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Netflix says it backs authentic storytelling in its Palestinian film collection

Streaming giant defends ‘Palestinian Stories’ as a showcase of ‘depth and diversity’ after pro-Israel watchdog group points out BDS leanings of participating Palestinian directors

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

From Palestinian filmmaker's Hany Abu Assad's 2013 film 'Omar,' now streaming on Netflix from October 2021 as part of the new Palestinian collection (Courtesy 'Omar' PR)
From Palestinian filmmaker's Hany Abu Assad's 2013 film 'Omar,' now streaming on Netflix from October 2021 as part of the new Palestinian collection (Courtesy 'Omar' PR)

A majority of films featured in Netflix’s new “Palestinian Stories” collection were directed by supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, according to right-wing watchdog Im Tirtzu.

Im Tirtzu charged this week that 16 of the 19 directors directing the various films support BDS.

The streaming giant, which tagged the Palestinian films as “Social Issue Dramas,” rebuffed the accusation.

“Netflix believes in artistic freedom and is continuously investing in authentic storytelling from all over the world,” it said in a statement. “The Palestinian film collection will showcase the depth and diversity of the Palestinian experience, exploring people’s lives, dreams, families, friendships, and love.”

The streaming platform has invested in dozens of Israeli shows like “Hit and Run,” “Fauda,” “Shtisel,” “When Heroes Fly” and others, said a Netflix representative in Israel.

Netflix recently released an official statement on Twitter and Instagram outlining its position against antisemitism in all its forms, including a worrying increase in hate crimes and Holocaust denial, the Netflix representative noted.

The Palestinian collection features a variety of directors and films. Twelve of the films are short, and the entire selection spans more than a decade of Palestinian-made movies.

Some of the Palestinian filmmakers are Christian, others are Muslim. There are a handful of female Palestinian directors, including Jessica Habie, director of 2014’s “Mars at Sunrise,” who identifies herself as being from a Jewish-Arab family with Guatemalan heritage.

Five of the films are by Mahdi Fleifel, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and moved to Dubai and then Denmark with his family, but whose films and company — Nakba FilmWorks — touch on his family’s connection and disillusionment with the lack of prospects for their homeland, Palestine.

While many of the featured directors on Netflix now live outside the Middle East, they have repeatedly returned to the conflict for the potent fodder it offers for their work.

Hany Abu Assad, a Nazareth-born filmmaker living in the Netherlands whose award-winning 2013 film, “Omar,” is about a young Palestinian baker who becomes a militant, has always found that Palestine offers the most inspiration.

“I lived abroad for 25 years, but I still felt like I was part of the Palestinian story,” he told The Times of Israel in 2013, remembering “humiliating experiences” at the airport and checkpoints, and when his aunt couldn’t visit her dying mother because of border and residence issues.

Abu Assad told Variety in May, during renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians in and around Gaza, that as an artist, he “wants to be part of the resistance by making valuable movies. Any Palestinian film is an act of resistance because when you’re making a film, which is recognized as a high art form, you are defying and debunking the supremacist power that is telling you that you’re worthless.”

Another Nazareth-born filmmaker of Abu Assad’s generation is Elia Suleiman, who has lived in Paris for years and is considered the film industry’s heir to Buster Keaton for his existentialist comedies.

Two of his films, “Chronicle of a Disappearance” and “Divine Intervention,” are now streaming on Netflix.

Suleiman said that his first films were a shock to audiences because they were humorous, while portraying the realities of Palestinian life.

“People attacked the film because they thought films were either with us or against us,” he told The Irish Times in June. “Or that films should be used to promote the cause or show violence of the other, of the oppressor. And suddenly, this humorous film came along and people went as far as accusing me of being a traitor, a collaborator.”

Suleiman received Israeli government funding for “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” his 1996 film, now on Netflix, in which he stars.

There was a brief period in the late 1990s, following the 1995 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, that the Israel Film Fund helped produce films that dealt with politically sensitive content, and allowed those films to be identified and distributed as Palestinian, not Israeli.

When Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin’s latest film, “Let There Be Morning,” about a Palestinian family, premiered at the Cannes film festival this summer, the Palestinian actors boycotted the screening because of its identification as Israeli, and not Palestinian.

It’s complicated, filmmaker Annemarie Jacir told Deadline Hollywood in July. Jacir’s 2007 film, “Salt of This Sea,” is also part of the Palestinian collection currently on Netflix.

“Salt of This Sea” follows a working-class American woman whose parents were Palestinian refugees, as she makes her first return to her family’s homeland.

Jacir said that story is paramount, rather than the idea of being a representative for all Palestinian voices.

“I don’t want to represent Palestine or Palestinians, I want to tell stories that I feel are real stories that are really interesting to me, that are complicated and aren’t just black and white,” she told Deadline. “I want to ask and leave questions. But sometimes, when you are in a space where you are the only film screening from that particular region, people really want you to be the spokesperson, or they want your film to represent something.”

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