A still from "Maradona's Legs," a short film by Firas Khoury. The DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival will screen the film on October 10th.

A still from "Maradona's Legs," a short film by Firas Khoury. The DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival will screen the film on October 10th.

This year, the D.C. Palestinian Film & Arts Festival celebrates 10 years of providing a platform for Palestinian artists and filmmakers. But their 10th year also presents unimaginable challenges, including the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

We’re joined by festival organizers to discuss the newly virtual festival, and what it means to the local Palestinian community.

Produced by Inés Rénique

Guests

  • Noura Erakat Co-founder, D.C. Palestinian Film & Arts Festival; @4noura
  • Michael Kamel Head curator, D.C. Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

Transcript

  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDINext up, the tenth annual D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival started late last week and runs through this weekend. But this year, it's very different. The entire festival is online, due to the pandemic. So, how is the festival continuing to bring locals together and build community, even while apart? Joining us to discuss this is Noura Erakat, an assistance professor at Rutgers University and co-founder of the festival. Noura, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:32:29

    NOURA ERAKATThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:32:31

    NNAMDIWhy did you launch D.C.'s Palestinian Film and Arts Festival 10 years ago?

  • 12:32:36

    ERAKATI was part of several initiatives that were working on elevating Palestine in the mainstream, and part of our efforts were focused essentially on accountability for the Palestinian official leadership within the context of the Arab uprising demanding democracy. What I found is that that put out a negative message of what we don't want, but didn't put out a vision of what we do want in a positive way that we would be able to gather that would withstand time, circumstances and political context.

  • 12:33:12

    ERAKATAnd so, on a trip to Toronto, I met the founders of the Toronto Palestinian Film Festival. And, as all ideas that circulate, we brought it to D.C. and we decided to start this festival that would put out a positive message, that would bring together visionaries about the Palestinian future. And unlike other festivals, it highlights the subjectivity of Palestinians. So, it's less about making Palestine as a content, but more about highlighting Palestinians and Diaspora and the ways that they're recreating what the future looks like.

  • 12:33:45

    NNAMDINoura, when you first created this film festival, how was it received by the local Palestinian community?

  • 12:33:52

    ERAKATSo, I co-founded this with two other women, Huda Asfour and Nadia Daar. And, as with all new initiatives -- not just with the Palestinians or Arab-Americans or immigrants -- all initiatives are not popular until they become popular. And so, (laugh) it was one of those -- a project that was, you know, sidelined. It was interesting.

  • 12:34:15

    ERAKATPeople humored us, but it didn't receive the kind of support that it receives now as it's proven itself as a project worth investing in, worth following in. And that people can see it's not only what we're putting out, but also what it's creating internally as a local address for young Palestinians in the DMV area who are committed to this cause, who want to identify with it, but who are alienated by the political establishment's definition of how to be politically involved, which is very pragmatic, and pragmatic in the sense that it's not imaginary. It's not visionary. And this becomes an alternative address for young Palestinians who are then producing new ideas out of it. So, it continues to give.

  • 12:35:04

    NNAMDISpeaking of young Palestinians, we're now joined by Michael Kamel. Is a local filmmaker and head curator of the festival. Michael, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:13

    MICHAEL KAMELThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:35:15

    NNAMDIYou're a local filmmaker who discovered the Palestinian Film and Arts Festival, or DCPFAF, when you were just a teenager. Tell us a little bit about your history with the festival.

  • 12:35:27

    KAMELYeah, so when I 18, I was just starting college at Mason, at George Mason University. And I was trying to get plugged into film festivals in the area, and my sister had actually sent me a call for volunteers with the D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. At that time, it was taking place in one theater in Chinatown, at the Goethe-Institut. And it was a small team, and I met Noura and Nadia and Huda and all of the amazing people at that time.

  • 12:35:55

    KAMELAnd even just working, volunteering onsite, I could tell that there was something special here. There was a different energy. And to see a space for Palestinians like this, only in its third year, at that, was incredible. I kind of -- I stuck with the festival and grew with the festival, and here I am today, leading the curation efforts.

  • 12:36:16

    NNAMDIMichael, at the time when you got involved with this, how accessible were Palestinian films at the time, for you, living here in this region?

  • 12:36:25

    KAMELThey were not that accessible, you know. I had not been that exposed to Palestinian films prior to the festival, to be honest. And even now it's easier to find them, but it's still not -- you know, you can't just go on Netflix and assume they're all going to be there. And I have -- it's funny, I have a box of old D.C. PFAF, is what we call the festival, colloquially.

