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Palestinian film director aims for 'different image' of Gaza

Rashid Masharawi, a Palestinian director currently leading the jury at the eighth Aswan International Women Film Festival, aims to showcase a new representation of Gaza through his work. Despite the current devastation caused by war, Masharawi hopes to promote "resistance cinema" through this year's festival theme.

Published April 23,2024

Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi wants to "export a different cinematic image of Gaza", now ravaged by war, as he presides over the jury at the eighth Aswan International Women Film Festival themed on "resistance cinema".

Against the backdrop of the war in the Gaza Strip, the festival in southern Egypt decided to screen six Palestinian short films in the competition, which brings together filmmakers from across the region.

This was despite many voices in the Arab world calling for the suspension of all artistic and cultural activities in solidarity with Palestinians.

Masharawi is known internationally for being the first Palestinian director to be in the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival when his film "Haifa" was included in 1996.

Born in the Gaza Strip to refugees from the port city of Jaffa, the director now lives in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

He said he "does not consider art and cinema as purely entertainment".

"If film festivals do not play their role when major disasters occur, as with what is currently happening in Palestine, then why do they exist?" he asked.

Among the six Palestinian films included at Aswan is the 14-minute documentary film "Threads of Silk" by director Walaa Saadah, who was killed last month in the war. The film looks at the meanings of the embroidery on the Palestinian "thawb" robe.

Another is the five-minute film "I am from Palestine" by the director Iman al-Dhawahari, about a Palestinian-American girl in the United States who is shocked at school to see a map of the world without her country.

The 16-minute documentary film "A Cut Off Future" from director Alia Ardoghli, discusses the daily experiences of 27 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 in the shadow of the Israeli occupation.

In his newest film, for which work is ongoing, Masharawi said he wanted to expose what he called "the lie of self-defence".

"The occupation (Israel) blew up the studio of an artist in Gaza with paintings and statues. Where is self-defence when one kills artists and intellectuals while calling them terrorists?" the 62-year-old told AFP.

The conflict in Gaza erupted with the unprecedented October 7 Hamas attack on Israel which resulted in the death of at least 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

In retaliation, Israel launched a bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza aimed at destroying Hamas that has killed at least 34,183 people, the majority women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Two months after the beginning of the war, Masharawi began a new project: a support fund for cinema in the besieged coastal strip.

The initiative "Films from Distance Zero" supports Gazan filmmakers living "under the bombing or becoming refugees" to produce their films.

Female filmmakers are active in the project, about whom Masharawi said, "always in the most difficult moments, we find the Palestinian woman on the front line."

Around 2.4 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas came to power in 2007.

Theatres in Gaza closed at the end of the 1980s during the Palestinian uprising against Israel known as the First Intifada, but reopened after the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.

Hamas control changed all that, with the political Islamist movement considering film contrary to the values of Islam.

Nevertheless, last year an open-air film festival took place "taking into account the customs and traditions of the territory," a Hamas official said at the time.

For Masharawi, now more than ever, it is necessary to support cinema and have "a different cinematic image of Gaza" reach the world to "make the truth prevail in the face of the lies of the Israeli occupation".

At the heart of Masharawi's work is identity. "It is difficult (for Israel) to occupy our memories, our identities, our music, our history and our culture," he said.

Israel "is wasting a lot of time on a project doomed to failure and which will kill many of us", he said, referring to the war in Gaza.

Masharawi said he thought the solidarity of the Arab public with the Palestinian people, "and I mean the people and not their leaderships," might come "from their powerlessness and the restrictions of their (government) systems."

He added, "I used to dream that the Arab governments would be like their people, but I say it clearly: this has not happened, even after we have come close to 200 days of war."