When I was 13 a cultural center in my hometown of Nazareth organized a week’s festival of Palestinian films. This might sound very clichéd, but it was the first time I saw “us” on screen, the first time I felt that we can be heroes in our own stories. Until then our only Arabic-speaking cinematic heroes came from Egypt, but now, everything changed. From that moment I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker/storyteller - before I even knew what a screenwriter or film director meant.
My first film job was in 2000 on Elia Suleiman’s DIVINE INTERVENTION. I still remember my first day on the job. I was tasked with holding the traffic of angry parents trying to get their kids to school in the morning. I later assisted in every department on that film where I just absorbed as much as I could. Back then it was only a small handful of internationally recognised Palestinian directors actively making films, with one film coming out every two years or so. As access to the internet, training and the digital technologies took off, we got to see more homegrown talent emerging, and less reliant on others to tell our stories. What’s most exciting is that within 15 years, we now see multiple Palestinian features and dozens of shorts of various genres released every year, reaching a worldwide audience. I find that so satisfying when we can defy the agendas set upon us of what a Palestinian film “should be” and “can be.”
I remember when showing my short film AVE MARIA in 2015 at festivals in Europe, two old ladies up to me and tells me “we never knew Muslim nuns existed.” After rolling my eyes so far back in my head, I politely provided a very quick anthropology and history lesson on the diversity of our people. They walked away having learned something new and saw something that they don’t get to see on their media. That’s where I got to see for myself the effectiveness of our work. It’s these small moments that chip away at the distorted images we’ve been painted with over the decades.
We come from a rich but fragmented population that's scattered all over the world. Every filmmaker with Palestinian roots has a different life experience and story to tell. This gives us a unique edge and richness among other filmmakers. It is most important that we are allowed to be ourselves and exist on screen unapologetically, warts and all, without having to justify our presence. But we also have the responsibility to embrace every aspect of our craft. From having the privilege to make mistakes and learn, to exploring topics that launch debates to better our society, as well as providing entertainment.
Our future looks very promising, and I can see Palestinian filmmakers taking advantage of our gifts to tell stories beyond Palestine. Using our collective values of dignity, steadfastness and the pursuit of equality we can tell truly universal stories on a global scale.
Basil Khalil is an Academy Award and Palme d’Or nominated writer and director of Palestinian-British-Irish heritage. He is known for his Oscar-nominated short film AVE MARIA (2015), and most recently his debut feature A GAZA WEEKEND, which will premier at Toronto International Film Festival 2022.