“Gender in Israeli and Palestinian Film” conference features award-winning films

The Program in Judaic Studies and the Center for Middle East Studies collaborated on a film conference in order to add a more personal dimension to campus discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The “Gender in Israeli and Palestinian Film” conference comprised screenings and discussions of Israeli filmmaker Michael Mayer’s “Out in the Dark” on Sunday, and Palestinian filmmaker Maha Haj’s “Personal Affairs” on Monday. The films focused on romantic and familial relationships against the backdrop of the conflict.

“Out in the Dark”

Mayer was joined by Sa’ed Atshan, assistant professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College, and Ruth Ben-Artzi, associate professor of Political Science at Providence College, in a panel to discuss “Out in the Dark” after the screening. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012; since then, it has won 27 awards and been shown in more than 40 countries at 125 film festivals.

The film is a romantic drama which explores the same-sex relationship between a Palestinian psychology student and an Israeli lawyer in Tel Aviv. Mayer was inspired by the true story of an 18-year-old Palestinian man who escaped Israeli persecution by being smuggled into France.

Atshan said that the film’s plot rings true in the context of homophobia in Palestine. “Exile is a reality for a lot of LGBTQ Palestinians who feel that they have no choice but to leave the country,” he said.

While Mayer chose to focus on the artistic process of his filmmaking, other panelists spoke about the film’s representation of asymmetrical power dynamics between Israel and Palestine.

  Atshan said the film could be criticized for “attracting attention to Israeli queer rights and detracting attention away from violations of Palestinian human rights.”

Michael Aloni, one of the stars of the film, joined the conference by Skype. He described wanting to help create a film that focused more on a “believable” love story than on conflicts centered on sexuality and politics.

The film was produced in part by the state-sponsored Israel Film Fund. Mayer said he made a concerted effort to include as many Palestinians in the production process as possible.

“Personal Affairs”

On Monday afternoon, the conference continued with a screening of slice-of-life comedy “Personal Affairs.” This film marked the directorial debut for a feature film of Nazareth-born Palestinian filmmaker Maha Haj, who was slated to attend the conference, but was absent due to scheduling conflicts.

“Personal Affairs” focuses on three generations of a Palestinian family as they navigate the changing dynamics of the Israeli occupation. The film was released in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and was also shown at the 2016 Haifa International Film Festival where it won the Haifa Cultural Foundation Award for Best Feature Film. 

Professor of International Studies, Anthropology and Middle East Studies Nadje Al-Ali and independent scholar of women in Palestinian cinema Lema Malek Salem served as panelists in a discussion following the screening. Rami Younis, a fellow at Harvard Divinity School and close friend of Haj, joined the panel to represent her.

Katharina Galor, a visiting assistant professor at the Program in Judaic Studies who co-organized the conference, opened the discussion by putting “Personal Affairs” in the context of the conference’s focus on gender and female representation in filmmaking.

“When it comes to gender parity in filmmaking, the Middle East seems to be putting Hollywood to shame,” Galor said. She cited a Northwestern University study conducted in Qatar, which found that 26 percent of independent Middle Eastern directors were women.

Like “Out in the Dark,” Haj’s film was also funded by the Israel Film Fund. Younis discussed “institutionalized censorship” of the Israeli Film Fund and noted the “lack of infrastructure” and funding for Palestinian filmmakers, musicians and artists.

Al-Ali praised the film’s “devastating, intimate depiction of dysfunctional family life” in Palestine and the “tremendous” effort the film made to “humanize Palestinians.”

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