IDFA Winner Mohamed Jabaly, Director of ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ Reflects on Events in Home City of Gaza

Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly, who won the best director award at documentary festival IDFA on Thursday for “Life Is Beautiful,” has expressed his sense of helplessness amid the rising death toll in Gaza, where he was born.

On Oct. 7, Hamas – a terrorist organization that has ruled Gaza since 2006 – launched coordinated attacks in Israel, killing over 1,200 civilians, and taking over 240 civilian hostages. Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza and has launched a ground offensive. More than 11,500 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

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Jabaly told Variety: “I have so much pain inside me, I don’t know how I am even able to speak these words.”

“If the whole world can’t stop what’s happening, to make a ceasefire…it’s just a feeling of being trapped,” said Jabaly. “Even walking in the street is really difficult these days. Just knowing that [loved ones] have been under the bombs for over a month, it makes us [ask]: ‘Can we even talk after all this? What can we share? What can we tell?’”

In 2014, Jabaly was attending the Tromsø Film Festival in Norway when the borders to Gaza were closed. That exile is the basis of “Life Is Beautiful,” which follows the filmmaker’s efforts to secure residency status in Norway while also wrestling with his love for — and loyalty to — his homeland and his Palestinian identity.

Throughout the ordeal, Jabaly said he was determined not to relinquish his Palestinian passport to Norwegian officials — “even though it doesn’t let me go anywhere,” he added with a laugh.

Jabaly’s last documentary “Ambulance” played at IDFA in 2016. The film is a raw, first-person account of the 2014 war in Gaza, when the filmmaker joined an ambulance crew to document the toll of the conflict on civilians. It was a deeply personal reckoning with violence that Jabaly hoped he would never have to confront again.

“I made ‘Ambulance’ with the hope that this is going to stop,” he said. “I don’t want to make another film about war. I don’t want to make another film about destruction and pain and blood. I just want to see people living normal lives and finding ways for a better future.”

Bye Bye Tiberias
Hiam Abbass and Lina Soualem in “Bye Bye Tiberias.”

Though personal, Jabaly’s experience is hardly unique among Palestinians, for whom displacement has been rooted in their collective identity since 1948.

Lina Soualem poignantly addresses the subject of displacement in “Bye Bye Tiberias,” which played in IDFA’s Best of the Fests strand. The film, which is Palestine’s submission for the international feature Oscar race, sees the filmmaker and her mother — acclaimed Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, of HBO’s “Succession” fame — return to the family’s ancestral village in modern-day Israel.

The documentary weighs the consequences of Abbass’ decision to leave Deir Hanna, a village in Galilee not far from Lake Tiberias, to pursue her dream of becoming an actress in Europe, a choice that carried her far from the places she once knew — many of which no longer exist.

“Bye Bye Tiberias” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and since the war began, the film has screened at Chicago, Leipzig and the BFI London Film Festival, where it won the best documentary award.

“There’s always this sense of guilt and helplessness that I carry with me,” Soualem said of touring with her film. “It’s very hard to live this parallel reality. But at the same time, I try to hang onto the idea that what I’m doing with the film is allowing us to have a voice, and to exist, in places where our voices are absent.”

Basma Al-Sharif, another Palestinian filmmaker at the festival, expressed her feelings of despair at the situation in Gaza: “It’s been a nightmare. My world has fallen apart.”

Al-Sharif added: “It’s very jarring to go outside and to see people going about their lives as if nothing was happening. And I guess for them nothing is happening. But it’s incredibly difficult to function. I can’t imagine what is the world that we go back to once there is eventually a ceasefire, and what does Gaza look like, and what happens to the Palestinians. Our family home has been bombed. Everyone I know’s homes have been bombed.”

Al-Sharif had four short films at IDFA but withdrew them due to a disagreement with the festival over its response to a Palestinian protest at the opening ceremony, when three activists burst on stage with a banner that read “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free,” a slogan that is banned in several countries as it is understood to be a call for the destruction of Israel. The festival issued an apology two days later, stating: “IDFA would like to clearly state that we understand that the slogan was hurtful, and sincerely apologize for how this happened.” In an Instagram post, Al-Sharif, a juror of IDFA’s experimental Envision competition, accused the festival of “throw[ing] Palestine under the bus.”

Al-Sharif was born in Kuwait, but as the daughter of Palestinian parents, she was ineligible for citizenship in the Gulf state. She was raised in Paris, which she says her family fled amid rising anti-Arab sentiment in the 1990s, and emigrated to the U.S., where she studied fine arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, crediting her “nomadic” existence as inspiration for her art.

“So many Palestinians have these really complex, multinational, international upbringings,” she said, a reality that has itself become part of the collective Palestinian identity and brought with it a particular sense of unity.

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