  • 12:36:47

    NNAMDIPFAF, okay.

  • 12:36:48

    KAMELYeah, I have a box of old films on DVDs and old brochures that I kind of inherited. And it really wasn't that easy. And so, my goal with the festival that kind of grew with it was to make Palestinian films accessible to more Palestinians and more people that wanted to indulge in Palestinian cinema.

  • 12:37:07

    NNAMDINoura, what has this festival meant -- or what does it mean to local Palestinians?

  • 12:37:13

    ERAKATWell, I think it's meant a lot of things. It's a source of pride to have something that is very local and accessible that has, as Michael pointed out, been in the Goethe-Institut, but also been featured at the Kennedy Center twice, has been a feature of the Washington Post. Has been able, you know, to frankly narrate Palestine without having to ask for permission.

  • 12:37:36

    ERAKATOne of the most difficult things, Kojo, about being Palestinian is actually having the permission to tell our stories without censorship. So, it's been a point of pride that we've been able to do that, and to have an international and transnational presence as we brought Palestinian filmmakers from across the world, including from Chile and Palestine.

  • 12:37:55

    NNAMDIAbout how big is the Palestinian community in our region, Noura? And where's the community primarily in this region?

  • 12:38:03

    ERAKATI don't know the community by numbers. Michael will be able to tell you that, or maybe, as someone who has grown up here. I actually grew up in California. I'm a transplant. But it's a significant community that's based mostly, I think, in my experience, in the Virginia area, and is really the site of what feels like second and third-generation Palestinians.

  • 12:38:26

    NNAMDIMichael, care to add to that?

  • 12:38:28

    KAMELJust echoing what Noura said. A lot of us are in Virginia. A lot of us born and raised here. I can't speak to the numbers but growing up I always knew, you know, if I went to Fairfax or I went to Alexandria or whatever, I'd find a Palestinian store, an Arab restaurant, or what have you. So, it's cool to kind of become a part of that landscape with the festival.

  • 12:38:46

    NNAMDIMichael, how do you think finding this festival shaped you as a filmmaker, and what does your work look like now?

  • 12:38:54

    KAMELFinding this festival, to me, showed me that as a Palestinian, I don't always have to look towards Hollywood, for example, to see myself and to share my stories and to engage with other Palestinian stories. And I think that internalizing that and learning that at such a young age kind of lifted a self-imposed burden on myself, I would say.

  • 12:39:19

    KAMELYou know, it's empowering to see the possibilities and to see, you know, how your own community is reacting to films and arts made by our community. And, in terms of my work today, I kind of -- I don't -- I'm working on a script right now that's like my, quote-unquote, "Palestine film." Which, if you talk to a lot of Palestinians and Diaspora, we talk a lot about what's our Palestine work going to be, if we haven't created that yet. But, to me, everything that I'm directing, producing or writing is inherently Palestinian, by nature of my experiences.

  • 12:39:53

    NNAMDIWe got another question for you, Michael. The tools of filmmaking are more accessible now. An award-winning film was shot entirely on an iPhone a few years ago. Are you finding there are more films being made by the Palestinian Diaspora today than, say, a decade ago? Does technology mean more people can tell their own story?

  • 12:40:14

    KAMELI mean, absolutely. When we're going through our submissions, you know, we have films that are made on iPhones or films that are made on Canon Rebels, which is, you know, the small camera I use. And we're finding that Palestinians, both in Diaspora, but in Palestine where there may not be as accessible resources and camera equipment, etcetera.

  • 12:40:34

    KAMELYou know, Palestinians -- where there's a will, there's a way. And I have definitely found within the past 10 years Palestinians, you know, with whatever equipment they have, making films in a way that, you know, just at 18, I would say I wasn't seeing in the same way.

  • 12:40:52

    NNAMDIMichael, where can locals go if they want to get a taste of Palestinian culture in this region, whether it be music or food?

  • 12:40:59

    KAMELOh, my gosh. There's -- I could give you a whole list. I could give you a guide. (laugh)

  • 12:41:04

    NNAMDIWell, maybe you can do that, and we can post it on our website. But go ahead.

  • 12:41:07

    KAMELRight. Yeah, yeah. So, you know, if we're talking specifically about food, there's Falafel, Inc. which has amazing falafel and also great initiative. There's Z&Z and Mama Ayesha's, which is an iconic Palestinian restaurant. We also -- you know, there's the Jerusalem Fund/The Palestine Center, and they host a lot of art exhibits and events. And online, they're hosting their Palestine conference this year.

