majors in film studies at George Mason University. Michael first got involved with the festival back in 2013 as a volunteer while Nehad was invited to join the festival by one of the three co-founders, and friend, Noura Erakat, a prominent scholar and advocate for Palestinian rights in the DC area.
Along with a viewing committee of 10 artists, scholars and activists, Nehad and Michael organized the festival’s diverse programs. Setting up a festival is no easy day’s work for Nehad and Michael who maintain a full-time job and a full semester of classes, respectively, and receive no pay for their efforts. It’s a labor of love inspired by a sense of commitment to the larger Palestinian community around the world.
Months prior to the festival’s opening day, Nehad and Michael are already surveying premiers at other festivals from around the world and appraising films for their originality, audiences’ reception, and the messages they relate. There is no greater interest in political drama, but films that convey the lived reality of Palestinians. And not just those in the occupied territories, but Palestinians in the diaspora as well. This year, for instance, the festival features a film by Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker Mauricio Misle, who recounts his family’s history in Palestine and a particularly brutal moment of Israeli occupation.
Controversy also brings in the crowds. Suha Arraf, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was publicly rebuked by the Israel Film Fund after categorizing her film Villa Touma as “Palestinian” at the Venice film festival. The fund demanded that Arraf brand her film – about a Palestinian family in Ramallah, West Bank/Palestine – as “Israeli” or return the grant provided by Israel’s state-funded film foundation. Arraf declared her right to categorize her own film as she pleases, refused to return the funds (nor was she legally obligated to), and ended up declaring her film stateless. The Israel Film Fund, along with another state-backed foundation, then formalized a new policy of conditioning grants on the filmmaker’s agreement to label their films as “Israeli.”
After Nehad and Michael chose between 20 and 30 films, they watched them alongside the committee, and eventually narrowed them down to 10 films. The full list of films may be seen at DCPFAF’s program guide.
Beyond films, the festival will feature a Book Talk with Suad Amiry, an architect and author of Golda Slept Here. On Saturday night (October 3rd) the festival will play host to a solo oud performance by Rahim AlHaj from Iraq followed by a 7 piece ensemble conducted by Wanees Zaarour from Palestine by way of Chicago. Gazan Photojournalist Eman Mohammed will present her haunting photography during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
“We wanted a festival that focuses on film, but a Palestinian photographer is going to have a totally different story than a director, and a director is going to have a different perspective from a poet,” Nehad relates in explaining the festival’s collective program that mixes live talks and events with cinematic features.
The festival is still young, but has quickly become part of the cultural landscape in Washington. The festival was launched five years ago, after a trial run showcasing a few Palestinian films attracted great interest. Last year, DCPFAF sold out all but two events and this year promises to be even more popular. Due to popular demand, organizers scheduled two screenings of The Wanted 18. The opening night screening has sold out online, but tickets are still available at the door and for the second screening on October 3rd.
And the festival has benefited from a lot of local support as well. Not only individuals donations and organization sponsors (including the Institute for Palestine Studies), but also local companies. Famous restaurant and coffee shop Bus Boys and Poets has long provided food and space for the events.
Looking toward the future, Nehad and Michael hope to expand the festivals’ program to a year-round calendar. The actual festival will always be a weekend affair, but they hope to host special events throughout the year. DCPFAF’s committee also hopes to continue to build relationships with artists in historic Palestine and the diaspora, and to provide an ever brighter spotlight for Palestinian stories.
DCPFAF opens on October 1st and closes on Sunday, October 4th. Check out DCPFAF’s website for full schedule of events.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.