news

11  02  2009

Arts

Moving pictures - literally - in the West Bank

Before the First Intifada, each major city in the West Bank had two or three cinemas. Now, they've remained closed for so long that the habit of going to the cinema has virtually died away. Yousef Aldeek, a 43-year-old producer, started this Mobile Cinema last November after buying a second-hand 16mm projector on the street, together with some old reels...

As the lights go out, the kids squeal with excitement. Most of them have never been to a movie theater before and this is the first time in their lives they have ever seen larger-than-life figures moving up on the big screen.

It's Sunday afternoon, and in this children's club in the Jalazone refugee camp in suburban Ramallah, the awed audience of youngsters are settling in to watch a story about a boy of their age visiting Jerusalem.

Yousef Aldeek, a 43-year-old producer, started this Mobile Cinema last November after buying a second-hand 16mm projector on the street, together with some old reels.

In the Palestinian Territories, "we have one cinema for three million people," he says, referring to Al-Kasaba, a theater located in downtown Ramallah in the West Bank. Local producers looking for an outlet for their work have been forced to turn almost exclusively to foreign film festivals, "and the Palestinians don't see anything," Aldeek explained.

The inhabitants of remote villages can't get to Al-Kasaba for lack of proper transportation and Israeli checkpoints that turn the trip into a discouraging odyssey. It was this situation that prompted Yousef Aldeek to bring the cinema to them.

The traveling theater was modest to begin with. Initial screenings were thrown up against a white plastic tarpaulin. Recently, the equipment was upgraded thanks to sponsorship from the Palestinian Securities Exchange. Hassan Abu-Libdeh, PSE's chairman, told Yousef Aldeek he agreed to fund the Mobile Cinema for one simple reason: in the refugee camp where he grew up in the 1950s, a UNRWA employee used to come every one or two weeks to show movies and Hassan enjoyed it so much that he used to run there "without shoes."

Part of the money was spent to upgrade the screen, and to purchase a sound system and an LCD projector to show DVDs. "We're trying to make a big thing out of these small things", says Yousef Aldeek. The rest of the budget will keep the project running for at least one year, which works out to around 120 screenings.

Today, in Jalazone, delighted children crowd around the Mobile Cinema team. They press up to the three volunteers unpacking the equipment in the hall of the children's club. The older ones help tape garbage bags to the windows to shut out the daylight while the younger ones set rows of plastic chairs facing the brand new screen.

Ahmad Kawarik, one of the team's volunteers, is pleased with all the excitement. All the "shouting and killing" of the US movies that Palestinian children usually watch on satellite TV is a source of frustration to him. "We want these kids to see our films," he says.

After the preparations, the fifty-something children are asked to take their seats - a feat in itself, which takes some time. Yousef Aldeek reckons that the kids in refugee camps tend to be more boisterous and noisy than in villages. "But when they start to see a movie and understand it, most of them become more relaxed and they enjoy it."

Finally, the spectators, aged 6 to 12, are all set, the lights are turned off and the film begins.

"I'm In Jerusalem" by Mona Aljaredi tells the story of a boy who visits the Old City, prays in the Dome of the Rock, plays soccer and climbs olive trees in the Noble Sanctuary... until he wakes up.

For Yousef Aldeek, the Mobile Cinema is "a kind of resistance". The project focuses - although not exclusively - on Palestinian films. And most of those works speak out against the Israeli Occupation and affirm the Palestinian identity. By showing them in refugee camps and in remote villages, "we are resisting the destruction of our culture".

Before the First Intifada, each major city in the West Bank had two or three cinemas. Now, they've remained closed for so long that the habit of going to the cinema has virtually died away - and a lot of young people who were born after 1987 simply have never seen a film on a big screen. "The most important point in this project is to again create this habit," says Yousef Aldeek.

The Mobile Cinema also aims to "support Palestinian producers by giving people the chance to see their films". For the moment, all the screenings are free. But "maybe sometime, we can reach a stage where we can pay the producers..."

At the end of "I'm In Jerusalem", the audience breaks into thunderous applause and whistles. Yousef Aldeek, who raises his own four kids with his journalist wife, exchanges a few words with the young, enthusiastic spectators. He records their reactions and their comments for a documentary that he's preparing on the Mobile Cinema. He has already chosen the title: "Making Happiness".

"Cinema is like magic", he says, recalling his teenage years in a village 12 kilometers from Ramallah. At the time, he would go to the cinema, scraping together all of his money just to pay for the ticket, which meant that he had to return home by foot. The long walks were no problem though. With an avalanche of new images in his head to inspire him, he "enjoyed it".

That's the kind of passion he'd like to infuse in the young Palestinians.