Toronto Palestine Film Festival holds a mixture of laughter and tears

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From (No) Laughing Matter by French documentary filmmaker Vanessa Rousselot.

French filmmaker Vanessa Rousselot took a very nervy path to gain a fresh insight into the life of Palestinians in the occupied territories. The result is the 2010 documentary, (No) Laughing Matter, which is being shown on Oct. 6 and is one of the highlights at this year's Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which starts Friday. 

With a TV camera, she approached people, young and old, male and female, in shops, stores, the classroom and on the street across the West Bank, Haifa in Israel and in Gaza (via Skype) to ask if each of whom could provide a joke.

At first Rousselot found few takers, particularly among this group of older men in a card game in a bar in Nablus -- a flashpoint itself because of a surfeit of illegal Israeli-Jewish settlements besieging the West Bank city. "[Jokes], there are none here; we don't know any. You should really go to Egypt. There you'll find some there," one of the card players muttered.

Another of the group told Rousselot frankly: "How can we joke around in our situation? When the occupation is over, when we're living happily and freely, that's when we'll be able to tell jokes. These days we don't have the heart for it."

But she persisted in her journey and the result for the viewer is a good supply of funny, inane and sometimes simply absurd samples of humour from a good range of local Palestinians. Providing encouragement was her Bethlehem-based Arabic language teacher, Aida Kattan. Even under their difficult circumstances the Palestinians manage to be funny, the older woman tells her student. "I laugh, therefore I exist. By laughing you prove that you are still alive."

Kattan did a search on Google and found one good example of a Palestinian joke, among a number available on the Internet.

It involves a Palestinian man who lives alone at home. He wants to grow potatoes but is too old to plant a garden. So, he writes to his son who is imprisoned in Israel. "I would like to plant potatoes, but I am incapable of working the soil." The son writes back with instructions: "Absolutely do not go near the garden, I hid some weapons there." Not surprisingly, his captors hear about this right away. The next day, hundred of soldiers show up at the father's home and comb every inch of the backyard. But they cannot find a single weapon. The father then sends off a new letter to his imprisoned son. "The solders sifted through the dirt but found nothing; so now, what do I do?" The son replies, "Now go plant your potatoes."

Kattan adds that the people of Hebron are often the butts of jokes from fellow Palestinians. This is roughly similar to France, where the neighbouring Belgians experience something similar, said Rousselot.

The teacher provided a sample of Hebron joke: "One day a curfew is imposed on Hebron by the Israelis. Everyone runs into the street, out of curiosity. They wanted to see the curfew!"

Later in the film, Roussellot met up with a Palestinian Israeli comedian in Haifa who took the theme further, revealing that it is hard to get Hebron jokes past the Israel Defence Force checkpoints into Israel itself.

Eventually on her travel to Ramallah, the filmmaker visits an elderly anthropologist, Sharif Kanaana, who began collecting jokes during the first Intifada. His cramped apartment contains metal boxes filled with thousands of jokes written on index file cards.

"Jokes are a way of coping with their situation [i.e. that of the Palestinians]. They joke about things that they think they can improve," Kanaana explains.

But other topics are not the subjects for humour because "it doesn't pay; there is no return [for the teller of the joke]," he adds.

Kanaana doesn't list the no-go areas for jokes in Palestine but one restaurant owner in Hebron reveals that no one dares in his community to poke fun at the fanatical and frequently abusive Israeli settlers who live provocatively above the once thriving Arab market. "We don't meddle in that; impossible," the man told the filmmaker.

Palestinian humour is generally gentle and self deprecating, with none of the nasty put-downs found in North American situation comedy.

In an interview, Rousselot told the Beirut newspaper, the Daily Star, that Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and politicians sometimes play supporting roles in the funny tales told but she did not encounter a single anti-Semitic joke on her trip.

What I liked about No Laughing Matter is that it is so original in its conception. I don't know if she is still working on her PhD on Arab-Jewish relations (that's how the young woman says she got sidetracked into making the documentary) but I hope we will see more stuff from this filmmaker.

Unfortunately, I was told by a festival organizer this is the only comedic entry in the current selection of feature films and documentaries selected for viewing at the Toronto Palestine Festival, which runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7.

Still worth seeing, however, is Pomegranates and Myrrh, which was made in 2009 and is finally available as the festival's opener on Sept. 30.  

Directed by the immensely talented Ramallah-based director Najwa Najjar, the film depicts a familiar Palestinian tale of a life's pursuit or goal stopped in its tracks by Israeli colonialism, mixed with a clash between modern and traditional values within the Palestinian culture.

We experience the anguish of a newly married bride, Kamar. She helplessly watches her farmer husband Zaid taken away to prison for assaulting an Israeli solder during a settler-led effort to confiscate his family's rich agricultural fields within the West Bank. In face of relatives' disapproval Kamar tries to maintain her sanity while waiting for Zaid's release by continuing to attend dance classes in Ramallah. These are led by a Lebanese-Palestinian choreographer who has the hots for the new bride and just raises the inner conflict for the recipient of this attention.

I won't say more about the plot except to assure that this is not an entirely a grim account. What kept me watching were the highly believable characters, the shots of the land itself -- and especially the dance numbers throughout the film.

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based writer. rabble.ca is proud to be a Media Sponsor of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival

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