Photo from Salt Of This Sea (Milh Hadha Al-Bahr).
The inaugural Toronto Palestinian Film Festival (TPFF) is on at the moment, and if its reception thus far is any indication, it will quickly become a fixture on the annual festival circuit. A year in the making, the TPFF is showcasing thirty-seven films, twenty of which are Canadian premieres. Films have been selected from the last few years of Palestinian cinema and include work in all genres and from all geographic and demographic corners of the Palestinian community.
The opening night program featured the Palestinian submission for the 2009 Foreign Language Academy Award, Salt of This Sea. (Palestine is recognized as a nation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences though it is not currently a member state of the United Nations.) The film centres on Soraya and Emad and their simultaneous struggles with their Palestinian identity. Soraya is a Brooklyn-born woman of Palestinian origin on her first voyage to her family’s lost home. She becomes immediately and irretrievably attached to the land she visits and decides in short order to try to stay permanently. Her companion for most of the film is Emad, travelling on precisely the opposite trajectory. Palestinian-born and trapped in the West Bank by the exigencies of occupation, Emad wants nothing more than to escape to the security and calm of Canada. The film thus traces out both sides of the classic immigrant experience: those in the diaspora hold out hope for a return home while those in the motherland want a fresh chance at life elsewhere. Each feels that they somehow have a grasp on something essentially important about their nation, and each is mystified by the opposing attitude.
Salt of This Sea is, perhaps surprisingly, not a particularly political film. The narrative is obviously set against the backdrop of the political situation, but the film is far more interested in telling a story than it is in polemics. In this, the movie is representative of the TPFF as a whole, which aims to share cultural and personal experiences rather than advance political positions (though the former can often, intentionally or not, be a way of accomplishing the latter). In a Q&A after the screening Torontoist asked Suheir Hammad, the actress who played Soraya, what message she hoped people outside the Palestinian community might get from the film. She replied that “all you can ask as an artist is for people to listen to your story.” The TPFF is showing stories that don’t often get told, and both the story-tellers and their audiences are great beneficiaries. Though Palestinians are often in the news, only a small slice of life in the West Bank and Gaza gets portrayed in the familiar headline-grabbing reports. The films showing at the TPFF are not all exemplary works of art, but they also do not need to be. (It is worth mentioning at this point that circumstances make shooting a film on location incredibly challenging. That many of these movies got made at all is somewhat remarkable.) Because they broaden our understanding of the experiences which don’t make the headlines and give voice to a community that so often feels misrepresented or neglected, these are movies well worth watching.
The Toronto Palestinian Film Festival continues until November 1 at cinemas across Toronto.