Enriching cultural dialogue with Chicago Palestine Film Festival

This year, I programmed films for the Chicago Palestine Film Festival (CPFF). People are often surprised to hear that the festival is in its 23rd year as it’s not often you hear talk about Palestinian films. 

Palestinian cinema, often overlooked, ranks among the most remarkable and underappreciated national film industries.

Operating independently of Hollywood‘s influence, filmmakers from both occupied territories and the diaspora authentically depict the Palestinian experience.

Each year, the festival showcases a wealth of outstanding films in Chicago, hosting Palestinian filmmakers and enriching cultural dialogue.

Our entire committee is proud to be doing this work: the CPFF is the world’s longest-running Palestinian film festival, and this past year was the most successful yet.

The opening night sold out in just three hours, and soon after, the entire festival followed suit. To meet the high demand, we quickly added encore screenings, which also sold out promptly.

The festival attracted over 2,000 attendees in total, and we partnered with Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in Chicago to screen films at the University of Chicago and DePaul University. Nonetheless, it’s sobering to reflect on why the festival did so well this year.

With all eyes on Gaza, what is the use of film during a genocide?

It’s not an easy question to ask, and certainly not an easy one to answer.

The typical response is that art helps to humanise. Art brings the human condition into focus, and especially when watching a film, there is an aspect of letting go — one must be willing to let the film take them on a journey for two hours, more or less.

Therein lies the emotive power of a film, but I don’t think the value of Palestinian film is that it humanises the people of Palestine.

In that capacity, film becomes didactic rather than a vehicle of expression. The evil that bears down on Gaza knows that Palestinians are human yet continues. It’s a minority of viewers who come to our festival and have their hearts changed.

No, the value of Palestinian film is multifaceted. It has power in its ability to express an unexpressed part of the Palestinian condition. To this point, one of the most well-received films from this year’s line-up was Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher, starring the inimitable Saleh Bakri.

In the film, Bakri’s character works as a school teacher and undercover member of the Palestinian resistance, torn between these commitments and his father-like role to one of his students.

The film explores themes of fatherhood, chosen family, moving forward, and living in the past.

It’s an incredible work firmly rooted in the Palestinian context, but its thematic explorations remain legible and accessible to a wide audience — everyone can relate to the struggle of being haunted by past mistakes and sins, and everyone can understand the difficulties of trying to break generational curses and cycles.

Another fan favourite from this year was Resistance Climbing, a documentary about the rock climbing community in the West Bank. It’s a joyous, hilarious, and at times sad movie that captures a sense of the Palestinian joie de vivre in light of the occupation.

Film programmers and curators have a responsibility to present a comprehensive portrayal of Palestine and the Palestinian experience.

While it’s crucial to feature films documenting the atrocities of the occupation and ongoing genocide, exclusively showcasing these narratives reduces Palestine to a stereotype.

I particularly appreciate when we have the opportunity to screen films that explore diverse themes. For example, Julia Freij’s Jamila follows a second-generation Palestinian-American teenager experiencing Palestine for the first time and grappling with beauty standards.

Similarly, Nick Leffel’s Dakhla, set in Latin America, portrays an unnamed protagonist searching for a sense of belonging. These films tell deeply personal stories.

Engaging with the audience after these screenings is incredibly rewarding. It’s inspiring to hear how much these films resonate with viewers, many of whom express that they’ve never seen stories like these on the big screen before.

For many Palestinians who attend and work with the festival, the mere existence of our festival is important.

“Like every outlet of expression, film is another opportunity for us as Palestinians to share our stories not only with a broader audience but with one another,” says Noor Hassan, a member of the CPFF committee and a Palestinian-American.

“Film is not inherently revolutionary or different from any means of expression at our disposal. But it is a tool at our disposal that, if used effectively, directly combats the erasure of our historic past, our current present, and our potential future.”

This year, the CPFF took place concurrently with the start of student movements across the nation protesting university investments in weapons manufacturers and companies supporting the occupation.

It was a singular moment, to be so entrenched in a community of Palestinians and Palestinian activists.

There is a saying in activist circles: “Joy is resistance.” It is not just any joy, but specifically shared, communal joy that constitutes resistance.

In this joy lies the recognition that we will continue to be loud and undeterred, despite it all.

Herein lies the second function of the CPFF: Community is self-care. Community is an endless spring of renewal, conviction, and hope. Simply bearing witness to the genocide wears us down with no hope of change or action.

Doing so alone is untenable. But the simple act of being in the movie theatre, knowing that in our silence we are all here with one heart, means everything.

The festival focuses on bringing Palestinian artists and creatives — not just filmmakers — to the forefront: graphic designers, poets, musicians, and more. It is a celebration of Palestinian art in all its forms, above all else.

It is almost unusual, but my soul has felt so light over these past few weeks, knowing that I was and am in a community united in a singular vision for the world.

In Arabic, we often say, “With blood and soul, we redeem you O Palestine.”

This work, if nothing else, is our very blood and soul.

George Iskander is a Ph.D. candidate in physics as well as a cinephile and writer

Follow him on Twitter: @jerseyphysicist

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