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MIDEAST: After 25 Years, Cinema Comes to Divided Town

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM, Feb 18 2012 (IPS) - Palestinians in East Jerusalem can once again go to the movies, after Al Quds Cinema reopened its doors this week after being closed for 25 years. Organisers say this signals the rebirth for Palestinian arts and culture in the city.

The new Al Quds cinema opens in East Jerusalem. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/IPS.

The new Al Quds cinema opens in East Jerusalem. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/IPS.

“We have been cut off for a while from the rest of the world, so I think that this is the perfect place for Palestinians to come,” Rima Essa, the cinema coordinator tells IPS. “I’m trying to bring a lot of films from areas that we never thought of bringing films from; from Iran, Syria, Lebanon. We hope that this centre will give the Palestinians a different cultural experience.”

Housed in the Yabous Cultural Centre in East Jerusalem, Al Quds Cinema celebrated its relaunch with an inaugural film festival called ‘Freedom Films Week’. Nearly a dozen films were shown, on issues ranging from revolutions in Tunisia to sexual harassment in Egypt and daily life for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

“You see that people are really hungry for these kinds of films. People come at the end and speak with you and a lot of people you start to see day after day,” says Essa, who curated the Freedom Films Week festival.

“It’s creating a very interesting and specific cultural centre for Palestinians. We are hoping also that we can reach the everyday Palestinians who are just walking past this building and want to see what’s going on.”

Built in the 1950s, the popular East Jerusalem cinema once held up to 800 people and screened commercial films from the region and around the world until the Israeli authorities closed it in 1987, at the start of the first Palestinian Intifadah.

Most of the film reels and equipment dating back to the cinema’s founding were destroyed due to exposure to sun and rain over the years. A few old film canisters and negatives reels, and one projector, were restored, however, and are now exhibited in the lobby of the Yabous Centre.

Essa says that while construction of additional performance halls and screening rooms is still ongoing, she hopes Al Quds cinema will help fill the cultural void created by the Israeli occupation.

“Economically and socio-economically, it has been a big hassle for them. At most of the cinemas in West Jerusalem, if you want to go to see a film, you will pay 37 shekels (ten dollars). And this is money that Palestinians, because of the situation they are living in, cannot afford, so they are not exposed to cultural events and not exposed to things around them.”

“We are more and more inside a siege that Israel is forcing on Jerusalemite (Palestinians). So I’m hoping that this place actually will give the Palestinians, not only East Jerusalemites but Palestinians in general, the ability to come and to see films.”

Palestinian human rights groups estimate that since August 2001, the Israeli authorities have closed nearly 30 organisations serving the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, including the Orient House, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) former headquarters in the city, the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, and the Arab Studies Society.

In 2009, the Israeli authorities also banned numerous Palestinian cultural and educational events scheduled to celebrate the declaration of Jerusalem as the ‘Capital of Arab Culture’ for that year.

“In general, the Israelis are trying to close everything related to the Palestinians, it doesn’t matter what kind of organisation, cultural or otherwise. This is one of the pressures to push the Palestinians out, and to make the Palestinians feel that they are not related to this city,” says Ziad al-Hammouri, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights (JCSER).

Al-Hammouri tells IPS that the closures of Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem must be seen in the context of Israel’s ongoing Judaisation of the city, and the Israeli stance that any Palestinian connection to Jerusalem constitutes a demographic threat.

“It’s a demographic issue. They want to bring (Jewish-Israeli) settlers (to take) the place of the Palestinians. This kind of pressure on the Palestinians is to get them to leave Jerusalem and make them feel afraid, and it’s related to other kinds of pressures, like home demolition orders and the confiscation of ID cards,” al- Hammouri says.

For Rima Essa, who is herself a respected filmmaker, reopening of Al Quds is not only a way to fight the impact of the Israeli occupation, but can also serve as an important tool to educate and inspire youth.

“Children are not used to go to the cinema. They haven’t had the chance to see films. Now they can be exposed to intellectuals and writers that they never heard about. It’s to be more connected to the Arab world and also to the international world,” says Essa, adding that she wants to organise practical filmmaking workshops for young people and perhaps eventually open a film school.

“As an artist, I can dream. For me, the important thing is cinema.”

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