The Toronto Palestine Film Festival: A grassroots gem of the city's cinema scene

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Photo: Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF)

The Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF), now in its fifth year, is at once a grassroots organization and a gem of the Toronto cinema scene.

Six years ago, a group of activists had been screening films at the local and late Brunswick theatre, to much success. Once the Brunswick closed, the idea of a weeklong festival was born.

"A group of us decided to continue [with] the concept of the Brunswick screenings but do it as a film festival," explains Andrew Hugill, founding member of the TPFF organizing committee.  A year later, 60 years after the Nakba, the very first Toronto Palestine Film Festival opened at the Bloor Cinema to a sold out audience. 

Boasting about four to six thousand attendees per season, the weeklong festival hosts over twelve films at the beloved Bloor Cinema in the Annex, the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall and the TIFF Bell Lightbox, home to the Toronto International Film Festival.

But TPFF is more than just a film festival. It's a community event. Sahtain, the annual traditional Palestinian brunch, hosted at Beit Zeitoun (also in the Annex), is an opportunity for TPFF-ers to enjoy music and delicious food. Sahtain, like many other events at TPFF, has been sold out every single year since the organization's inception.

Since last year, TPFF has also been holding an annual art exhibit as part of the festival, "as a means to engage local Toronto artists to display their works on Palestine," according to Nadine Khoury, curator of the exhibit, entitled "Unbreakable Bond."

As I found out from talking to festival organizers, the TPFF season actually begins much earlier in the year. It starts with an annual Launch Party in the spring, an outdoor screening at Christie Pits Park in the summer and a panel of directors early in the fall that present on a number of topics from politics of the Middle East, to the art of film and everything in between. 

Through its pre-festival and festival events over the years, TPFF has brought a number of musicians, writers, filmmakers and actors to Toronto. Highlights from the past five years include spoken word artist Suheir Hammad, filmmakers Ken Loach, Annemarie Jacir and Paul Laverty, and hiphop artists such as Omar Offendum and Shadia Mansour. This year's festival will bring musician Bassam Bishara, director Abdallah Omeish and, of course, the incredible oud master Marcel Khalife and the Al Mayadine Ensemble.

One of the successes of TPFF is its ability to attract diverse audiences. It seems as though there is a real commitment to working with Toronto-based community groups and cultural festivals. A recent TPFF newsletter explains: "The relationships that we have established over the years have allowed us to introduce and expand the Palestinian narrative, history and culture through film, art, music and cuisine to a wide range of audiences." 

"It's really important for TPFF to work with different communities here in Toronto," says Nausheen Quayyum, Outreach Coordinator.  "We are committed to working with community-based organizations working in areas of social justice, human rights and Palestine solidarity work, as well as with other arts and cultural festivals in the city."

The festival also works with community organizations like the Toronto Women's Bookstore, located near the University of Toronto, where programs are available and tickets are sold for TPFF screenings and events. 

Who is TPFF? 

The Toronto Palestine Film Festival is a non-profit organization entirely run by volunteers. Today, the team of coordinators, the committee and advisory board are made up of students, artists, filmmakers, lawyers and doctoral candidates that tirelessly contribute to a successful TPFF in addition to their jobs and other commitments. 

"TPFF has evolved to become a Palestinian arts and cultural institution in Toronto and beyond," says Dania Majjid, Media Relations and Programming Coordinator. "We are regularly sought out by journalists, filmmakers, other festivals and academics for information on a range of topics. Our events are also a gathering place for people of all backgrounds and cultures to gather and enjoy contemporary Palestinian art and films."

"I was intrigued by the concept of arts and culture complementing advocacy work on Palestine," says Majjid, of when she joined the organization five years ago. "I am more accustomed to addressing issues around Palestine through legal arguments. But after viewing several Palestinian films I realized that art and culture is also a very effective method to raise awareness around Palestine. Unlike law, film and art can communicate the diverse narratives of Palestinians. These compelling stories cover a range of issues and allow audiences to connect more personally to these narratives." 

TPFF takes advantage of the emotional accessibility of film by showcasing an array of stories of Palestine, from feature films to documentaries, from love stories to animated shorts. It allows Toronto audiences to connect with these stories in a way that lectures and demonstrations may not achieve. At the same time, it provides an avenue to celebrate the work of Palestinian actors, directors and filmmakers and share it with Torontonians. 

"I think it's a good focus for people who are interested in Palestine and the Palestinian community," says Hugill. "It brings those people together."

Personally, I remember attending the sold out screening of Salt of this Sea in the first year of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. I remember listening to guest and starring actress Suheir Hammad speak and then seeing her character visit the house that once belonged to her grandparents, now occupied by someone else. I remember the energy in the theatre: packed to the brim and full of students, activists and members of the community. 

I remember thinking that of all the lectures I had attended about Palestine, and all the discussions I had participated in, nothing quite compared to sitting in a theatre buzzing with excitement as we all anticipated the story about to unfold on screen. 

"It gives a more mainstream venue for the Palestinian narrative and Palestinian culture," concludes Hugill. It brings their tales to Toronto, their stories and their history.

The Toronto Palestine Film Festival is a group of unpaid Torontonians dedicated to bringing us beautiful cinematic achievements, year after year, with love from Palestine. 


Haseena Manek is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

Photo: Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) 

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