What Is Palestinian Cinema?

31 August 2022

By Saleem Albiek

Defining what constitutes “Palestinian Cinema” is even more problematic than usual. In the case of French cinema, say, the national filmmaking identity is loosely determined by whether the film is made within France, was made by French production companies abroad or contains French dialogue. Defining Palestinian Cinema, however, requires rather more forensic research, for the answer is both limiting and limited.

But even before we begin to clarify the elements of what we might call Palestinian film, an opinion that is up for discussion, we need to look at the “open” nature of Palestinian identity itself and all the problems associated with determining that. In doing so, I will ask “what” rather than “who” is Palestinian? The complication here, of course, is the absence of a universally recognized Palestinian State or a Palestinian “Nation state” or any sense of national sovereignty. There is no political reference point any more for what is and who’s Palestinian, just as there is no international consensus concerning the borders of the territories known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This absence is concurrent with the formation of the contemporary Palestinian identity after the Nakba (the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that is used to describe the destruction of Palestinian society and homeland in 1948, and the permanent displacement of a majority of Palestinians). From that moment on, Palestinians were cut off from a modern first identity that was present in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Had the Palestinians overcome the Nakba, and Israel not existed, chances are Palestine would have evolved along similar lines to its immediate neighbors - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt - for each of them is a nation state and homeland.

Instead, since 1948, Palestinians have been divided into refugees and survivors. The homeland was divided by initial Israel’s occupation in the Nakba and then completely occupied in 1967. The situation has lasted to this day, with Israel’s total sovereignty over all of Palestine and its indigenous people.

Today’s contemporary national Palestinian identity was forged under the new social state in which the Palestinian found themselves after the Nakba. This state began with the trauma years of the 1950s and then took a different turn in late 1960s with the proclamation of the Palestinian Revolution with its goal of liberating Palestinian territory and returning refugees to their homes. A new Palestinian identity emerged with an unlimited sense of belonging that surpassed the original Palestinian Revolution to encompass a pan-Arab identity that accommodates all Palestinians who live across the globe.


This expansionist view was reflected in the cinema of that time. That is what Palestinian director, Mustafa Abu Ali, expressed several times: that belonging to Palestinian Cinema is an intellectual concept that is centred on a sense of struggling for the Palestinian cause. Palestinian films are therefore those that express the goals of the Palestinian Revolution regardless of the national identity of their respective filmmakers.


This border-less identity was reflected in the financing of those films. Revolution films made from 1969 until the dissolution of the Revolution in 1982 were as supported by Arab crowd-funding initiatives as they were by Palestinian ones. The films by Lebanese director Christian Ghazi, RESISTANCE, WHY (1970) and HUNDRED FACES FOR A SINGLE DAY (1971), and those by compatriot Rafik Hajjar REFILES UNITED (1973) and MAY… THE PALESTINIANS (1974), were absolutely examples of Palestinian Revolution cinema despite the nationalities of the filmmakers. This is also true of the film by Iraqi director Kaseem Hawal, GHASSAN KANAFANI.. THE WORD REFILE (1973) and the fiction films THE DUPES (1972) film by Egypt’s Twafik Saleh and KAFR KASEM by Lebanon’s Borhane Alaouié (1974).


International films that were made in solidarity with the Palestinian cause could also be included in this context. There have been Italian, German and Japanese examples but the most notable here is HERE AND ELSEWHERE by French icon Jean-Luc Godard (1976). Their inclusion here is to list these films made by non-Palestinians as belonging to the cinema of the Palestinian Revolution, but to make the argument that “Palestinian Cinema” transcends Palestinian nationality since it is neither defined by a filmmaker’s passport nor bounded by their geographical origins. If the Palestinian Revolution was at the core of Palestinian belonging 65 years ago, the nature of this belonging has now extended to be a political cause with international dimensions that has carried over into the new Millennium on the back of armed crises and the forces of globalization.

Unlike other countries striving for independent statehood, a post-revolution Palestinian state has never been manifested. This separates Palestinian cinema from that of countries like Algeria and Cuba, where we have seen the establishment of national cinema and cinema institutions. As a result, belonging to Palestine is still today a choice to belong to a non-national cause that reflects the only western classical era example of colonialism remaining in the world.

The form and content of Palestinian cinema changed from within Palestine in the early 1980s post the revolution. A new generation of Palestinian filmmakers have emerged, among them Michel Khleifi, with WEDDING IN GALILEE (1987), Rashid Masharawi with CURFEW (1994) and Elia Suleiman with CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPERANCE (1996). Their films have received funding from a wide range of international sources including backers from Belgium, France, the U.S. and the U.K, and others. While it has been said here that Palestinians are finally making their own films now, this is a misconception of what Palestinian Cinema means; as explained above, being Palestinian is neither a function of the director’s national passport nor his moral identity. A Palestinian film, it can be argued, is one that belongs to a higher cause, a cause that used to be a revolution.

