Sometimes we see a movie for the story and sometimes for its personalities. The women in this year’s Boston Palestine Film Festival stand out for bucking a tidal wave of cultural barriers. There’s a judge, a cop, an entrepreneur and a band of youthful resistors. The documentaries about their lives make clear that as women and girls, securing roles of public influence was neither easy nor impossible.
Programming director Michael Maria says the festival was not necessarily seeking a wide array of films by women directors and with strong female protagonists but the outcome doesn’t surprise him. He suggests that the festival tends to attract more women moviegoers and that its organizing committee has been predominantly women since it began. Plus, he adds, “Palestine is more liberal and cosmopolitan within the spectrum of the Arab world, and though it does have its share of conservative and traditional elements that are male dominated, it's been an environment more welcome to female empowerment.”
Here are five bold characters that illustrate that idea on-screen (along with my own superlatives for each of them):
Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih
Most Likely To Lead Nations
As Seen In 'The Judge' | Oct. 23, 7 p.m. | Paramount Center
Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih has the gravity of bygone news anchors (or politicians for that matter). She radiates an almost old-fashioned wisdom. Something that comes, perhaps, from raising four children and from realizing early on that she has a gift for mediation. “The Judge,” a documentary about her historic appointment as one of the first two women to the Sharia (Islamic law) court, shows her as a master facilitator, itself an underappreciated and rarely documented skill. The strongest scenes show her in a modest courtroom with a folding table and chairs, wearing a uniform she designed. She efficiently and respectfully gets to the heart of family cases, a vast majority of which are filed by women against their husbands for domestic abuse. In one instance, a male defendant starts to read a law to her off a piece of paper. She stops him, “I know this already. I know all of the laws.” She delivers her ruling and he sheepishly exits.
The film shows what Kholoud, and her exceedingly competent female peers, are up against, from scholars of the Quran who say women should not be judges, to women on the street who think it’s fine except that no one will accept a woman’s ruling. In a heated conversation about women’s rights, Kholoud questions why women are taught to raise kids and clean house but not to have equal legal rights to men. “In the Quran verse about the devil they put a picture of a woman. Where does that leave us?” she asks. The broad strokes of patriarchal influence painted in this film resemble those of the world’s major religions and cultural institutions. Kholould knows she’s trudging uphill, but she also knows she’s not alone.
Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji
Most Likely To Win You Over
As Seen In 'What Walaa Wants' | Oct. 27, 4 p.m. | Museum of Fine Arts
“What Walaa Wants” starts when Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji is just 15 — and a troublemaker. “I hit teachers, slash their tires, break their windshields,” she tells her friends over hookah. Her mother was in an Israeli prison for most of Walaa’s childhood and her father lives in Jordan with his second family. No wonder she and her younger brother test authority. For that, Walaa wants to be the authority. She declares with fierce determination that she’ll become a police officer with the Palestinian Security Force. If for some reason she can’t, she’ll get a gun anyway. This wonderfully back-and-forth documentary risks losing viewers by revealing Walaa’s adolescent hubris and ultimately shows her as torn between childish rambunctiousness and adult aggression, a desire for independence and an institutional outlet for her outrage. She heads to military training and struggles. The spunk always crackling to the surface seems to break. Is this what it takes to grow up? When a higher-up finally gives her positive feedback, Walaa swoops into her bunk room and re-enacts the exchange with a Broadway flair. She has learned much and yet has so far to go.
Most Likely To Try Again, And Succeed
As Seen In 'Soufra' | Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. | Museum of Fine Arts
Mariam Shaar has unmatched restraint and non-stop self-assurance. The documentary “Soufra,” named after the catering business she formed with other women living in a Lebanese refugee camp, is an ensemble film, for sure. (The gloriously mouth-watering food cinematography steals scenes.) But Mariam ushers Soufra from nothing to thriving enterprise. She has the vision. She crunches the numbers, hires the right people, takes risks like any ambitious CEO. But Mariam's decisions can be a matter of life and death for her employees and their families.
“Soufra” pleads the case for refugees in Lebanon who cannot get work permits or rent outside the tiny, overrun, prison-like camp where some Palestinian families, like Mariam’s, have lived since 1948. Conditions are miserable and many of the women who work for Soufra do so for basic survival, or to help family members leave. As one woman puts it, when families try to flee, they “risk their life to save their life.” Mariam channels her energy into buying and outfitting a food truck. It sounds simple, but her refugee status makes it nearly impossible. Her lawyer says, “I’ve worked with a lot of people like Mariam, they are not bound to give up. Because they face such obstacles every day… There is no plan B. Plan B is repeat Plan A til it works out.” Mariam is the oldest of her siblings, whose parents deferred when she asked them not to marry her off as a child. She also saw death as a little girl during the war. “War teaches you courage,” she says. “No matter how big the problems are they always seem small.”
Janna Ayyad And Ahed Tamimi
Most Likely To Mobilize Their Generation
As Seen In 'Radiance of Resistance' | Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. | Cambridge Public Library
There’s something about seeing a young girl in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and tutu, her curled hair in a giant pink bow, describing what grenades do. “They can kill or hurt people at any time,” reports Janna Ayyad, who has become a self-appointed camerawoman and correspondent for the aggression she witnesses as a Palestinian living close to a West Bank settlement. “I want to be a journalist so I can document what is happening and send a message to the world,” she says. She and her slightly older friend, Ahed Tamimi, take part in regular protests against Israeli occupation. They also do kid things, like play soccer within view of guards, who then throw tear gas cans at them. Ahed shook her fist at one and her image went viral as the face of Palestinian resistance. “Radiance of Resistance” toys with Janna and Ahed’s role as symbols. Live footage of them fades into animation. Certain segments are cut like music videos, alluding to a kind of current or future pop status. The fragmented structure may distract from the bigger picture: Children seldom take such an active, and risky role in their political representation. When they do, it’s worth close scrutiny.
Most Likely To Rouse Peaceful Activism
As Seen In 'Naila and the Uprising' | Oct. 28 , 3 p.m. | Museum of Fine Arts
While interrogated in prison for her resistance against Israeli occupation, Naila Ayesh suffered a miscarriage. Arrested again with her husband deported — along with many other activist men like him — Naila had to leave their 6-month-old son with family. (He soon joined her as the only infant in prison.) As the riveting documentary “Naila and the Uprising” shows, Naila is one of the dozens of heroic women who helped lead Palestine’s first Intifada in the 1980s. Their non-violent tactics included organizing small business closures and product boycotts as well as growing an underground education system and an alternative produce supply. They also aligned with Israeli women who shared their hope for peace. Yet when a tentative peace agreement opens the door for the men abroad to return to Palestine, the women leaders and their role in influencing history practically evaporates. This documentary puts the forgotten pieces together as a modern-day instruction manual and reminder of what’s possible when women lead through political turmoil.
Two additional films caught my eye:
- The short fiction film “Like Salt” blurs eras, geography, place of origin, and the ups and downs of the so-called American “melting pot” over one night with strong-willed Hala.
- “Salam,” another fiction short, confronts the commonalities and differences in the global female experience when Lyft driver Salam drives a blonde American from upstate New York home, almost.
The Boston Palestine Film Festival runs from Friday, Oct. 19 through Oct. 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Cambridge Public Library, the Paramount Center’s Bright Family Screening Room, and Harvard Law School.