ONE CINEMA TOWN
BY R. BENEDITO FERRÃO
I ask about the fading film posters on the wall: one from Mardon Wali Baat (1988) and the other from Aag Hi Aag (1987), surprised to see these Bollywood artefacts so far away from their origins. Rania Elias, director of the Yabous Cultural Centre tells me that they are remnants from more than 25 years ago, and coincide with the closure of Al Quds Cinema, which only reopened at Yabous in 2012. It is the only cinema in Occupied Palestine’s East Jerusalem.
I tried to imagine what it meant for a community not to have a cinema for 25 years, films being so integral to
public culture, the material of everyday conversations, a medium that ignites the imagination.
“Built in the 1950s, the popular East Jerusalem cinema once held up to 800 persons and screened commercial films from the region and around the world until the Israeli authorities closed it in 1987, at the start of the first Palestinian intifada,”The Electronic Intifada (20 February 2012) chronicles.
Though, for the intervening years between Al Quds’ closure and reopening there may have been no public space where films made by Palestinians could be viewed within a community setting, cinema about and by Palestinians demonstrates a variety of forms and themes.
At IFFI, this year, Elia Suleiman’s It Must be Heaven follows the journey of a man who leaves his homeland to
seek opportunities elsewhere. Exile is a recurrent subject in Palestinian cinema, as is occupation. In Degradé (2015), twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser direct a story about thirteen Palestinian women trapped in a beauty salon in Gaza.
Like East Jerusalem, Gaza too was sans community cinema for decades, meaning that the Nasser brothers, who are from there, would have grown up without it. It wasn’t till 2017 that Gazans could watch a film in a cinema for the first time in the 21st century.
Palestinian filmmakers exercise their art under trying circumstances. The Israel-born Palestinian director of Paradise Now (2005), Hany Abu-Assad, “was reportedly threatened by both sides in the conflict,” Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film, curiously adding that “the film is dangerous because of its objectivity…”
Palestinian American director Alia Yunis’ documentary The Golden Harvest tracks the cultural legacy of olive oil. Though the documentary takes one through Italy, Greece, Spain, and Israel, its heart is in Palestine. In an interview with The National (7 April 2019), she muses, “My dad was born in Palestine and so was olive oil.” Attribute to her father’s memory, the film is also about olive trees as markers of Palestinian heritage, especially in contested lands.
Yunis remarks, “The olive tree is exceptional … and ultimately, for the owners of the trees, proof of existence
… But all plants connect us to the ground beneath us, and understanding that gives us roots to grow, too.”
A similar thought occurs to me about cinema, which is a site of representation and collective memory. Al Quds Cinema in East Jerusalem may be the only one at the moment, but it is more than just one of a kind.
Illustration by Fabian Gonsalves. You can follow his work on instagram.com/fabskribbler
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 7 (2019) here