Drama meets daily life in Palestinian film

Brazen and in broad daylight, "Israeli infantry" plunge deep into the West Bank Palestinian capital of Ramallah, hoisting a flag atop a makeshift checkpoint.

A motley crowd of children, veiled ladies and young men in jeans chant defiantly in the summer sun at the soldiers clad in olive drab and facing them with rifles. A clash looms.

"Cut!" Director Rashid Masharawi steps into the fray, his cargo shorts and straw sun hat breaking the illusion created by the actors and production company at the set of feature-length film Palestine Stereo.

"No, like this!" he corrects a soldier-actor poised to throw his tear gas bomb under-handed and chides the crowd for not reeling back with enough force.

"Fast! And everybody in a different direction!" barked an assistant at this street corner turned movie set.

Transcending stale news
With a budget of $1.5-million, Palestine Stereo is set to be one of the most expensive films yet produced by Palestinians, and aims to transcend stale news reports and use art to convey the mindset of a people steeped in 45 years of Israeli occupation.

"It's the story of every Palestinian, loving this land, but pressured into thinking about leaving it. At the same time it's not all sadness. There's hope, a love story, and thoughts for the future," said Masharawi, who was raised in a Gaza refugee camp.

Palestinian cinema has experienced a renaissance in the last decade and a broadening global reach.

Masharawi's last film, Leila's Birthday was screened in film festivals from Toronto to Tokyo in 2008. Another dark comedy Divine Intervention, was nominated for Cannes' Palme d'Or in in 2002 and Paradise Now in 2005 explored the psychology of suicide bombers to international acclaim.

"Maybe it won't change any minds, but it can at least show our daily lives to a different audience, hopefully through cinemas in France, Germany, and elsewhere."

West Bank life
The tale follows two brothers, shocked by a deadly Israeli raid on their refugee camp home into thinking about emigrating. Scrounging up the cash needed for their flight by working as audio engineers, they are exposed to the full pageant of West Bank life, in which fact and film overlap uncannily.

They bungle the sound system at a stale VIP photo-op in a local hotel, a familiar scene in Palestinian politics, and are shown providing speakers at a real-life solidarity march for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails at Ramallah's Red Cross headquarters.

But the most pervasive hassle for Palestinians, Israeli checkpoints, barriers, and screening defined not only the day's filming, as the brothers are depicted trying to spirit their equipment to Jerusalem through the melee, but also impact the film's production.

"We were stopped with our equipment by the Israelis for four hours at a checkpoint on the road from the North," producer Abed al Salam Abu Askar, who helped organise the film through his fledgling company CinePal Films, said.

Smiling, he waves off a wayward Jerusalem taxi, the driver mistaking the elaborate set for the road back to the holy city.

"Our foreign staff had to tell the airport that they were just visiting Israel," he said, as Israeli passport authorities routinely interrogate and restrict visitors to the Palestinian territories.

Increasing potential
Despite the obstacles, the project demonstrates the increasing potential of the Palestinian film industry, albeit one that still depends on foreign help and personal connections.

Cinetelefilms, a prominent Tunisian production firm, along with the Gaza Media Centre and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Investment Fund helped underwrite the film, while post-production will take place in Italy ahead of a release set for next year.

Though around three or four Palestinian films are produced for international release each year, according to Abu Askar, production still depends on foreign know-how and local institutions for cinema are scant.

Extras have been recruited from a local refugee camp, and police cordons for the film site down to the guns and helmets of the "Israeli soldiers" were on loan from the Palestinian Authority.

Shoving aside with bizarre ease the roadblocks, which look like thick concrete cubes but are made of painted plywood, Aid Safi of Ramallah's al-Ama'ari camp aims his weapon with a laugh, acutely aware of the irony of his Israeli military uniform.

"We know their behaviour: the way they shout, the way they move. From our experience, we've known it our whole lives," he said.

Insisting on speaking Hebrew to stay in character, Hassan al-Haridi said: "We even know how their language. I learned it in an Israeli prison. Three years I was there." – Reuters


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