RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A Palestinian film organization has launched a new cinema award in an attempt to stimulate the local filmmaking industry and promote cinema culture in the Palestinian territories.
Filmlab, a local nonprofit backed by European partners, hopes the "Sunbird Prize" will grow to become the Palestinian version of the Oscars. A jury of four Palestinians and two European cinema experts chose Thursday night's winners.
The jury awarded prizes, named after a local bird, to one short and one feature length film out of 80 total entries. A large number of local VIPs, including the Palestinian culture minister, attended the event.
Reflecting the immediate concerns of Palestinians, both of Thursday's winners dealt with the conflict with Israel.
The short, entitled "Izriqaq (Blued)," tells the story of a man who kills his father, then leaves the body next to an Israeli checkpoint. Local villagers, believing the father was killed by Israeli troops, venerate him as a "martyr," and his son gets away with the crime.
"We have been living in a circle of violence. The Israeli occupation created this cycle of violence, and a new generation was born violent because of that," said May Odeh, the film's producer. "The real story is about a man who is violent as a result of the circle of violence around himself and the society," she said.
A second prize was given to "Ambulance," a documentary about an ambulance driver in the Gaza Strip during the 2012 conflict between Israel and Hamas militants.
The prize capped the week-long Days of Cinema festival, which screened dozens of Palestinian and foreign movies in five cities across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Most of the cinema houses in the Palestinian territories have been closed for either political or economic reasons," said Hanna Atallah, Filmlab's artistic director. "We are trying to bring the movies to people in cultural centers for free to enable them to see them and slowly get back to cinema culture."
Days of Cinema screened 80 films, 20 of them by Palestinians.
Khulood Badawi, a spokeswoman for the project, said thousands of people attended the festival.
Movie theaters were popular in the Palestinian territories from the 1960s to 1980s, but shut down after the first uprising against Israeli rule erupted in 1987. Only a few reopened after the uprising ended, and most of those went out of business.
One of the few surviving movie houses in the West Bank, located in the northern city of Jenin, is slated to close later this month. The cinema's spokeswoman, Maisa al-Aseer, said the owners are demolishing the building and selling the land.
"Closing a cinema is similar to closing a school. I have urged the government to buy it because it's the only cinema and theater for the city of almost 250,000 people," she said.
But with the property valued at about $1.7 million, she said prospects for conserving it were dim. "We only have 10 days to rescue this cultural place and unfortunately no one has moved to save it," she said.
Like the local cinema scene, the Palestinian filmmaking industry has largely struggled. Two films, "Paradise Now" (2005) and "Omar" (2013), both by director Hany Abu-Assad, received Oscar nominations for best foreign language film. Several others, including documentaries and shorts, have also received attention at prestigious international festivals.
But these movies often rely on foreign funding and are usually made by Palestinian filmmakers living abroad, sometimes even working with Israeli partners. Most locally-produced movies typically suffer from low budgets, poor acting and weak plotlines.
Atallah said Palestinian cinema production, however, has been slowly improving, moving beyond the exhausted "hero-victim" trope to stories with subtle and controversial plots.
"Palestinian cinema started with documenting the misery of the Palestinians resulting from the Israeli occupation, and the picture of the Palestinian in those movies was either as a hero fighting the occupation or a victim of this occupation," he said.
He noted that a number of the festival's films tackled sensitive social and political issues, such as the rift between the rival Fatah and Hamas governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, Palestinians fleeing the conflict and seeking better opportunities abroad, and crime in the Palestinian territories.
One of the more popular movies screened this week, "Love, Stealing and Other Things," traces a young Palestinian man who dreams of moving abroad, but turns to stealing cars in Israel and selling them in the West Bank to make a living.
The festival opened with a foreign film, "Our Last Tango," a love story about a famous Argentinian dance couple.
"We opened the event with this movie because it celebrates life and love. We want to promote life and love and culture in our society," Atallah said.