DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival comes to life on screen, on stage

WASHINGTON — Through oral storytelling and other live performances, this annual D.C. film and arts festival pushes beyond the screen to immerse audiences in varied and complex perspectives.

“That’s something with the festivals: We’re always trying to push a different boundary. What’s an art form we haven’t shown before?” said Michael Kamel, curator of the D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival, which runs Thursday, Oct. 5 to Sunday, Oct. 8.

Last year, the festival featured a “portal” to Gaza, which virtually connected creatives in Gaza to their counterparts in D.C., resulting in boundary-breaking live jam sessions and cross-cultural conversations. This year, local Palestinian storytellers and a dance performance bring these highly personal anecdotes to life.

The program also features Palestinian-American filmmaker and TV producer Cherien Dabis as its Spotlight Artist. Dabis has worked on TV shows “The L Word,” “Empire” and “Quantico,” and her 2009 film “Amreeka,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, will also be screened.

“We want to create a space to showcase Palestinian artists — really spotlighting the range and complexity of Palestinian identities and narratives,” said Nusayba Hammad, the festival’s managing director.

She added, “We do go beyond film.”

The festival, which is in its seventh year, was founded by three women who “were brought together by a shared love of Palestine, and the arts, and the desire to create a space for Palestinian artists to create and show their work outside of the box of a politicized identity,” Hammad said.

“Our festival really emphasizes Palestinian subjectivity: letting Palestinians speak for themselves and tell their stories and let their voices be heard,” Kamel added.

Along with diverse stories, the festival also attracts a diverse audience, Hammad said. “We’re always seeing new people come to the festival, which is great. We have everybody, from people who have supported us since 2011, to people who walk in off the street because they see our signs and are like, ‘Wow, this is cool. I want to come.’”

“We’re really trying to become a solid part of the D.C. arts community,” she said.

There’s no need to study up on Palestine beforehand, Hammad assured. “Because we’re not a film festival about Palestine, you don’t need to come in with any background knowledge of the politics or history or anything like that.”

She added, “For instance, if there is something that deals very specifically with Palestine, we usually try to contextualize it and give some background in the form of panel discussions afterward, either by the filmmakers or experts.”

The festival’s overarching themes for this year explore trauma and memory in some way. From the opening film “Ghost Hunting” to a closing performance of dabke, a traditional folk dance, this year’s themes are woven throughout the festival in creative ways.

“I think that art and film and creating is a form of resistance in itself often, because if you’re a Palestinian and you’re creating a film, or you’re creating art, or anything at all — even if that has nothing to do with Palestine, it’s a testament to your humanity and your right to live and thrive,” Hammad said.

“I think that’s what we really try to get across with the festival.”

So, for those interested in attending the festival, Kamel has this piece of advice: “Go in with an open mind.”

He hopes people can “walk away with a different perspective,” adding, “It can be very emotional. But it’s important to hear Palestinian voices.”

Here’s how the D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival runs this year:

Thursday, Oct. 5

The opening film, “Ghost Hunting” (2017), dropped into Kamel’s radar even before festival submissions opened.

“I had heard about ‘Ghost Hunting’ back in February when it premiered at Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival] and I thought it seemed like a really interesting film with a unique take on the issue of political prisoners and what it means to approach this subject. It was a really powerful film. We thought it raised a lot of intrigue and questions,” he said.

“Ghost Hunting” follows a re-enactment by former Palestinian prisoners of their time in an Israeli detention center. The film won the main documentary prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

“We felt that it gave agency to the political prisoners by having them recreate their traumas and kind of tell the world, ‘This is how it was for me, even though I was blindfolded half the time.’ I think there’s a sense of power in that, and agency,” Kamel said.

“It’s definitely heavy, but we think it’s a necessary conversation and it’s a necessary film,” Kamel added.

“Ghost Hunting” will be screened at 7:30 p.m. at Landmark Theatres E Street Cinema. A discussion on political prisoners follows the showing.

Friday, Oct. 6

The rest of the festival’s screenings and performances will take place in D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood at Studio Theatre.

There, “Palestinians, Live!” takes the stage in partnership with Palestinians Podcast. The live storytelling event is something Hammad is looking forward to, and although she wouldn’t reveal the personal stories being told, she said, “People are gonna laugh, cry, cringe.”

“The art of storytelling is very special to the Palestinian people. It’s a way to preserve our culture and our heritage,” Hammad added.

The performance starts 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 7

The third day is filled with screenings and is blocked in three parts: Trauma in Time, which looks at displacement and memory, Framing Palestine, and the Spotlight Artist.

Coffee for All Nations trailer from Wafa Jamil on Vimeo.

The day starts with Trauma in Time at 1 p.m. The U.S. premiere of “Coffee for All Nations” tracks the story of one Palestinian man’s quest to reclaim land that his family had been forced off by the Israeli army and opens a coffee shop. The accompanying short films include “Your Father was Born 100 Years Old, and So Was the Nakba” and “Gaza: A Gaping Wound.”

At 3:30 p.m., Framing Palestine explores how Palestinians are produced on and off screen: feature film “Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory” (2016) is a historical look at Palestinian filmmaking, short film “Reporter Suspended” follows the story of an aspiring reporter who is 12 years old, and short film “Villagers” centers a story along the separation wall.

Ending the day is Spotlight Artist Cherien Dabis, a Hollywood veteran, and a screening of her earlier work, “Amreeka” (2009), at 4 p.m. Her talk begins at 7 p.m.

“She’s going to be talking about navigating different identities in Hollywood,” Hammad said. As a Palestinian-American woman in a male-dominated industry, Hammad called her a “trailblazer in so many ways.”

Kamel also couldn’t wait for Dabis’ appearance. “It’s a critical perspective. I think for Palestinian artists and other artists of color, sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine ourselves in those mainstream areas, if that’s what we want to go on.”

“So just being able to talk to somebody and hear from her, what her experiences are, and how she does both the mainstream and the independent, I think that that’s going to be a really great program, talk,” he added.

Sunday, Oct. 8

”People are really going to learn about Palestinian music,” Kamel said about Sunday’s events, grouped under the heading The Beat Goes On, which starts at 12 p.m.

The feature, “A Magical Substance Flows Into Me,” and short films “From Beneath the Earth” and “The Embroidery,” look at music production in Palestine, past and present.

From Beneath the Earth — من تحت الأرض from Mideast Tunes on Vimeo.

Hammad buzzed with excitement about Sunday’s program because of her interest in Palestine’s independent music scene showcased in the world premiere of “From Beneath the Earth,” saying, “That film really highlights Palestinian creativity, ingenuity and talent, and it doesn’t shy away from the political.”

The festival closes with a dance performance and experimental film screening from Dabke Is Life, a Chicago-based pair that performs “traditional Palestinian dance in a way to disrupt public spaces,” Hammad said.

And Kamel added, “It’s gonna be a fun day.”

Tickets are $12 for regular admission and $10 for students/seniors. Festival passes are $75. For more information on ticketing, visit DCPFAF’s website

Teta Alim

Teta Alim is a Digital Editor at WTOP. Teta's interest in journalism started in music and moved to digital media.

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