A Community and Dialogue

Outside of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Remis Auditorium on a Wednesday evening, two Palestinian women chatter rapidly in Arabic. One is a filmmaker, the other a film festival organizer, and throughout their conversation the occasional English word pops up: “Film festival… Northeastern… to introduce art & music…so that’s where we are!” The last line brings a chuckle from the two raven-haired women, as they chatter between screenings in the otherwise quiet foyer.

Salma Abu Ayyash is a co-founder of the Boston Palestine Film Festival, volunteering since its inception in 2007. She wears jeans and a simple gray chemise and a gold charm hangs from her neck. Born in Jordan and educated in the United States, Ayyash smiles as she talks with Ibtisam Mara’ana, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and documentary film-maker. Mara’ana pulls her black barn jacket tighter around her thin frame. Currently touring her latest film, it’s Mara’ana’s first time in Boston and she shivers when told it’s supposed to snow by the weekend.

Together, the women are two voices of a Palestinian culture searching for a level-headed approach to engaging audiences with the narrative of their people, embodying a local, grass-roots movement, and a campaign for greater international awareness.

“We are always looking for meaningful collaborations and co-presentations with other cultural organizations that share the same goals and objectives of promoting the arts and specifically a Palestinian narrative that is often lacking in the mainstream media,” Ayyash says of the Boston Palestine Film Festival, one of a growing trend of Palestinian festivals in the United States. Through cultural groups and universities around Boston, the festival has found accessible support in co-presenting many of its films.

This year, Zeina Durra’s black comedy “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” stars Mexican actor Jose Maria de Tavira opposite his Palestinian lead, Elodie Bouchez. The film was co-presented with the Boston Latino International Film Festival, said Ayyash.

“Over the years we’ve had two films about LGBT issues in Palestine,” Ayyash says, “one took place in Ramallah, and that was co-presented with the Boston LGBT film festival.”

Now in its fifth year, BPFF has co-presented and co-sponsored films with Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, Boston College, student groups from Harvard Law, and various others organizations and businesses, including the Lenox Hotel and The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub.

Denis Sullivan, Director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University, expressed confidence in film festivals, as a medium, in gathering people together. The professor has films on every odd shelf in his office, from “The Hurt Locker” and “The Battle of Algiers,” to PBS documentaries.

“I think film is a progressive enterprise,” Sullivan says,  “Even if it’s a conservative message at times, I think the notion of having an impact on people through film is more of a liberal concept in the sense of a traditional, classical, liberal opening of the mind.”

Sullivan says that Boston’s cultural film festivals are successful in part because there is a healthy student population to attract. “We’re in Boston, [so] if you’re not working with universities, you’re crazy. Our students love these things.”

A self-professed ‘student of politics and peace processes,’ Sullivan added how film festival such as the BPFF serve to advance peaceful dialogue. “Progressive Israelis and maybe conservative Zionists who are interested in what’s going on, they might come, they might not. Sometimes it’s just the choir coming back together, you know, and they still need to be preached to. They need that energy. And I think that a lot of us who are progressive and interested in peace and dialogue; we too need our batteries recharged, our engines revved again. Because that’s what these things do.”

Guy Ben-Aharon, founder of Israeli Stage, a new Boston theatre company, took an interest in the Boston Palestine Film Festival as well.

“The more we have peaceful conversation here, the better,” the 21-year-old Emerson Student said after hearing of the festival.

Founded in 2011, Israeli Stage was created to add a different facet to conversation on Israel. “I was getting frustrated by the fact that people talk about Israel in a one dimensional sense. It always was political.” He says.

However Ben-Aharon acknowledges a separation in narratives. “No one ever asks the French to present Spanish work,” he says, adding that the question has been brought up before, “so I don’t see why people are asking us to present Palestinian work.”

With Israeli Stage’s emphasis on cultural definition, Ben-Aharon says, it is “out of respect for a Palestinian state,” that Palestinian work isn’t the main focus. “They’re trying to create a nationality, an identity. We will present all perspectives of Israeli society: Druz Israelis, Arab Israelis, Muslim Israelis, Christian Israelis, any ethnic type, but within the parameters of an Israeli identity.”

But what constitutes a national identity? Sitting next to Ayyash in the MFA, Ibtisam Mara’ana, 36, asks that question in her films. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, she says that her work is harder to screen in Egypt and other Arab countries because of her Israeli passport. “I am Palestinian,” she says, “but I come from Israel. So it’s not easy to screen my films in the Arab world.”

“I ask a lot of questions on identity; women’s identity, not just national identity, but women’s rights.” Mara’ana says. In a few minutes she will introduce “77 Steps,” a documentary co-presented with Women in Film and Video in New England, to an audience of 70.

“For the audience, from both sides, Jewish and Palestinian, it’s very hard for them to see the film,” Mara’ana says. “It’s complicated to see Israel in this moment, it’s a tough situation on both sides.”

The film documents her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, a “Jewish Zionist Canadian,” – he believes in a Jewish state, but is against the assaults on Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank – as well as her work with the Israeli political party, Meretz, prior to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Their relationship did not survive, and Mara’ana realizes that, despite Meretz’s more liberal agenda, the party does not encompass her identity as a Palestinian.

Mara’ana, an elegant 36-year-old woman, has had her work has been shown in festivals around the world, but she says Western audiences are harder to read. “They have a lot of respect, and are a polite audience. But you never know what they think about your work – they say ‘nice,’ and ‘good,’ and ‘thank you,’ but people are still quiet.” She says. “In Israeli or in Arab audiences, all the time, it’s very active – a lot of emotions, it could be very violent.”

Earlier in the week, “77 Steps” was shown at Boston College. “There was a young woman,” Mara’ana begins, “a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and after the film, she said, ‘Ibtisam, you are not scared that Arabs are going to kill you because of this film?’ I said that ‘I’m courageous, I’m not afraid, I’m always dealing with the taboo.’”

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