Portraying Palestine

Palestine Film Festival
Courtesy of Boston Palestine Film Festival

On a sidewalk in Palestine, a withered old man hunches over a pack of matches, striking and re-striking them but never able to produce a flame. His kerosene-drenched pajamas clinging to his limbs, he asks, “What’s the point? Live or die, it’s all the same.” Expressionless, a neighbor steps forward and silently takes the matches out of the man’s hand, helping him to hobble back inside: for him, an oft-repeated routine.

This scene, played out in Elia Suleiman’s cinematic memoir, “The Time That Remains,” reveals the senseless reality of living and dying under occupation, and gives voice to the nuances of the Palestinian experience. The theme of absurdity and desperation was a common one in this year’s Boston Palestine Film Festival, which showcased Palestinian documentaries, narratives, short films, and visual art. It took place from Oct. 21 to 30 in locations as varied as the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Law School.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is regularly covered in the popular media, the stories presented are often incomplete snapshots. “Chaotic pictures are not enough,” said Samir Abdallah, who directed “Gaza-strophe,” a documentary about Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip in the days after the so-called cease-fire in 2009. “You have to have a narrative.”

In the film, his camera scans the landscape of Gaza, capturing missile strikes disconcertingly similar in appearance to firework shows on the Fourth of July, and entering shanty towns constructed of debris and fraying white tarps. The film penetrates a landscape untouched by most Western media. “It is a complete siege: by photos, by film, by audio,” Abdallah said.

While films alone cannot solve a conflict or change a history, they can inspire discussion. “I have a chance to reach people with this film and to make them think differently,” explained Gabriella Bier, director of “Love During Wartime,” another documentary shown at the festival. Any intervention “has to start with something that’s close to you, like music or art.” From this creative expression arises the opportunity to represent an experience and, perhaps, to incite change.

“The communication is not only through direct argumentation, but also through cultural, artistic, and aesthetic representations,” said Nimer Sultany, a Palestinian and Harvard Law School student who was involved in organizing the festival. “It’s one step down the road to a more rational discussion.”