It is concerningly inevitable for the shorts in the Palestinian Film Festival to relate to the political and cultural conflicts affecting Palestine, Israel and the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the artists behind them appear to feel the same way. The struggles bared so admirably here are less to come to grips with any kind of national zeitgeist and more to leave it behind and find their own identities. This makes for a fresh set of works that aren’t divorced from the particular climate they were made in, but are also so effective as to be positively experienced on their own merits beyond vital global context.
Most plainly demonstrating this angle is the documentary anthology Beyond Blue and Gray, which spends its 45 minutes tracing a group of artists’ journeys to find identities free of nationalist pressure. The film begins with segments from Palestine and Israel, detailing the respective anxieties of creative lives in each, before they collude on a project where wooden boxes are painted and designed to house photos of human beings from different regions – a literal down-scoping of thorny geo-politics to mere humans and their environments. Co-directors Jessica Habie and Nirah Shiazipour do a more than capable job of painting their post-nationalist anxieties across the segments, neatly dividing the chapters as to portion out the subjects tackled and create a nice progression of their spiritual journeys out from the shadows of their circumstances.
The fictional shorts in the programme meanwhile, are often based in the recognisably domestic situations that war has disrupted, and in different senses. The two directed by brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser go for this in a palatable, narrative-driven form. First of these and most firmly in that mould is Condom Lead, which is geared around a single visual conceit that would be humorous if not for the bleak scenario and aesthetic it is coupled with. A couple and their baby remain living together in Gaza, but their familial stability is degraded by the missile fire that jolts them apart in their most intimate moments, and soon learn that their experience is not uncommon.1 The second, Apartment 10/14, skews more sobering, tackling the diffusing effect of the news media that documents the rumblings outside. It proves to be the new status quo for the male tenant, who dreams of a tranquil married life from what little is relayed to him by a mysterious elderly messenger walking the murmuring streets.
The third fiction short, Omar Robert Hamilton’s Though I Know the River Is Dry, has a more dynamic form through a combination of archival footage, wanderings of a man back from a protective Western community and memories of the family he left behind. The abundant modes of communication can make a plot-line hard to follow, but its weaving through stark audiovisual signifiers creates a sobering hybrid between the multi-modal trickery of Oliver Stone and the meditative openness of Terrence Malick. This and the Nasser brothers’ work share a palpable tone of yearning, perhaps for normalcy but with an awareness that such a concept may be fallacious and out of their reach.
The best short of the programme, however, would be Mahdi Fleifel’s Xenos, the confronting documentary about Palestinian migrants stuck in Greece. Fleifel structures the film around a candid phone call to his friend Abu, who stunningly describes his daily routines of stealing, taking drugs and prostituting himself, just to live hand to mouth in a country facing economic peril. Even as the subject describes his reprehensible actions, his constant presence in the narration and footage shot on location makes it engrossing and sympathetic, not to mention infuriating with the thought that this was how his escape efforts were rewarded. This rounds out the shorts programme as an incisive portrayal of the hardships of the Palestinian, Gazan and Israeli populations, which block them from the seemingly basic stablility and rights that festival attendees enjoy.