From a Bethlehem camp to Cannes: A Palestinian filmmaker's journey
It’s almost impossible to find a quiet spot in Bethlehem’s Dheisha camp, home to more than 15,000 Palestinian refugees. But that is exactly what the protagonists of 28-year-old Palestinian director Wisam al-Jafari’s short film, Ambience, are trying to do.
Desperate to record a demo for a music competition that could lead to their first album, aspiring musicians Khaled and Ahmad (played by Salah Abu Nima and Mohammad al-Khmour) test various locations, none capable of blocking out the noise and chaos that surrounds them.
No amount of soundproofing helps, and so they eventually choose to use the soundscape to their favour. Heading out into the streets of the camp, they sample all the ambience they encounter – from night raids, to celebrations, construction work and even ambulance sirens – to create a soundtrack of their own lives.
Shot in black in white and with minimal scripted dialogue, even the quietest moment feels charged, as Khaled sits with his elderly mother in their candlelit room during a power outage, frustrated at the next day’s looming deadline.
But as the camera pans over a sea of rooftops in the final shot - the two young men balanced on the window sill as they listen back to the track they have created - we are shown how a culture can constantly find ways to elevate itself from the confines of its conflicted history.
Raised in a refugee camp
It was Jafari’s own upbringing in the Duheisha camp which inspired the film. From his family’s modest apartment at the top of a hill on the edge of the camp, Jafari would gaze out of his bedroom window at the concrete maze of stocky buildings.
After graduating from the UNRWA-run school for Palestinian refugees, Jafari went on to enrol in Bethlehem’s Dar Al-Kalima College of Arts & Culture, where he studied film production.
Though he felt it was his calling - even at school he used to make videos with his friends using a simple digital camera - his family were more hesitant, worried that his chosen career path would not be financially sustainable.
Built in southern Bethlehem in 1949, Dheisha was originally established to accommodate 3,000 refugees who had been forced out of villages around Jerusalem during the Nakba of 1948.
Originally from the Palestinian village of Der Rafat in Jerusalem, Jafari’s family fled to Dheisha that year along with more than 40 other families. Jafari was born in the camp in 1991, Dheisha becoming the only home he has ever known.
But his hard work would ultimately pay off; his graduation project - Ambience - would go on to be selected at multiple international festivals. In 2019, it won joint third place in the Cinéfondation competition, which honours student films.
Presenting life in the camp
Ambience offers a rare and intimate view of life in the refugee camps, and it was exactly this that Jafari was keen to showcase: “I wanted to tell the story of the people,” Jafari says. “This is my daily life in the camp and most of the scenes in the film are inspired by incidents that occurred either to me personally, or to my friends.”
The noise and commotion of daily life was destined to eventually filter into his work. In one scene, the two young men are in Ahmad’s living room about to start recording when their neighbours from a few storey’s up begin arguing loudly over which is added first in a sandwich, the chicken or the mayonnaise.
“Having so many people living in such a small space, we lose our privacy,” Jafari says. “I can always hear my neighbours when they talk inside their homes. I can always guess what they’re cooking because their houses are so close and attached to ours that I can smell what they serve for lunch every day.”
'People opened their homes for us while we were filming...they would turn all the lights on for us to film at night'
- Wisam al-Jafari
But it’s not just the sounds, Ambience also brings to life the sights inside the camp that few outsiders will be familiar with: a young boy resting on the hood of a car, his feet leaning up against a lamppost; masked young men spraying graffiti on the wall; crowds celebrating a recently released prisoner, or a wedding - the scenes of daily life represent the reality for the residents of the camp, especially since Jafari couldn’t afford to pay professional actors.
Just like the characters of Ambience, Jafari faced his own challenges when making his college film. He had no budget for experienced actors, or professional lights and audio equipment, and had to rely on just one camera and a crew of unpaid volunteers.
But, Jafari says, the support of the people in the camp was invaluable. “People opened their homes for us while we were filming,” he says. “They would turn all the lights on for us to film at night. And whenever I asked someone to be an extra, they said yes.”
Travelling to Cannes
Even after Ambience was selected to feature in Cannes, as one of the 16 short films from 2000 submissions, there were still more hurdles to overcome.
Jafari needed to submit his film as a Digital Cinema Package - a format he could only produce using equipment that wasn't available in the West Bank. He finally located a centre to convert his footage, but it was in Jerusalem, which he couldn’t enter without a permit.
Since the Israeli government imposed a total closure on the West Bank during the Second Intifada in 2000, Palestinians have been required to obtain permits from the Israeli authorities in order to enter Jerusalem.
But, like many Palestinians living in the refugee camps who are classified as "security threats", Jafari has been refused a permit.
Finally, another crew member who did have an entry permit was able to travel to Jerusalem in his place. “We had to do all the work over the phone which wasn’t an easy job,” Jafari says.
Then came the dress code. “I neither had a tuxedo nor the money to buy one,” Jafari says, laughing as he recalls the email he received from the festival organisers and the first time he read the word “tuxedo”.
“So I had to borrow each piece of clothing from different friends until I put all the pieces together to make a proper suit.”
Jafari and his crew then raised funds from local companies and organisations to cover their travel and accommodation expenses.
Travelling to the Cannes Film Festival was a huge achievement in itself, but Jafari’s dream was truly realised when Ambience won third place in the Cinéfondation Selection Prize.
“I knew that my film was one of the best films, but I didn’t want to have false hopes,” Jafari says. “When they announced the results, we all jumped for joy. It was the moment I felt that all our hard work paid off and that we Palestinians finally have a voice.”
Jafari's family and friends back home were also excited to hear the results. “You wouldn’t believe how nervous we were,” his sister Joumana told MEE. “When we heard the results, my mother and I were crying. We couldn’t be more proud.”
On stage collecting his award, Jafari dedicated the success to his friend Mohammad al-Khmour, who plays Ahmad in the film but who couldn’t be there with them. Shortly after their filming, Khmour was arrested and held in Israeli administrative detention - a highly controversial policy used almost exclusively against Palestinians - without charge or trial.
Filming their own stories
Winning at Cannes was a turning point for Jafari's career, and he has since received a number of international awards, including the Youssef Chahine Award for Best Short Film at the 2019 Cairo International Film Festival, where he was also selected as one of the five most talented and promising actors and directors from across the Middle East and North Africa.
But Jafari's path to success may not be possible for other aspiring Palestinian filmmakers, regardless of whether they grew up in a refugee camp. Jafari's former film professor and producer of Ambience, Saed Andoni, says that low morale is evident even in first year students.
“They feel defeated,” Andoni says. “And this feeling comes from a defeated socio-political reality. They don’t believe in themselves and their ability to change. We try to change that spirit.”
While Palestinian filmmakers have been making a name globally for years (including Anne Marie Jacir, Elia Suleiman, and Hany Abu Assad, who received two Academy Award nominations for his films Omar and Paradise Now), it is rare for Palestinian refugees living in the camps to achieve international acclaim.
From his office at Dar Al-Kalima College University in Behlehem, Andoni tells MEE that he hopes Jafari's success will inspire others. “Wisam was always a hard-working student,” he says. “His success should be an example for the other students, a motivation for them to challenge themselves and believe that they too can be great filmmakers.”
Jafari is currently working on a long documentary film - a love story about Palestinian prisoners in Israel - and developing a story board for his first feature-length film.
Following the success of Ambience, he plans to continue making films that reflect the reality around him, insisting on the importance of Palestinian filmmakers telling their own story.
“We, the young directors and filmmakers, are trying to do our best to tell stories from our reality,” he says. “From these little incidents, we build a broader story.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.