Why the annual Toronto Palestine Film Festival isn’t just for Palestinians

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By: Rolla Bahsous

From September 20-23, the 11th annual Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) treated GTA audiences to thought provoking films about Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Palestinian culture. The beauty of this festival is that it asks viewers to think beyond just the Palestinian struggle for justice.
There is something bigger that the films implore viewers to consider: the consequence of colonialism, human rights violations, and one’s moral compass.
Held at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto, it was clear that movie goers weren’t just of Palestinian or Middle-Eastern origin. There’s something beyond the English subtitles that draws people of different ethnicities to this event: universal themes like justice, love, faith, and societal roles.
The spotlight this year at TPFF, which showed over ten different feature films, was the rise of Arab women in film.
As noted by Dania Majid, the Media Relations and Programming coordinator of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, the majority of the films shown this year were female directed.
“Most of our stories were about female game changers.”
The opening night film, Naila and the Uprising, directed by Julia Bacha, was no different. The film painted a portrait of Naila Ayesh during the First Intifada (uprising).
As portrayed in the film, Ayesh steered a large network of women during the First Intifada.
“The time of the Intifada was unique in Palestinian history in that it involved all of Palestinian society,” Ayesh explains.
“The women’s role especially had a great impact. Since the beginning of the Intifada, many men were imprisoned, so women always took the initiative and had the creativity to get involved in workshops that gave them the skills to take leadership during the Intifada.”
“Even though different people (women, men, and youth) were involved, they all were united as one. They all had the same purpose: to end the occupation of their land,” Ayesh says.
As an activist, Ayesh, who was jailed twice by the Israeli government throughout the Intifada, continues to see hope in the Palestinian struggle.
“All Palestinians around the world have the power to do something for Palestine. You don’t have to be inside Palestine to stand up for the Palestinian cause,” Ayesh believes.
Julia Bacha, the director of Naila and the Uprising, had a few challenges when creating this film.
“The greatest challenge was where to find the footage that actually reflected the incredible level of activism and grassroots intense participation that was reflected during the time period,” Bacha explains.
“The news media at the time were exclusively focused on the more sensational images of young Palestinian boys and men throwing stones at the Israeli tanks. They did not document what was happening in terms of the women engaging at a very deep level of creating parallel institutions in Palestine, in terms of mobile clinics, underground schools, as well as the coordination of boycotting of Israeli products. All of that was invisible. So, the greatest challenge was how to bring that to life, as well as some of the more personal and deep experiences of the women.”
Bacha explains that she worked with animators to bring Naila’s story to life. This includes her “arrest, her torture, her miscarriage, and her experience of having her infant with her during her second arrest.”
Since a large portion of the documentary was filmed in Gaza, Bacha notes that its premiere there was particularly special for her.
Screening in Gaza on the same day as the opening in Toronto, Bacha explained that the room which only fit 300 people could have held around 800 people during the premiere.
“People couldn’t fit and they were standing,” Bacha says. “It had a really powerful reaction and a lot of great engagement from the younger generation. People were feeling like part of their story is finally being reflected back to them.”
Bacha, who is Brazilian, emphasizes how these films are especially important for an international audience in today’s world.
“For an international audience, we have been overwhelmed with images that reinforce an idea that this is about law and order, instead of being about a struggle for freedom. We wanted very much, in some ways, to celebrate the people who have sacrificed so much in order to bring independence to a community for decades now. And to celebrate those who are very often left out of how we talk about Israel and Palestine,” Bacha notes.
“We also wanted to put women front and center and make it very clear that the First Intifada was not only a national movement, but it was also a women’s liberation movement. And make sure that that history is incorporated so that young women in Palestine today have role models to live up to,” Bacha says.
Bacha continues, “I’ve been making films for 15 years and it’s wonderful and thrilling to see women in the field today. To be honest, I want to see a generation of Palestinian filmmakers and women filmmakers telling their own stories, and we’re starting to see that in the past couple of years and that’s really exciting.”
TPFF is a “volunteer-run, non-profit organization dedicated to bringing Palestinian cinema, music, cuisine and art to GTA audiences. TPFF was conceived in 2008 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Al-Nakba.”
The “Nakba,” is the Arabic word for the “catastrophe.” Palestinians use Nakba to refer to the creation of Israel in 1948, which in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians from their land.
For more information on sponsoring, or getting involved, please visit www.tpff.ca.

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