  • 12:41:34

    KAMELI mean, and there's also a lot of advocacy. There's the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. There's the United Palestinian Appeal. And there's just so many sources of knowledge and cultural production around Palestine and by Palestinians coming out of D.C. that you can get everything from the food to the academia. Whatever you want, Palestinian, it's probably here. (laugh)

  • 12:41:54

    NNAMDINoura, tells us more about the D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival and how you're operating now.

  • 12:42:01

    ERAKATSo, the thing about this year, Kojo, one of the amazing things about the festival is that it's also expanded our imagination of what, you know, working in Palestine looks like. Because one of the most difficult things is raising money for these kinds of initiatives, which are very costly. And for a lot of Palestinians, we want to invest in that, and that project that's going to change the policy that's not enabling Palestinians to live and to thrive equitably.

  • 12:42:29

    ERAKATAnd so, to be able to shift that mindset and to say, we don't always have to pour ourselves into just, you know, the political work, which is absolutely critical in the protests, but into this politics of imagination and politics of hope has been also a cultural shift. As for programming, we've evolved. We've continuously evolved and expanded into literature, exhibits, plays and music, certainly, and not just focused on the film. I'm going to let Michael tell you more about -- because he's been the backbone, with the rest of the team, on what it's meant to move online from actually a physical space.

  • 12:43:14

    NNAMDIIn fact, Michael, even though this is the very first time the festival has gone entirely virtual, you've experimented before with different technologies to change the way audience members experience the festival. Tell us more.

  • 12:43:28

    KAMELYeah so, I mean, we've been transcending borders for year now, Kojo. (laugh) In 2016, we had an exhibit called "A Portal to Gaza," where we teamed up with a company called Shared Space. And they basically set up an audio-visual portal in Gaza, on the ground in Gaza, and one in D.C. And this was spearheaded by our team members Jeannine (word?) and Huda Asfour.

  • 12:43:50

    KAMELAnd you could literally walk into this portal and talk to somebody in Gaza right now. And it was really beautiful, because it really fostered conversations, and there was collaborative performances. And there was even a day where we found out we were talking to a filmmaker, asked him to send us his film, and we screened it that day. So, you know, I like to say we're not new to this, we're true to this. (laugh)

  • 12:44:12

    KAMELAnd so, moving online, for us, it kind of opened the door of possibilities because we've had to deal with artists being denied visas. And we've had to deal with artists, you know, can't afford to fly here, even with financial assistance from us and things like that. So, for us, it's only an extension of our mission to create a space, an accessible space for people to show their stories as Palestinians.

  • 12:44:36

    NNAMDIWell, Michael, films at this year's festival are geoblocked, in some case limiting screening access to just our region. So, can anyone view these films from home? And if so, how can they do so?

  • 12:44:49

    KAMELRight. So, just a little bit about the geoblocking. The reason that films in our festival and most other festivals are geoblocked is because filmmakers and producers and distributors have agreements with other festivals. For example, if they want to protect their U.S. premier status, they can't show it before certain dates, etcetera, etcetera.

  • 12:45:10

    KAMELSo, our film this weekend -- or tonight on Thursday and tomorrow on Friday, we have a shorts block tonight and a feature film tomorrow. Those are both available to anybody that's within the United States at the time of the screening. And then on Saturday, we have a shorts film block that is only available to people that are in D.C., Maryland or Virginia.

  • 12:45:31

    KAMELThe cool thing is, though, that a lot of these films are showing elsewhere. For example, our sister festival, Boston Palestine Film Festival, is starting on October 16th. And I don't know what their exact geoblocking is, but it's possible that some other films will be available then, as well.

  • 12:45:48

    NNAMDIWell, because of the virtual format, artists and filmmakers who may otherwise not had been able to make it, can now participate, correct?

  • 12:45:58

    KAMELCorrect. So, we have Palestinian (unintelligible) we had yesterday (unintelligible). And we had a tour of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library with Vivien Sansour. And, you know, it's really cool to be able to connect with these people across seas.

  • 12:46:15

    NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time. Michael Kamel, Noura Erakat, thank you both so much for joining us. Today's segment on the Palestinian Film and Arts Festival was produced by Ines Renique. And our conversation about National Coming Out Day was produced by Kurt Gardinier.

  • 12:46:32

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, 24 people are vying for the D.C. Council's two at-large seats. We'll discuss candidates and the issues. Plus, we'll talk with Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks about COVID-19, police reform, and how the county is preparing for the upcoming election. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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