Profile: Hadeel Assali co-founder of Houston Palestine Film Festival

In March 2010, my short documentary (co-directed by Eli Habib) Life from the BBC about a young Palestinian hip-hop crew (I-Voice) from the Bourj al Barajneh Camp in south Beirut, premiered at South by Southwest Music Festival. Shortly after that in May 2010, Life from the BBC scored a late entry into Houston, Texas’ most prestigious young film festival – the Houston Palestine Film Festival.

Hadeel Assali at her mom’s house

Hadeel Assali, the co-founder and director of the HPFF, is one of the primary reasons that this festival has been so successful. Beats and Breath sat down with Hadeel after last year’s festival to talk to her about her plans with the festival and what is in store for this young aspiring filmmaker’s immediate future. We feel it’s an interview that is perfect to post in anticipation of the 5th annual Houston Palestine Film Festival this May 13-21, 2011.

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HOUSTON – I’m from Houston, Texas. When I tell people in Beirut I’m from Houston, rarely are there lukewarm reactions, and for good reasons; Houston is among the fattest cities in the world; the capital for the oil and petrochemical industry; the most corporate town in America. Of course the Bush family has played the biggest role in the negative stereotypes of Houston (and Texas) as a haven for simpleton cowboys with global power ambitions.

Houston is, however, a resilient city filled with a diversity of immigrant communities that all claim the city as their own. Large communities of East Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, African, Caribbean and of course Mexican immigrants and émigrés from New Orleans are helping to redefine the reputation of Houston as being White, conservative and racist.

Hadeel Assali is a Palestinian cultural activist raised in Houston who knows all too well the need to redefine stereotypes of her community. Assali is the co-founder and executive director of the Houstone Palestine Film Festival, a four year-old (at the time of posting – 5-year old) festival that Houstonians voted the Best Film Festival for 2009 (and 2010). Like many Arab immigrants in the US, she’s spent a lifetime combating stereotypes and building community bridges. It’s obvious to anyone who meets Assali, she is no nonsense and it is her straightforward approach to issues that endears her to even the Rebel-flag wearing southern white boys.

I met Assali a couple of years ago after she helped bring the well-known Palestinian (via Brooklyn, NY) poet Suheir Hammad to Houston in the early part of 2008. I was always impressed with her ability to organize within many communities, and the HPFF is a testament to her ability to organize in an environment where Arabs and Muslims have become targets in a post-September 11/post-Iraq America.

Assali told one local magazine, “The first year of the Houston Palestine Film Festival was almost an experiment. After three successful years, we know we have an obligation to the continued growth of the HPFF. For Palestinians and Arabs, it is important to see positive images of ourselves on screen.”

And grow it has. The HPFF maintains audiences of 400 people at screenings and does them at one of the most corporate-financed cultural institutions in Houston – the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Hadeel Assali with M-1 from Dead Prez

In 2010 “we felt compelled to open the festival with a spotlight on Gaza and one of the worst atrocities on the Palestinian people while also highlighting the persistence of the human spirit as you could see in the documentary ‘Aisheen [Still Alive in Gaza].’ We rounded off the night with a discussion with M-1 of the (of hip-hop crew Dead Prez), who traveled to Gaza last summer with the Viva Palestina convoy,” Assali says.

The following is an interview I conducted with Hadeel in the weeks following last year’s festival. It’s both informative and revealing, and in the tradition of Studs Terkel – I always believe it’s best to let the interviewee peel back the layers in their own words.

INTERVIEW

BEATS AND BREATH:  Explain the genesis of the film festival in Houston?

HADEEL ASSALI: It began with inspiration from friends in Chicago who began the Chicago Palestine Film Festival and suggested that I start one in Houston. I happened to attend a programming meeting for Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a non-profit organization in Houston dedicated to addressing social justice issues through the arts, in the late summer of 2006 – after the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and Lebanon. The VBB folks were eager to do something to address the devastation in Palestine and Lebanon. I suggested a Palestine Film Festival and they loved the idea. It was pulled together with donations from the community and several volunteers in a very short timeframe. We walked into the first night of the first Houston Palestine Film Festival expecting 50-100 people; instead we found a packed house of nearly 300 every night of the festival. This sent us a clear message that the Houston Palestine Film Festival (HPFF) is needed and each year that message is reaffirmed.

BB: You told Electronic Intifada in 2008 – “The Houston Palestine Film Festival’s aim is to share the Palestine that is not shown in mainstream media” – how has that view of Palestine been affected in your own life in the four years you’ve been hosting the festival?

HADEEL: Although many Palestinians are loathe to admit it, I believe the mainstream media has affected our psyche in a very negative way – to the point that many are even ashamed of admitting they are Palestinian because of the constant stereotypes of us as either terrorists or helpless victims. This is something we aim to change with the HPFF – it is important for us to have a say in our image (it is OUR image after all) and what is displayed on either the big screen or television screens. We are a young community in the United States that is not yet at the point where we can affect mainstream media. However, we can create our own films and our own festivals where audiences will see who we truly are and hear our stories and perspectives.

