Sunday, 6 May 2012

Richard II - Palestinian Shakespeare comes to the Globe

Ashtar Theatre receive a rapturous applause 

On Saturday night Ashtar Theatre, a Palestinian theatre group formed in Jerusalem in 1991 but now based in Ramallah, performed Shakespeare's Richard II at Shakespeare's Globe as part of the 'Globe to Globe' festival, with all 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages.

Ashtar Theatre was established by two Palestinian actors - Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun - and is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting commitment to change, training, performing and bringing shows to marginalised audiences, who may not be able to come to their theatre in Ramallah. Ashtar are perhaps best known for their production The Gaza Monologues, which told the real stories of children from Gaza following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Against a backdrop of political discourse surrounding the Globe's decision to allow the Israeli theatre company Habima to participate in the festival, despite its record of involvement with illegally-built Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, the significance of a Palestinian theatre company being invited to perform was sadly somewhat overlooked.

Nevertheless, Ashtar's performance was highly commendable. Although performed in Arabic, two digital screens mounted each side of the stage summarised briefly in English the events in each scene. The acting was highly polished, with characters using the entire theatre space, not just the stage, to run amongst the audience, interacting with individuals and delivering lines from the steps leading down into the standing area of the 'globe'. The competency of the cast was tested when a helicopter flew over the top of the globe, drowning out the voices onstage, but this was deftly included into the scene, much to the laughter and applause of the audience!

For non-arabic speakers, the delivery of lines, facial expressions and music effectively created the mood in each scene and enabled the audience to grasp easily what action was taking place. Heavy emotion was contrasted well with light-hearted touches of humour, particularly emanating from the laughable, vain King when he interacted with the audience of 'peasants' watching from the 'cattle area'.

One particularly moving scene between Richard II (played by Sami Metwasi) and his Queen (Bayan Shbib) effectively portrayed their anguish, despair and love for one another in a way which did not require an understanding of the words spoken to feel the emotions of the fateful pair. The King's demise at the end of the play was handled in a way which almost made you pity the narcissistic, petty Richard.

My beautiful souvenir from the play!
There was a palpable sense of pride throughout the audience during the bow at the end of the play. Palestinian flags were waved, roses were thrown and the cast returned to bow several times due to such high demand! I ended up with a beautiful white rose when it was thrown back into the audience (along with many other flowers from the gracious cast).


2012 London Palestine Film Festival - Review

I attended the final evening of the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival on Thursday, where a series of short films by young women filmmakers from Palestine were being screened.

The films were presented by a Palestinian NGO, Shashat (meaning 'screens' in arabic), under the title 'The Spring of Young Palestinian Women Filmmakers'. This was followed by a panel discussion, chaired by the director of Shashat, Dr Alia Arasoughly. Shashat is an organisation dedicated to the development of Palestinian women filmmakers in the face of adversity.

The president of Shashat (whose name I unfortunately missed) opened the screening, proclaiming 'Israelis have been trying to eradicate the traces of our cultural heritage', setting the tone for an evening of cultural defiance and resistance.

However, the panel made it clear after the screening that pressures on those vehicles for Palestinian culture can also come from internal sources. Governmental censorship and the self-censorship of the media and the public also pose challenges for filmmakers in Palestine. The media was described as 'opportunistic' by Dr Arasoughly, who are quick to condemn 'controversial' films with themes such as female menstruation, incest and pre-marital relationships, until they see the popularity of the films with the masses, when their stance reverses, legitimising the work of organisations such as Shashat.

Often, films are banned in Gaza or the West Bank due to public outcry, and director / producer Laila Abbas (protegee of Shashat and currently on an MA scholarship in the UK, studying film producing) argued, that 'mirroring real life in film doesn't happen like it should.' Film titles banned in parts of Palestine include 'Just Forbidden' (screened at the festival) and 'Golden Pomegranate Seeds'.

'Just Forbidden' - Fadya Salah Aldeen
There are currently no film schools in Palestine and only one or two cinemas. Very few young women study filmmaking at universities such as Hebron, Al-Quds and An-Najah, and those who do are competing with 'pushy' men who clamour for equipment where the ratio is often 1 camera for every 20 students. They often fall into the role of 'production assistant' gaining little experience behind the camera itself.

Sometimes the challenge comes from the families of the girls, who don't approve of the profession, the travelling involved, or for other reasons. Shashat plays a brilliant role in nurturing these girls and helping them to overcome these challenges, running annual summer programmes for them to develop their filmmaking techniques, and screening their work within Palestine and abroad. Laila Abbas said that Shashat gave her 'the confidence to run projects' in 'one of the most difficult, stressful jobs' around.

Films screened on the night

'If U Say Yes or if U Say No', 'Jerusalem on the Messenger', 'Girls and the Sea', 'Just Forbidden', 'Kamkamah' and 'The Sister and her Brother' were all screened.

The evening began with 'Jerusalem on the Messenger', a comedy about a man talking on MSN messenger with 'Salma' (who we don't see). With little dialogue, in order to impress Salma, the man has told the lie that he lives in Jerusalem - a lie which spins out of control, resulting in the photoshopping of some pictures. For its comedic element, the film was considered somewhat controversial in Palestine, with people feeling it almost 'sacrilegious' to use Palestine as a 'pulling tool'.

'The Sister and her Brother' - O. Hamouri & M. Krotkiewski
'The Sister and her Brother' - which I am sure used the beautiful song Sukkar Ya Banat (literally - the caramel used for waxing) on its soundtrack, from the film 'Caramel' - poignantly pieced together with warmth and humour 'home movie' style footage of a girl and her brother talking about love and relationships, throwing light on the double standards in the expectations of girls and boys having relationships in Palestine. The whole family gets embroiled in the debate, and film culminates in a confession made by the sister to her brother.

'Girls and the Sea' and 'If U Say Yes or if U Say No' both dealt with the theme of female defiance, whether the forces of prevention came in the guise of an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint or an angry father. This defiance is tenacious and humorous in both cases, reflecting the defiant nature of Palestinians as a people.

'Kamkamah' - Areej Abu Eid & Eslam Alayan
'Just Forbidden' was a coming-of-age tale about a girl's first period and the social, mental and physical changes which accompany it, whilst 'Kamkamah' (the veiling) was a thoughtful portrayal of war-torn Gaza, suffering from political, economic and humanitarian cruelty, filmed by two girls living in Rafeh on the border, where the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza lie.

For more information on the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival or any of the films featured, visit the Palestine Film Foundation website.