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‘Film Was the Best Way to Convey Our Art Amid the Suffering in Gaza’

ActivismActivism‘Film Was the Best Way to Convey Our Art Amid the Suffering in Gaza’

A still from the short film ‘Sorry Cinema’ by Ahmed Hassouna, part of a film project produced by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi.
(Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi)

Shunned by the Cannes Festival, Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi organized a protest screening of short films made by Gazans during the war.

2 Jul 2024 – Gaza was defiantly present at the 77th Cannes Film Festival in May, despite efforts by the event’s organizers to prevent it from appearing.

Politics has long been a staple at Cannes, the premier film festival in the world, both on and off screen. Initially, this rich tradition seemed to be followed this year as well: Rashid Masharawi, the renowned Palestinian director, submitted his most recent project to the festival, titled “From Ground Zero,” a collection of 22 short features and documentaries made by Palestinian filmmakers in Gaza since the start of the current war. Ground Zero was accepted by the festival — but Masharawi was then informed that the collection ultimately would not be screened.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Cannes organizers expressed their desire to keep politics out of this year’s festivities. The chief organizer of Cannes, Thierry Frémaux, said that it would be “a festival without polemics” — a sentiment that Masharawi saw as singling out Gaza for disinvitation.

And so, Masharawi decided to organize a separate protest screening. Just outside the festival grounds, Masharawi put up a tent, and, wearing a suit with a necktie made of the Palestinian keffiyeh, he screened Ground Zero.

“I will not allow the festival to decide that we do not exist, and to exclude our voices,” Masharawi told +972. “So with many supporters and friends, I decided to force them to see us and hear us.”

In the project, he explained, “We gave filmmakers an opportunity to show their work and inform the world of stories from Gaza,” he said. “The films are very diverse. We let the directors make their films themselves, and some of them narrate their own experience because they are in the events. They are the event itself.”

Palestinian film director Rashid Masharawi at the screening of 'Ground Zero,' outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi) 

Palestinian film director Rashid Masharawi at the screening of ‘Ground Zero,’ outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi)

Masharawi’s protest screening was very consciously designed. The tent in which the films were shown is a reference to the tents in which hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have been forced to live since the start of the Gaza war. A Palestinian flag adorned the entrance to the tent — which, Masharawi said, the police tried to remove. Many supporters of the project also came wearing keffiyehs. Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, many of the project’s filmmakers and films’ characters prepared their own keffiyeh neckties and wore them during the tent screening in Cannes.

Wissam Moussa, a film producer and director from Deir al-Balah, participated in Ground Zero with his film “Farah.” “It discusses the reality of life in war from the point of view of children,” he said, “Farah [the main character] is 11 years old and has lost 75 members of her family. The film moves between stories of her daily life during the war. The girl has a strong, cheerful personality and loves life, and the film explores joy, sadness, fear, and anxiety.”

Moussa, like Masharawi, sees film as a crucial medium for sharing Palestinian stories. “The war on Gaza stirred the humanity of Europeans; I’m talking about the public that immediately rejected the war and went out with demonstrations of solidarity,” he said. “Cinema has an important role in highlighting many aspects that the media ignores, intentionally or unintentionally. Many people around the world are eager to know about it.”

When such stories are prevented from being shared, Masharawi said, individuals must carve out their own space to show them. “We did not wait for anyone to support us,” he explained. “We carried out the media campaign ourselves, set up the tent, issued our publications, established a refugee cinema, showed the Gaza sea, and provided dates and coffee — which we serve in houses of mourning — to honor the souls of the more than 37,000 martyrs.

“We are filmmakers. The world must hear us. We want our voice to be heard, because we exist.”

Attendants at the screening of 'Ground Zero,' a film project produced by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi) 

Attendants at the screening of ‘Ground Zero,’ a film project produced by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi)

‘I sent the footage as soon as possible, so that if I didn’t survive, the film would reach the team’

Masharawi was born and raised in Gaza to a family of refugees originally from Jaffa. Although he did not formally study film, he has established himself as one of Palestine’s foremost filmmakers. From the beginning of his career, his films have been deeply political: he directed his first short, “Passport,” in 1986, about a couple who were stuck at the border crossing between Israel and Jordan because the husband lost his passport.

Masharawi is notable for working intensively inside the occupied territories. After a few years living in the Netherlands, he moved to Ramallah, where he has been involved in producing dozens of films, both feature and documentary.