Attendees at the 2010 Houston Palestine Film Festival Lens: Kris Sears

Perhaps the most encouraging thing has been the response of both Palestinian youth and elders. The elders have told us that we have given them hope that the story of Palestine will not die with them, that our generation will keep it alive. Several young Palestinians have told us that it is very exciting for them to see themselves depicted in such a positive light during events where people from many different cultures and backgrounds come to hear the story and express solidarity with the Palestinian people. These things alone have given me the motivation to continue with this approach.

BB: Given the groundbreaking nature of some of the films shown over the last 4 years, what film do you think caused the most openly critical debate both in the audience and after the festival ended?

HADEEL: That is a tough question. I would have to say it was “Maria’s Grotto,” a film by Buthayna Khoury that addresses the issue of honor killings in Palestinian society (screened in 2010). We had a panel discussion with the director, one of the women in the film, and several other women from other communities that face this similar social problem. Perhaps it was the introspective nature of the film and addressing an issue that we typically shy away from for fear of reinforcing stereotypes, but the audience was very engaged and wanted to continue the discussion for longer than the time we had allotted. Of course we also got comments from some questioning why we would screen such a film that “makes us look bad,” but I think it says a lot about us as a people to be willing to address social ills (and every society has social ills) despite the external forces that are trying to keep us from even existing as a normal society.

Sabreena da Witch from Al-Lyd now living in Baltimore

BB: You’ve shown the hip-hop documentary ‘Slingshot’ and have featured hip-hop performances over the last two years including performances by Palestinian hip-hop acts like DAM (featured in Slingshot) and Sabreena da Witch. How important is hip-hop in framing the issues facing Palestinians?

HADEEL:  Hip-Hop has become a global movement and language that has enabled the Palestinians that have embraced it to connect with people all over the world who speak that language. Some people express themselves through music, poetry, film, writing, direct action – hip-hop is another form of expression that is not only educational for the audiences, but also a positive outlet for Palestinians like DAM and Sabreena da Witch who are living in a racist society. It is very important for all of us to find an outlet so that we do not let the anger and frustration about what is happening to our people fester inside of us. To find a form of expression that allows our voices to be heard while educating others – what could be better?

BB: Do you think the scope of your festival is too specialized or do you think it should be more inclusive of Arab cinema in general?

HADEEL: It is funny you ask this, we seem to be faced with this question almost every year.  In an ideal world, it would not be a big deal either way. However we are not in an ideal world; we are in a world where Palestine is not on the map and Palestinians are fighting for their mere existence as a nation of people with basic human rights and self-determination. The Houston Palestine Film Festival is more than just an arts organization that screens films; our intention is also to make a statement that we do exist as a nation of people regardless of what current world maps say. We also do not have a real government that can provide resources and support for Palestinian filmmakers. While HPFF is not at the point where we can do much more than provide a venue and audience for Palestinian films, one day there will hopefully be a Palestinian film network created to build the industry in a way a nation with a supportive government might.

It is also worth noting that we have featured nights highlighting other Arab countries. One year we did a special tribute to Iraq and another year we featured Lebanon. We hope to do more of this in the future depending on our resources, but for now we do plan to stay focused on Palestinian cinema (because if we don’t do it, who will?).

BB: Has there been any fallout from Jewish groups since the festival started who are quick to claim that any critical statements about Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism?

HADEEL: I am almost disappointed to say no. In fact, I believe we have had a positive influence on the Jewish Film Festival here in Houston, which has recently screened “Ajami” and “Lemon Tree.”

BB: What are you hoping for the festival’s future?

HA: I am hoping that HPFF becomes a permanent Houston institution that retains its status as the Houston Press’ “Best Film Festival in Houston” (we won this award in 2009 [and 2010]). I would like to see a paid staff, our own space, and an extensive film library that would be a resource for other local organizations/film groups, teachers, etc. I would also like to see myself step down from a leadership position so that we do not become like a typical Arab regime – I know this sounds silly, but the real concern is to ensure the festival’s sustainability without becoming dependent on any one personality. Also, I would like to see the festival increase the cross-pollinating with other non-Arab communities in Houston – especially those that face similar issues as Palestinians.

BB: What are some of your highlights the last 4 years?

HADEEL: We have had some incredible films – last year we screened “Amreeka” to a full house at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and even had to turn nearly 50 people away. We had the director Cherien Dabis in attendance, which the audience absolutely loved. My personal favorite things are, as I mentioned before, the cross-cultural events. One of the most beautiful evenings I remember was a night at the El Dorado Ballroom, a historic ballroom in Houston, and a joint poetry night with Suheir Hammad – Palestinian poet – and several local African-American poets associated with our partners for the evening, The Awakenings Movement.

Free Palestine CD covers – Lens by Kris Sears©

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