Post 2000, the number of Palestine-originated films have increased significantly. After the second intifada uprising, the West Bank specifically became the preferred initial shooting location for Palestinians, as well as for foreigners and people in solidarity, with ideal contextual setting: barricades, jeeps, soldiers and the wall, all of which confined or centered the essence of what we think of as Palestinian Cinema. The most prominent examples were: DIVINE INTERVENTION (2002) by Elia Suleiman; PARADISE NOW (2005) by Hany Abu-Assad; SALT OF THIS SEA (2008) by Annemarie Jacir and POMEGRANATES AND MYRRH by (2008) by Najwa Najjar. Not all were shot in the West Bank. Both Suleiman headed to Nazareth and Jacir headed to Jaffa in their films. And cities across Palestine were a constant presence in the THE TIME THAT REMAINS (2009) by Elia Suleiman and ZINDEEQ (2009) by Michel Khleifi, all of them made with multiple European and foreign funds, as well as the involvement of international technical teams.

All these contributing factors gave the Palestinian films made after 2000 their Palestinian quality. Even though the volume of films increased and the funding sources diversified, the resulting films often revolved around similar stories and characters, all against the backdrop of recurrent locations. It became a popular belief that Palestinian Cinema is what is made by Palestinians, a narrow definition made even more limiting by confining those stories to those told inside Palestine, in the occupied territories in 1948 or 1967. Such a closed view ignores the fact Elia Suleiman’s films, for example, broke those geographical boundaries through the main character’s constant mobility inside and outside the country. Even if the main location of his film IT MUST BE HEAVEN (2019) is Nazareth, equal time was granted to Paris and New York and the Palestinian exiled state. In fact, the otherwise near absence of the Palestinians diaspora remains a feature of films made during this new century.

In 2004, however, came along a film that brought back the original meaning of Palestinian cinema, reclaiming its roots as a Pan-Arab identity. THE GATE OF SUN (BAB EL SHAMS) a screen adaptation by Egypt's Yousry Nasrallah of the eponymous novel by Lebanon’s Elias Khoury, was made with comprehensive Arab funding, production and casting. It’s nonetheless a pure Palestinian film, one that helped regain the more expansive meaning of what it means to belong to Palestinian Cinema in the wake of the Revolution. For this reason, THE GATE OF THE SUN is central to debate about “what is Palestine cinema?”

Also important in this discussion is Palestinian documentary cinema. Non-fiction films have exhibited far greater diversity in terms of Palestinian themes, potential and contexts than their fiction peers fiction. Palestinian documentaries are broadly defined in terms of time and space, rather than narrowly confined to the Palestinian territories and its makers. The refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are one example of this wider geographical scope. THE SHEBABS OF YARMOUK (2013), by Axel Salvatori-Sinz is as Palestinian as any of the above-mentioned fiction films despite the fact that is made by an Italian and is about a Palestinian camp in the Syrian city of Damascus.

All of which is why the answer “what is the Palestinian cinema?” requires a much broader view and an openness to the pan-Arab dimensions of Palestinian Revolution and the Palestinian cause today. Palestinian Cinema means films belonging to the Palestinian idea (according to Edward Said), and its struggle belongs to the Revolution (according to Mustafa Abu Ali). It involves solidarity with today’s Palestinian predicament and with the humanitarian and universal dimensions that grew out of the Palestinian Cinema in the 1970s. For this reason, Palestinian cinema identity is more than just a political or cultural signifier, as it might be with all other countries; it is an acquired concept and a choice to be identified with a cause of justice that transcends boundaries. It is border-less in more ways than one.

About Saleem Albiek:

Palestinian is a film critic, novelist, and cultural editor who lives in Paris. He has published six books, the latest being the novels Cock’s Eye (Hachette Antoine/Naufal, 2022), Scenario (Al Ahlia, 2019), and Two Tickets To Saforiyah (Al Saqi, 2017). He writes weekly film criticism pieces in Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, is an editor at the Romman cultural magazine, and produces and presents a cultural bulletin on Monte Carlo Doualiya radio. He’s currently working on more than one book on Palestinian cinema. He’s among the core team responsible for programming Palestine Cinema Days festival and works independently for several festivals and cultural institutions.


Photo Credits to Lina Khalid