Telling a different story: Five years of Reel Palestine

Dana Al-Sadek, one of the founders of Reel Palestine in Dubai. (Supplied)
Updated 10 January 2019

Telling a different story: Five years of Reel Palestine

  • Dana Al-Sadek, one of the founders of Reel Palestine in Dubai talks about the pop film festival
  • The fifth edition of Reel Palestine takes place in Dubai from January 18-26

DUBAI: Some time in the summer of 2014, having spent days watching news coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict, Dana Al-Sadek made a decision.
“I knew that there was more to be celebrated in terms of Palestinian culture than just seeing war all the time,” she tells Arab News. “At that time, I was already working on film programming in my day job, so I thought why not pool my resources together to try and organize a series of screenings of Palestinian movies.”
Through mutual friends, Al-Sadek was connected to a couple of like-minded women, Noora Husseini and Nadia Rouchdy. The three met, brainstormed some ideas, and came up with a pop-up film festival they called Reel Palestine with the aim, according to the website, “of showing Palestinian culture and tenacity through film, submerging viewers in the beautiful, difficult, emotional, and inspirational moments that occur during occupation.”

The fifth edition of Reel Palestine takes place in Dubai from January 18-26. Al-Sadek seems slightly — and pleasantly — surprised that it’s come this far. The 2019 edition will be the first to be ticketed.
“It’s really grown organically,” she says. “We never really envisaged it being ticketed, but things have been changing as we’ve grown. We need to do in order to cover our costs and be sustainable. Before we used to try and get film fees waived, but that’s very hard right now, and at the same time we really want to be able to support filmmakers and be able to pay them royalty fees. And we also want to show the films in the best quality set up possible, with the best-quality projection.”
The festival’s long-term partner, Cinema Akil, recently opened its permanent premises in Al Serkal Avenue — becoming the region’s first arthouse cinema. So it was an obvious choice for this month’s screenings. The festival will also include a Palestinian arts and crafts market in Al Serkal.
Another sign of Reel Palestine’s growth is that Al-Sadek says they now get hopeful filmmakers emailing submissions to them on a regular basis — in addition to the research the team does themselves to find movies to screen.
While the festival may have grown significantly in stature since its small-scale debut, the mission has remained consistent.

A still from the film 'The Tower.' (Supplied)

“The mission was always to show Palestinian stories — narratives; to show life under occupation,” Al-Sadek says. “But also to show the beauty and rich heritage to give people a view of more than what we see on the news.
“It’s a country rich in history. There’s been cinema there for a very long time. There’s been a lot of Palestinian films made, pre-1942 and 1948. It’s always been there. It’s a country that has so much history. It’s an important region.”
Al-Sadek stresses that the festival has a cultural, rather than political, agenda, but recognizes that a large portion of art — of any kind — created in or about Palestine has a political element.
“The occupation is ongoing, and there’s a need to voice that. Land has been confiscated, our landscape’s changing, demographically everything’s changing, so it’s about not forgetting our history and identity. Not to forget the people there, who can’t even leave — and if they do get a chance to leave, maybe they can’t come back,” she says. “Of course, there’s a huge diaspora as well, and they can relate to the films. A lot of the topics are, unfortunately, not just related to Palestinians right now. They’re related to refugees from all over the world.
“Obviously there’s a need,” she continues. “There’s a need to speak out about oppression, the occupation, injustice, and people feel solidarity with that. That’s why there’s support for these sort of festivals.”
That support — for festivals and for the Palestinian cause in general — has been increasing internationally over the past decade or so, and this year, Al-Sadek notes (although she says it’s a coincidence rather than a conscious decision on her team’s part), many of the documentaries included in the festival’s bill are directed by non-Arabs. “It’s interesting. They’re fascinated by what’s happening and think it’s a story that needs to be told.”

An image from the film ' Naila and the Uprising.' (Supplied)

As they do every year, Al-Sadek and her co-organizers have tried to make sure there’s a wide range of stories included, covering different aspects of Palestinian life.
“We try to make sure there’s variety and we also try to add conceptual art films as well. For example, we have a documentary called ‘White Oil,’ which was done by a photography professor based in the UK. It’s beautiful imagery, and it’s more conceptual than narrative. It doesn’t have much voiceover. It’s more about the imagery giving you a sense of the story.
“We’re covering topics such as female empowerment,” she continues. “We have ‘What Walaa Wants,’ which is a documentary about a woman who wants to join the Palestinian Security Forces. We have ‘Naila and the Uprising,’ which is a story about a very strong lady who tried to stand up for (the right to self-determination).”
There are films, too, about joy, celebration and release under occupation. “In one of the documentary’s we’re screening, called ‘WALL,’ they cover the nightlife scene and how it was a place where people would forget the chaos and just be together, regardless of which side they were on or which area they were coming from,” Al-Sadek says. “And it shows you how one terrorist attack in a club kind of triggered the formation of the wall.

