Before director Rashid Masharawi, whose latest film “Diary of Rue Gabrielle” makes its world premiere at the Cairo Film Festival this week, started making films, there wasn’t much of a film industry in Palestine, beyond propaganda films by the PLO, he says.
“I was the first,” he says, refering to being the first Palestinian filmmaker to have a film selected at Cannes as a Palestinian film.
“In the early days, festivals that were cautious about Middle East politics, didn’t know which country to assign me to. At one event I wore a badge saying ‘The Palestinian Director,’ ” he recalls.
His short film “The Shelter” (1988), which marked his debut on the international festival circuit, played at the Berlinale. It’s country of origin was marked Israel.
“Diary of Rue Gabrielle” is set in Montmartre, Paris, but “it’s about Palestine,” he says.
The film was shot in the Spring of 2020, once lockdown began in France. “I was [in Paris] preparing my next film when suddenly I was stuck,” he says. “I couldn’t go back to Ramallah.”
A friend offered him a Canon 5D but he resolved to film on his iPhone 5 instead. “It’s a concept to shoot on a phone,” he says. “It’s always there in your pocket. It’s a contrast to some of the productions I’ve worked on with big hotels filled with crew and equipment shipped between countries.”
Masharawi grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza, and the French response to COVID-19, including the need for paperwork to leave the house, and curfews, reminded him of his upbringing in the Al-Shati refugee camp.
“Suddenly you have flashbacks from your area. The need to buy food. Not being allowed out. I remember sometimes in Gaza, if you went out you would be shot during curfew. I saw it happen with my own eyes,” he says. “A refugee camp has its own culture.”
Cinema was a way to escape. “Cinema is like dreams. Israel cannot occupy dreams. They can occupy houses. We want to dream. In a refugee camp you dream as well. You want to change your reality,” he says.
“Your choices are limited when you are in a refugee camp. You pass many wars and curfews. You are limited with your possibilities. No one gives you anything so you must create it.”
“Rue Gabrielle” follows the new lockdown friends in the street that Masharawi lives on. When an abandoned old lady dies in his building, he lights a candle above her mailbox and says, “Remember you have relatives in Palestine.”
The film is poetic and beautifully lit with sunshine and neighborhood encounters.
“For me ‘Rue Gabrielle’ is about Palestine,” he says. “Montmartre is not a refugee camp, but it reminded me with this lockdown culture of my past. It was a question of space. Permission to move. Freedom.”
A second film he completed during lockdown, “Recovery,” will play at the Red Sea Film Festival this month.
In “Recovery,” he brings his family’s hometown Jaffa to life using old photographs matched with a soundtrack that brings the images to life.
Meanwhile, his next film, “Passing Dreams,” is in the financing stage, and is part of the Red Sea project market. It follows a boy who loses a pigeon that moves between Bethlehem, Haifa and Jerusalem. Saleh Bakri, who appeared in “The Band’s Visit,” will play the father of the two boys in the film.
“I believe in cinema as something that can protect memory and culture,” he says. “I have been doing it for the last 45 years. Palestine exists in cinema more than on the ground, because it’s in our mind. All things that support history, culture and art offer protection. But don’t give us prizes because we are Palestinian but because we make good films,” he says.