Festivals on the Frontline





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Apr 03, 2020
by Carla Zahra
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Festivals on the Frontline

Festival Director Rojeh Khleif speaks about preserving human connection in challenging times Rojeh Khleif and team members at the Haifa Independent Film Festival (Hammody Gannam)

Born and raised in Haifa, festival director Rojeh Khleif is familiar with the power of storytelling in fostering human connection. In 2016, he founded the Haifa Independent Film Festival (HIFF), putting Haifa on the Palestinian map and building bridges between Haifa’s Palestinian community and their artistic and cultural peers in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Khleif calls his home “Historical Palestine” or “the 48”, explaining that before 1948, Haifa was a part of Palestine. Today, the city is officially in Israel and its citizens carry Israeli passports, though many of them continue to identify as Palestinian and speak Arabic.  

The HIFF created, for the first time, a space for celebration and recognition of Palestinian cinema in Haifa. “Our aim is to build a cultural crossing between Haifa and unreachable or prohibited parts of the Arab world, connecting with our identity by displaying contemporary and historic films, produced both in Palestine and other parts of the Arab world,” says Khleif.

With no government funding, the HIFF is reliant on volunteers and community collaboration, which has led to the creation a network of close-knit and hardworking creatives. Together, they are elevating Haifa’s status to a center of culture, with film screenings and events taking place at Palestinian or independent venues that understand and support their vision. In addition to creating a stage for locals to show their works, the festival also organizes workshops, masterclasses, industry days and gatherings. 

Speaking about the impact that the festival has had on his community, Khleif says: “We’ve seen people becoming more motivated to create films that can be shown at the festival, and they’ve been connecting and collaborating with others that they met at our events.”   

Unfortunately, like many other festival organizers around the world dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, Khleif and his team took the difficult decision to put the 2020 edition on hold. They did this before official restrictions on public gatherings were implemented, following months of preparation. “It was a struggle,” he said. “But we reached a point when we decided we have to take responsibility.”

Unlike some other festivals, however, Khleif is not looking to hold the event virtually. “We thought about moving things online, but the scary thing is that human behavior is changing, and we are losing the sense of human connection with everything going digital.”

Having built up such a strong community, Khleif believes that the festival will come back stronger in the next edition, even though he does not think things will return to “normal”.

“We may be starting a new era after the coronavirus. While there are many online platforms for people to show their films and share their work, we would like everybody to come together again, meet face-to-face, speak to each other and feel,” says Khleif. “The people in our community are really waiting to be able to go out again and gather. They appreciate our work and what we stand for, and are ready to support us again as soon as we announce our new dates!”

Rojeh Khleif will be participating in the Salzburg Global Seminar Culture, Arts and Society program, What Future for Festivals?, now taking place in October 2020.