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Drama meets daily life in Masharawi’s latest feature

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank: Brazen and in broad daylight, “Israeli infantry” plunge deep into the West Bank capital of Ramallah, hoisting a flag atop a makeshift checkpoint.

A motley crowd of children, muhajiba ladies and young men in jeans chant defiantly in the summer sun at the fatigued soldiers facing them with rifles. A clash looms.

“Cut!” Director Rashid Masharawi steps into the fray, his cargo shorts and straw sun hat breaking the illusion he and his actors have created on the set of his feature-length film “Palestine Stereo.”

“No. like this!” he corrects a soldier-actor poised to throw his tear gas bomb under-handed and chides the crowd for not reeling back with enough force.

“Fast!” barked an assistant at this street corner turned movie set. “And everybody in a different direction!”

With a budget of $1.5 million, “Palestine Stereo” is set to be one of the most expensive films yet produced by Palestinians, and aims to transcend stale news reports and use art to convey the mindset of a people steeped in 45 years of Israeli occupation.

“It’s the story of every Palestinian, loving this land, but pressured into thinking about leaving it,” said Masharawi, who was raised in a Gaza refugee camp. “At the same time it’s not all sadness. There’s hope, a love story, and thoughts for the future.”

Palestinian cinema has experienced a renaissance and a broadening global reach in the last decade.

Masharawi’s last film, “Leila’s Birthday” was screened in film festivals from Toronto to Tokyo in 2008. Elia Suleiman’s dark comedy “Divine Intervention” was nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2002. Hany Abu Assad’s 2005 feature “Paradise Now” garnered international acclaim for its exploration of the psychology of suicide bombers.

“Maybe it won’t change any minds,” Masharawi continued, “but it can at least show our daily lives to a different audience, hopefully through cinemas in France, Germany and elsewhere.”

His tale follows two brothers, shocked by a deadly Israeli raid on their refugee camp home into contemplating emigration. Scrounging up the cash needed for their flight by working as audio engineers, they are exposed to the full pageant of West Bank life, in which fact and fiction overlap uncannily.

They bungle the sound at a stale VIP photo-op in a local hotel, a familiar scene in Palestinian politics, and are shown providing speakers at a real-life solidarity march for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails at Ramallah’s Red Cross headquarters.

The most pervasive hassle for Palestinians – Israeli checkpoints, barriers, and screening – defined the day’s filming, as the brothers are depicted trying to spirit their equipment to Jerusalem through the melee. It also had an impact the film’s production.

“We were stopped with our equipment by the Israelis for four hours at a checkpoint on the road from the North,” said producer Abed al-Salam Abu Askar, who helped organize the film through his fledgling company CinePal Films.

Smiling, he waves off a wayward Jerusalem taxi, the driver mistaking the elaborate set for the road back to the holy city.

“Our foreign staff had to tell the airport that they were just visiting Israel,” he said, as Israeli passport authorities routinely interrogate and restrict visitors to the Palestinian territories.

Despite the obstacles, the project demonstrates the increasing potential of the Palestinian film industry, albeit one that still depends on foreign help and personal connections.

Cinetelefilms, a prominent Tunisian production firm, along with the Gaza Media Center and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Investment Fund, helped underwrite the film. Post-production will take place in Italy ahead of a release set for next year.

Though around three or four Palestinian films are produced for international release each year, according to Abu Askar, production still depends on foreign know-how and local institutions for cinema are scant.

Extras have been recruited from a local refugee camp, and police cordons for the film site down to the guns and helmets of the “Israeli soldiers” were on loan from the Palestinian Authority.

Shoving aside with bizarre ease the roadblocks, made of painted plywood made to look like thick concrete cubes, Aid Safi of Ramallah’s al-Amaari camp aims his weapon with a laugh, acutely aware of the irony of his Israeli military uniform.

“We know their behavior,” Safi said, “the way they shout, the way they move. From our experience, we’ve known it our whole lives.”

“We even know how their language,” said Hassan al-Haridi, who insisted on speaking Hebrew to stay in character. “I learned it in an Israeli prison. Three years I was there.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2012, on page 16.

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