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WITH this tribute to the renowned Palestinian film-maker Mai Masri, regarded as one of the Arab world’s most important contemporary female directors, Victoria Brittain provides a stunning account of her as an artist, a woman, a friend and activist.
The book is not a mere biography of an extraordinary life and cinematic achievement but also an
account of the fraught realities of a generation affected by and resisting Israeli’s wars in Beirut as well as its occupation of Palestine.
Masri came from a large Palestinian family from the West Bank city of Nablus. Having grown up and studied in Beirut, she left for further study in the US at The University of California at Berkeley where she developed her love of film.
As she herself described this period in her life, “I became obsessed with cinema, swept away by my classes, the library, the film.” She subsequently returned to Beirut, making it her life’s work to tell the human stories of women, children, artists, journalists, actors and farmers who made lives of joy and dignity in the context of wars, prisons and refugee camps.
Masri was influenced by a range of radical and innovative film-makers. But her greatest collaborator, for the 30 years of their life together, was her Lebanese film-maker husband, Jean Chamoun. He passed away in 2017.
The political background is central to Mai Masri’s films, whether documentaries or her feature film, 3000 Nights.
Made in 2015, the latter brings together her lifelong preoccupations with the two central themes of Palestinian experience — incarceration and the role of women as mothers, political actors and as fighters. This emphasis on women and children as active resisters, rather than simply victims of violence and oppression, represents a key aspect of her originality.
There are deeply distressing scenes in 3000 Nights, including one in which the main character gives birth alone, shackled to a prison hospital bed. And while the film tells stories of resistance, it also shows scenes of tenderness.
Particularly moving among Masri's documentraries are those about children in the context of violence, which include a film about a border meeting that took place between teenagers from a refugee camp in Beirut and teenagers from one in the West Bank. There’s a striking still in the book of these young people meeting up with so much hope and emotion, despite being physically separated from each other by the barbed wire of the border.
As well as being intensely moving, this is a very informative book, with details of Masri’s films and the international awards that so many of them gained.
There is a timeline at the start, setting events in the region in their political context, from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the creation of Israel in 1948 through to the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, then on to the Oslo Accords and the subsequent continuing violence.
The book also provides insights into the remarkable ways in which Masri works, gaining the trust of those whose lives and struggles she depicts.
You do not need to be an expert on Middle East politics, nor an expert in film studies to appreciate this book — you will learn so much about both, in the process of reading it.
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, £44.99.
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