A still from the film 'White Oil.' (Supplied)

“Last year we screened a film called ‘Beneath the Earth,’ which is going to be made into a full-length feature about the music scenes within Palestine, and once we screened a film about mystical folklore across Palestine and it showed the different religions that had formed there and their music. There are so many different communities there and they have their different traditions as well.”
This year, there’s also a ‘family friendly’ movie showing, she adds. “The Tower,” by Norwegian filmmaker Mats Grorud, is an animated feature about one of the largest refugee camps in Lebanon. Screenings will be held during the daytime so that children can attend.
For all its admirable ambitions of spreading awareness of Palestinian heritage and of life under occupation, Reel Palestine still has a very personal benefit for Al-Sadek — one that will probably resonate with many visitors to the festival.
“I’ve never been to Palestine, and neither has my dad,” she explains. “I’m the second-generation to be born outside of Palestine, and I felt like I didn’t really know much about my heritage — whether that be food, accents, (colloquial) language and sayings, different dialects… I wasn’t aware of a lot of these things. And I’ve been able to learn about them through films.”
Five years on, she continues to learn.

The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

Updated 16 February 2019

The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

  • “Building Blocks”, Sara Naim's second solo show, runs until February 27
  • She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer

DUBAI: Nostalgia takes many forms. For the Syrian visual artist Sara Naim, those forms are jasmine, soil and Aleppo soap.

All three are central to her second solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, “Building Blocks” — which runs until February 27 — but not in the way you’d expect. 

Using a scanning electron microscope, Naim has captured the cellular structure of all three substances, magnified them, and mounted the resultant imagery on wood and plexiglass. She has also deliberately included glitches — formal distortions and light leaks — producing imagery so abstracted it is no longer recognizable. These abstract examinations create the wall works of the show and hint at the imperfection of memory, while in the midst of it all are a series of structures made from 4,000 bars of Aleppo soap.

“I think the idea of warping something that’s familiar into something foreign allows you to shift the viewer’s perspective and to reshape how they think of nostalgia,” says Naim, who was born in London, raised in Dubai, and currently lives in Paris. “Because nostalgia operates in a way that’s no longer linked to the original information. The memory of something changes the more time has elapsed and the more you think about it. You can also become consumed in thought and therefore lost in it. 

“You assume that the closer you come to something the more familiar it becomes, but actually you become more distant because it’s so abstracted. For example, some of these are looked at 50,000 times magnified, and at that scale you’re further from its truth.”

In many ways “Building Blocks” is as much about identity as it is about nostalgia. All three of the elements used by Naim may be familiar to her — the jasmine and soil are from her grandmother’s garden in Damascus — but the memories they trigger (through smell primarily) are also perceived as foreign. This is due to her international upbringing as much as it is to the conflict in Syria, which has kept her away from the country for the past eight years. 

“I’ve always said I’m Syrian,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m British, I don’t feel like I’m from Dubai. My blood is Syrian. I completely connect with the land and the people even though there’s an interesting acceptance issue in Syria. Because they don’t consider me to be Syrian really when I’m there and even if I meet a Syrian here or elsewhere they feel disconnected from me. And (vice-versa).

“I met a British woman recently who has a house in Damascus and she’s been going there for the past 20 years. She was telling me about the street that she lives on and where she goes and I didn’t even know those places. And it was such a shame for me to feel like I’m more removed from my country than an expat is. But it’s all the nature of circumstance.”

The exhibition is, in essence, a continuation of Naim’s wider body of work, which utilizes the transmission electronic microscope and the scanning electron microscope to create ‘abstract quasi-photographic imagery’. It’s a practice she says “dissects how proportion shapes our perception and notion of boundary.” 

She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer. It’s a point of classification that she herself has debated.

“I used to correct people when they introduced me as a photographer, hoping that ‘visual artist’ would give me more freedom,” she admits. “But actually embracing it as photographic allows me to enter into the very dialogue I want to be a part of. Why are cameras made with a rectangular frame? Why are prints framed the way they are? Why is photography considered two-dimensional when it fundamentally uses space and time? I have rid myself of those restrictions, but my work is still photographic.”

Naim is in the final stages of preparing for the exhibition when we meet. The soap has yet to arrive, the towers have yet to be built, but everything else appears to be in place. Although she looks tired, occasionally passing her hand through her hair, she is chatty and affable. 

“The names that I’ve given these are not the final names,” she says as we meander through the space. “So, this is ‘Form Six,’ but in my mind — before I named them — it was just ‘Color.’ This was ‘Flower,’ this was ‘Diptych,’ this is ‘Bed Sheet,’ this was ‘Horizontal,’ this was ‘Squiggly,’” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I couldn’t keep it like that. ‘Bed Sheet’ wasn’t really flying with the gallery either.”

Far from being universal in shape, each form imitates a topography that Naim has encountered during her scanning process. A process that, in one way or another, Naim has been deeply involved with for the past 10 years.

Initially, it wasn’t so much the scanning electron microscope, or even photography, that Naim was interested in, but the idea of ‘false lines.’ 

“The skin seems as though it separates the body from its internal anatomy and external world, but — in fact — it’s almost like a collision of two energy forces, and on a cellular scale there is no such division,” she explains. “And how you represent that lack of border or boundary is by going down to the cell and having them look like something foreign — like a foreign landscape, or something macro.” 

It is this notion of the non-boundary, the interconnectedness of matter, that drives Naim’s work.

“I like to play with the viewer’s perspective in terms of scale, subject matter and form, but everything must be precise and sterile in order to actually convince someone to shift the way they see or think. A good dancer makes the choreography feel effortless; I try to use that concept in my work,” she says. “If the viewer begins by asking me about the process of how they were built, then that’s my fault. I’ve lost them to rationality rather than abstraction.”