D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival celebrates ‘what it is to be Palestinian’

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Palestinian artists from the Washington D.C. metro area and beyond convened at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on Monday, October 2nd for opening night of the annual D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival (DCPFAF).

Now in its seventh year, the festival was co-founded in 2011 by Nadia Daar, Noura Erakat and Huda Asfour — three Palestinian-American women compelled to provide a platform to their fellow artists in the diverse Palestinian diaspora.

Inside the Kennedy Center, guests were lured in by intricate arrangements of modern and traditional Arabic music, through the cavernous performance hall to its grand foyer. The sounds emanated from the turntable of New York-based musician Fatin Jarara, who performs as DJ Fatin. Fatin provided the soundtrack for much of the festival and the after party.

Named “I Am From There, I Am From Here” after a line from Mahmoud Darwish’s elegy for Edward Said, the hourlong preview of the festival featured an original story on growing up Palestinian by Nadia Abuelezam, creator of Palestinians Podcast; Leila Buck in a performance of Visiting Palestine, a one-act dramatic interpretation of political imprisonment written and directed by Noura Erakat; and an original performance by oud player, vocalist and songwriter Huda Asfour, with backing by Derek Bond on bass and legendary D.C. drummer William “Juju” House.

Nadia Daar says that she and her fellow co-founders were initially inspired by the Palestinian film festivals in U.S. cities like Chicago, Boston and Houston. But Daar says when moving from Canada to D.C., she brought her biggest inspiration with her: the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which wrapped its tenth year last month.

When developing DCPFAF, Daar told Mondoweiss, the challenge became “how can we bring this to the D.C. context and make it relevant, but also make it unique?”

Two distinctive features of the festival are that the DCPFAF “expands beyond film; to art, to storytelling, to literature” and that in these various mediums, younger artists have space to tell their own stories through a Palestinian lens.

Featuring art created entirely by Palestinians, Daar added, the DCPFAF is “not necessarily about Palestine, but it’s a Palestinian artistry being featured.”

Nusayba Hammad, festival managing director, echoed this sentiment in her opening remarks at Monday’s preview.

“We showcase Palestinian creativity and subjectivity” Hammad explained, and at the same time, “emphasize the range and complexity of Palestinian narratives, identities and experiences.”

That said, Hammad does not deny that for Palestinians “the personal is political.” Compounded by the fact that opening night marked the first time an all-Palestinian cast appeared at the Millennium Stage, politics were bound to be implicit in the personal stories.

Organizers say that in choosing acts, they were particularly interested in stories expressed through the newest generation of artists to emerge from the Palestinian diaspora. In fact, for a number of artists the festival was the largest, or first, audience for which they had performed.

At Friday night’s “Palestinians, Live!” storytelling collaboration with the Palestinians Podcast at D.C.’s Studio Theater, Lena Ghannam’s deeply personal coming-of-age story about her first kiss marked her entry into live, personal narrative storytelling.

Ghannam, who is a former journalist and current creative director at DCPFA (Ghannam designed all of the festival’s logos and graphics), says she never gave much thought to her place within the storytelling tradition — as a reflection of modern Palestinian diasporic life.

While her mother is from Yaffa and her father from Damascus, she felt such details were superfluous to the story she told.

“Tonight I didn’t talk about Palestine at all,” Ghannam told Mondoweiss after her performance. “I just alluded to my Arab heritage through the experience I had.”

If she continues as a storyteller however, “I would like to see myself as someone who carries the responsibility of recording the experiences of Palestinians in the diaspora…I think that’s really important given that so many of us are in the diaspora.”

Nadia Abuelezam, founder of Palestinians Podcast, began the festival preview by telling how a simple middle school incident became a seminal moment in her life, solidifying her Palestinian identity.

When her curmudgeonly sixth grade teacher assigned students a report on a country of their choice, Abuelezam chose Palestine.

But pointing to a map, her teacher said: “Nadia, you cannot do your report on Palestine because Palestine is not on this map.” At this, some of the audience expressed a quiet, simultaneous recognition of this general experience.

Abuelezam says she learned soon after that her own parents and grandparents were refugees of the occupation.

And it was this moment, she revealed to the audience, “that I really began to understand what it was like to be a Palestinian living in America.”

Noura Erakat’s original one-act play situated actress Leila Buck alone on a darkened stage, where she acted simultaneously as a political prisoner and as a metaphor for Palestine itself. Sentenced to an immoral and indefinite prison term of 69 years — the number of years since the occupation of Palestine and the Nakba — she welcomes the audience into her cell with profound hospitality.

Buck expressed the tragedy inside her walls with laughter that turns to hysterics and memories of life’s beauty that turn to flashbacks of death.

To close the preview night, Huda Asfour and backing band performed three of Asfour’s original songs, each one held together with tight rhythms and straight-ahead jazz improvisation, building upon a uniquely Palestinian sound. Asfour says the first song was inspired by the idea of a world without borders and the second, by love without borders.

The DCPFAF began officially on October 5th with a screening of Raed Andoni’s “Ghost Hunting,” a documentary on Palestinian incarceration in Israeli prisons cast entirely with former political prisoners. Afterwards, Randa Wahbe, former international advocacy officer at prisoner support organization Addameer, spoke about the carceral state which she said consistently imprisons approximately 20% of Palestine’s population.  

Palestinians Podcast hosted the following night with a live storytelling showcase Palestinians Live!; an intimate acoustic solo performance by Maysa Daw, singer-songwriter and member of DAM and Ministry of Dub-Key; short films by up-and-coming Palestinian filmmakers such as Razan Alsalah’s “Your Father Was Born 100 Years Old & So Was the Nakba”; Mohanad Yaqubiand’s feature Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory plus shorts centered on the theme of Palestinian filmmaking itself; and a highly anticipated panel conversation with actress Cherien Dabis on being a Palestinian woman in Hollywood. The panel was preceded by a screening of Dabis’ 2009 film “Amreeka,” which confronts these experiences.

The festival ended on October 8th with films on music and memory in Palestine, highlighted by the world premiere of “from beneath the earth,” a look at today’s Palestinian underground music scene, followed by a hybrid dance performance and experimental film screening entitled “Dabke is Life,” from the duo Ahmed Hamad and Hamza Allaham.

Reflecting on the festival’s history and influence at the close of Monday’s showcase, co-founder Noura Erakat looked to the future.

“When we discuss Palestine, we’re discussing a lot of the pain and intensity” however, Erakat says, “there are so few places to celebrate what it is to be Palestinian and what it is to be Palestinian in our global diaspora as we exist.”

“[This festival and its artists] are the iterations of being Palestinian-American.”

About Jesse Rubin

Jesse Rubin is a freelance journalist from New York. Twitter: @JesseJDRubin

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