Palestinian filmmaker facing deportation from Norway after officials claim he is not a director

Norwegian film organizations and unions have banded together in an international call for help from groups outside the country to put pressure on their government. At issue is the case of a Palestinian filmmaker, Mohamed Jabaly, who could be deported Dec. 30.

"I was supposed to be sent away today [Dec. 21] but my lawyer asked for more time to get my documents ready, thank God to the local police they understood," Jabaly told rabble.ca in a Skype interview.

"The problem is I don't have a bachelor's in film. I have one in IT but I am a filmmaker!"

Jabaly arrived in northern Norway near the end of 2014 as part of a youth exchange between the northern city of Tromsø and Gaza -- which are twinned sister cities. He was brought in to discuss life in Gaza but he also had footage from the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.

"He's never been a refugee," points out Norwegian producer John Arvid Berger. First, Berger teamed up with Jabaly to create a quick short version of the film Ambulance. Then, along with some other executive producers, they realized they had a bigger film on their hands. Jabaly was able to secure a one-year work visa.

"He's been paid to do this work and has paid Norwegian taxes," said Berger. "The film has done well. It's been shown at some big festivals."

Ambulance -- Jabaly's first-person account of his time volunteering with an ambulance service during the summer of 2014 -- had its world premiere at the highly prestigious Sheffield DocFest back in June and then, in November, at the biggest documentary festival in the world, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

It has already been broadcast on Al Jazeera English and has future broadcasts in Norway and Denmark.

"It means a lot to share my personal story, which is the story of all the people of Gaza," said the 26-year-old filmmaker. "I show how people survive under such circumstances. I know I have done something good, that people respect what I have made and it is successful."

Ambulance film poster.

Ambulance is slated for further festival screenings in 2017 in England, Norway, France and around the world. Producers are also applying to festivals in North America, including Hot Docs in Toronto. 

If Jabaly is deported, and tries to cross the border into Gaza while it is closed, Berger says the fear is he may end up in detention or at a refugee camp in Egypt.

The producer and various organizations have set up a petition and a fundraising page to help Jabaly's cause.

The right credentials at issue

Jabaly snagged a one-year work permit after his exchange program but when it went up for renewal, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) rejected him on the basis that he wasn't a "proper" director with the right credentials -- i.e. at least six years of studies in film.

"They claim he doesn't have the proper worker credentials for Norway," Berger told rabble.ca in an interview. "This kind of situation, as far as our lawyer has said, has never happened before."

Jabaly is now at the appeal stage with the Norwegian Immigration Tribunal (UNE). He will have no recourse if they reject him.

"The bureaucrats, they do not understand what is art," said Jabaly. "At least, the authorities should ask the film union or producers if I am qualified. They have all supported me."

Indeed, the Norwegian Filmworkers' Union, the Norwegian Film Producers' Association and the North Norwegian Film Centre are all behind him.

According to Berger, his lawyer has told him the government is using Jabaly as a test case.

"We have a far-right faction in our government and they want all foreigners to be out of the country," he said. In 2013, national elections resulted in a conservative minority government formed by the Conservative Party and the Progress Party -- considered a populist, right-wing party.

Berger said he's upset because as a producer, he is planning a second film with the director and would like Jabaly to have a two-year work permit. Jabaly's next documentary concerns his friendship with a fellow Gazan in Tromsø and how they both navigate life and friendship in northern Norway.

"The government is interfering with my right as producer to hire whom I want."

Jabaly has said, so far, he has gotten a massive swell of support in Norway -- the municipality of Tromsø has come out to support him and so have major newspapers as well as total strangers on social media.

"I am an artist. I am not seeking asylum," he emphasized. "I just want to live and travel like everyone else. And in the end, I believe I will always have a home in this world, maybe not on the ground but maybe in peoples' hearts."

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Learn more about the campaign to help Mohamed Jabaly here.

For international donations:

Hermann Greuel / IBAN: NO4847503009508 / BIC/SWIFT: SNOWNO22 / Reference: ADVOKAT TIL MOHAMED / SpareBank 1 Nord-Norge, Storgata 65, 9008 Tromsø Norway

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