This broad experience was important in navigating the creation of “Ground Zero.” Because all of the 22 films were written, directed, filmed, and edited under conditions of total war, they faced nearly insurmountable logistical challenges. “Some of the filmmakers were losing relatives during filming or preparation and during the writing stage, which kept them away from the project,” Masharawi said. “And some were exposed to real danger in accessing a place with the internet to send the materials they filmed.”

The uncertainty of survival was an ever-present cloud hovering over the filmmaking process. Hana Eleiwa, who directed the documentary “No” for the project, and is now in Egypt with her family, said, “I was careful to send the footage as soon as possible, so that if I did not survive, the film scenes would reach the team working abroad at this difficult time.”

Nevertheless, Eleiwa and the other directors fought through their brutal circumstances in order to create their art. “The film tells my story, which begins with my search for the film that I want to produce — and what I am looking for is joy,” she said. In the film, Eleiwa and her cinematographers, Ahmed al-Danaf and Youssef al-Mashharawi, walk through the ruins of Gaza trying to find a joyful moment to capture. Eventually they find a group of children singing, a sign of life amid the devastation. “It is the only film [in the project] with a song,” Eleiwa noted.

The support needed for such a project was atypical: “There are small contributions from several parties that can be considered support or assistance,” Masharawi said, “but they are not the usual way of financing the films that we make. Among the most important parties that provided support are the Royal Film Commission of Jordan and some other institutions and companies. Most of the project workers are volunteers, because the initiative is not commercial. If the project succeeds financially, any support will be for filmmakers and cinema in Gaza.”

Some of the films in Ground Zero were made using professional cameras, but others were filmed on cell phones with high-quality cameras, in order to allow more filmmakers to participate. Masharawi insisted that despite the atypical circumstances, neither he nor the filmmakers compromised on the artistic quality of the films.

“Working on the project was a real cinematic production, and we were training, nurturing, consulting and directing filmmakers in order to qualify them, establish them, and teach them to present films without making artistic or technical concessions,” he said.

Every aspect of the process was impacted by the war. Before October, Mahdi Karira made marionette dolls and held puppet shows for children, “but during the war my workshop was destroyed.” Masharawi contacted Karira, who was displaced to Deir al-Balah, to help produce the film “Awakening,” a story told through marionette art. The circumstances forced Karira to make unusual creative choices: “I reused empty cans and made dolls with them. The idea of ​​joining the project was the best way to convey our art amid the suffering of displacement.”

If the filmmakers had access to laptops and electricity, they would do the initial edit of their films themselves. They would then send the rough cut to editing teams outside of Gaza to make final adjustments.

Attendants at the screening of 'Ground Zero,' a film project produced by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi) 

Attendants at the screening of ‘Ground Zero,’ a film project produced by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, outside of the Cannes Film Festival, May 23, 2024. (Courtesy of Rashid Masharawi)

Masharawi has a separate film project, “Fleeting Dreams,” that he has largely put on hold. It tells the story of a Palestinian boy who loses his pet bird and sets out on a trip across Palestine to find it, witnessing the tragedies of occupation along the way. “The film is ready and will soon be shown at festivals, but my priority since the outbreak of the war has been Ground Zero. As a Palestinian Gazan filmmaker, and a human being, I cannot help but do that.”

‘Culture and art carry that story’

Cannes did not always strive to be an apolitical film festival. In 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to the crowd by video, asking for continued support of his country’s war against Russia, and he was met with applause. This year, however, the festival organizers sought to avoid politics, with lead organizer Frémaux claiming they wanted to “make sure that the main interest for us all to be here is cinema.”

The organizers were not entirely successful. In addition to the protest screening of Ground Zero outside, the Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid appeared in a dress inspired by the red keffiyeh, and the Australian actress Cate Blanchett walked the red carpet wearing a dress in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Others wore pins expressing their support of Palestine.

For Masharawi, such protests are a vital part of the film industry because they elevate different narratives to global audiences. “Film festivals and activities raise awareness, shed light, and provide the opportunity to those who want to express themselves. There are false narratives that need to be corrected. The war did not start on October 7; the war has been going for 76 years, and culture and art carry that story. Cinema is a visual and audio tool that preserves memory.”

This war, Masharawi added, “has changed me. I am not the same person. I really have no time to waste in proving my humanity to the world that failed in proving its humanity to me and my people”.

+972 reached out to the Cannes Festival organizers for comment on this story but received no response. Their reply will be included here if received.


Ruwaida Kamal Amer is a freelance journalist from Khan Younis.

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