Festival Watch: The Palestine Film Festival, London

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The Independent Culture

Gaza-born Khaled Ziada had never seen a Palestinian film until he came to Britain to study at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) a decade ago. "My generation grew up under full occupation. Palestinian films or any works made from a Palestinian perspective were illegal. They were regarded as dangerous," he says. "I saw my first Palestinian film, Michel Khleifi's Tale of Three Jewels, here in London."

A mixture of realism and allegory set against the backdrop of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel in the early 1990s, Khleifi's tale of a 12-year-old boy who falls in love with a gypsy girl was one of the first ever works to be shot in the Gaza Strip.

Ten years on, Ziada is co-head of the ever-expanding Palestine Film Festival that kicked off at the Barbican last weekend and continues at SOAS from Saturday. In its sixth year, the event is showing 30-odd titles examining Palestinian life under Israeli occupation or in exile.

"The main aim of the festival is to raise awareness of the Palestinian situation and the human-rights issues involved," says Ziada. "We look for works that shed light on the dynamics of the conflict. The opening film, Arna's Children, for example, puts the circle of violence into context and challenges a lot of misconceptions about Palestinians."

Juliano Mer Khamis's award-winning documentary follows the fate of young boys from the Jenin refugee camp who once belonged to a theatre group run by his mother Arna, an Israeli human-rights activist. Intercutting old footage of their productions with interviews, he charts their trajectories from children to militants and, in one case, suicide attacker.

The opening weekend also featured Khleifi's latest work, Route 181 - Fragments of a Journey in Palestine/Israel, an epic four-hour documentary co-directed with the Israeli film-maker Eyal Sivan.

It follows the pair's two-month journey in the summer of 2002 along the border outlined by the United Nations' failed 1947 Resolution 181 aimed at partitioning Palestine into two states. They trace its route from south to north, searching for the remains of Palestinian villages and interviewing people on both sides of the conflict: ageing Kibbutzniks, roadside café owners, a razor-wire manufacturer, a Palestinian farmer, a schoolboy from an Arab town on the Israeli side of the Green Line who describes himself as "a Muslim Israeli", causing his friend to shout out "No, no. We're Palestinian."

Ziada and co-head Nick Denes have also sought to bring works by a younger generation of Palestinian film-makers to the big screen. The advent of affordable digital video cameras has led to the production of scores of shorts examining the conflict. "We'd like to show more new stuff; we put out feelers all over the place, but it can be difficult to source material from the West Bank and Gaza," says Ziada.

Shorts due to screen include Najwa Najjar's They Came from The East, about three women travelling cross-country in the West Bank by night to avoid settler fire.

Among the non-Palestinian works scheduled for the second week is Israeli Asher Tlalim's Don't Touch My Holocaust following an Israeli experimental theatre group's exploration of what the Holocaust means for later generations of Jews. It seems an odd choice for a festival devoted to Palestinian issues. The 1994 title is more often seen in the line-up for Jewish film festivals.

"Yes, I was surprised, too," says Tlalim, who will be answering questions after the screening. "I asked Khaled, 'Are you sure you want to show it?' He assured me that the selection committee had watched it a number of times and thought it made sense for the festival. One of the issues in the film is the effect the Holocaust has had on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I understand why they put it in."