Jordanian short film “Ismail” by director Nora Alsharif opened the third edition of the Arab Film Festival-Amman at the Royal Film Commission on Saturday, showcasing the country’s talent and growing film industry, according to professionals.
The film, screened and hailed in both the Doha Tribeca Film Festival  and the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, depicts Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout’s life as he was forced to leave his homeland in 1949.
In one of the opening scenes, an Israeli soldier knocks a suitcase off Ismail’s head, revealing the items he had packed haste before joining the departing crowds.
“The content of the suitcase is very important; you see a National Geographic magazine, a book about Michelangelo… it counters the idea that Palestinians don’t have a culture and are not well read,” the film’s scriptwriter Hatem Alsharif said.
Living as a refugee, Shammout worked hard, baking and selling “Velveties” cookies to make a living together with his little brother, Jamal, played by young Nizar Idrees.
The audience follows their steps as they walk away from a train station, where they have been selling the cookies, into a field of landmines.
The resilience and strength in Shammout’s attempts to save himself and his brother and the idea of stepping across a land that is filled with dangers conjures up the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation.
“Israel’s presence is suggested… but the film is not about that, and it is up to everyone to read and interpret the symbolism in it,” Alsharif said, noting that the film was based on a true experience that Shammout went through.
In spite of the underlying themes of the Israeli occupation and Palestinian suffering, the film leaves clichés aside to focus on the personality of Ismail, played by Jordanian Khaled Al Ghwairi.
“He always had an incongruous sense of style… he didn’t belong there… and he finally realised his dream of studying art in Rome,” Alsharif said.
In 1954, after launching a major exhibition in Cairo, Shammout flew to Rome where he joined the Academy of Fine Arts and finally settled in Amman in 1994 where he continued painting.
A close friend of Alsharif, Shammout had told the writer this story, but would never live to see the finished 28-minute result, nor even know about his friend’s idea, as he passed away in 2006 after a productive artistic career.
Ghwairi was also present after Saturday’s screening to discuss the film with the audience.
Within the festival, most film screenings will also be followed by a discussion with some cast and crew members, an occasion for the public to express their thoughts but also to dig deeper into the film’s making and significance, according to organisers.
“The biggest difference in filmmaking today is the audience and how they are not only watching a film but also eager to discuss it after the screening,” RFC Project Manager Shadi Nimri noted.
Today, the audience can play a major role on other levels too, as Nimri noted that the main issue facing the local film industry is the lack of funding despite its growing success internationally and regionally.
To help meet the budget for “Ismail”, a fourth of the money was raised through an online crowd-funding platform, where artists can appeal for public donations to help finance their projects in return for a DVD and merchandising.
Aseel Mansour’s “Line of Sight” was also screened on Saturday and the week-long festival will feature work from five other Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, in what is a step forward compared to the previous editions, Nimri said.
The festival concludes on Friday with Syrian Joud Said’s “My Last Friend”, a 2012 feature film reflecting on the multiple aspects and faces of Syrian society.
By Gaelle Sundelin
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