Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF) Opening on July 11, 2023, in East Jerusalem


Courtesy of The Jerusalem Arab Festival (JAFF)

Blog Post

The Third Annual Jerusalem Arab Film Festival Held in Summer 2023

In the surreal context for Palestinians in Jerusalem, watching local and Arab films has an especially fantastical sentiment. In this respect, the third annual Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF), held over six days, July 11–16, 2023, did not disappoint.

Screenings and workshops were held at El-Hakawati (the Palestinian National Theatre) and Yabous Cultural Centre, both in East Jerusalem.

The theme for this year’s edition was to return Arab cinema to Jerusalem and connect Jerusalem to the Arab world.

In comparison with previous years, the 2023 festival grabbed the attention of young Palestinian audiences who were fully immersed in the events.

Yabous Cultural Centre

An organization that aspires to revive the centrality of Jerusalem to Palestinian cultural life by making quality art accessible to the public

JAFF’s first edition took place at the end of March 2021, while the coronavirus pandemic was still muting social events; the second edition was held in mid-May 2022.

This year, the festival was held midsummer, in July. “We were a bit hesitant to launch the event in the summer,” shares JAFF director Nevin Shaheen, “but this turned out to be a great decision, as people were excited about our summer activities.”


The Palestinian National Theatre El-Hakawati

The first (and until the early 1990s, the only) Palestinian public theater and cultural center in Jerusalem

Film Screenings

The festival screened 32 films from Arab countries, including Palestinian films, none of which had been previously shown. This represented a significant expansion from earlier years, reflecting festival growth.

The opening film was the award-winning Egyptian feature 19B (2022, 95 min.) by Ahmad Abdalla. This film spotlights the changes taking place in Egyptian society by telling the story of a nameless caretaker (“Haj”) guarding an abandoned villa in a once-affluent Cairo neighborhood. The villa is invaded and taken over by a gangster.

The closing film was the narrative feature Under the Fig Trees (Taht al-Shajara, 2022, 92 min.), a Tunisian coming-of-age film by Franco-Tunisian director Erige Sehiri that follows a group of girls who drive laborers to an orchard of fig trees during the summer harvest in a Berber village in northwest Tunisia, at a time in their lives when they are between girlhood and womanhood. The film was announced as the Tunisian submission for the 95th Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.

The festival also featured numerous other films and two short-film screenings and a screening of documentary shorts.

“This was the first time we screened short documentaries,” Shaheen told Jerusalem Story. “It was also the first time we accepted proposals for short-fiction films.”1

Among the other feature films was the black comedy drama Mediterranean Fever (2022, 108 min.) by Palestinian director Maha Haj (Personal Affairs), which won the best screenplay award at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival in May 2022. The film, which was dedicated to the late Shireen Abu Akleh, explores a complicated friendship-enmity between two middle-aged neighbors, played by Amer Hlehel and Ashraf Farah.

A screenshot from the film Mediterranean Fever

A scene from the Palestinian narrative feature Mediterranean Fever, which screened at the third annual Jerusalem Annual Film Festival (JAFF)


The audience enjoyed having an opportunity to interact with the filmmakers. The Spanish filmmaker Alex Sarda attended the event in person and gave a masterclass on writing documentary films.

Because Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation, many Arab filmmakers could not or would not attend the festival. However, the festival organizers arranged for virtual Q&A sessions with some of them, and discussion was lively and engaged.

Jerusalem Arab Film Festival opening on July 11, 2023, East Jerusalem

Opening of the Third Annual Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF), El-Hakawati Theater, East Jerusalem, July 11, 2023


Courtesy of the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF)

“This should be the most important Palestinian festival, as it is in the capital of Jerusalem,” says Shaheen.2

Of all the cultural festivals that are held in Palestine throughout the year, this one, hosted in the city that has become off-limits to most Palestinians, was regarded by Jerusalemites to be very special. Organizers found venues for the films to be screened, and arranged two workshops to train participants in the basics of scriptwriting and archive collection. These workshops were deemed as being important to Jerusalem’s youth, who acknowledge the importance of documentation and archiving in light of the consistent erasure of their culture, history, and identity.

Highlights of the Festival

Among the highlights of the festival was the screening of the documentary film Heroic Bodies (2022, 95 min), directed by Sudanese filmmaker Sara Suleiman. It traces the development of the rights of Sudanese women, who have been oppressed for centuries. The director talked about the ways in which society dominates and controls the female body.

This film won the Shireen Abu Akleh Award for Best Documentary at the festival.

Sudanese filmmaker Sara Suleiman during a virtual discussion about her film, Heroic Bodies, at the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival, July 2023

Sudanese filmmaker Sara Suleiman during a virtual discussion about her film, Heroic Bodies, following the screening of her film at the Third Annual Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF), July 2023.


Courtesy of the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival (JAFF)

Another important documentary film that was celebrated at the festival was Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege (2021, 89 min.). Directed by Abdullah al-Khatib, the film tells the story of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria that sheltered the largest number of Palestinian refugees between 1957 and 2018. This film won the Shireen Abu Akleh Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature Film.

19B won the Jury Award for Best Feature Film.

A screenshot from the film Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege

A scene from the documentary feature Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege, which screened at the third annual Jerusalem Annual Film Festival (JAFF)

Previously, the event was supported by the private sector, but the fact that some films are controversial (due to their sensitive content and breaking of cultural taboos) has made some individuals hesitant about having their names tied to the program. However, the festival has still managed to go ahead with the support of international and Arab organizations, including El-Hakawati, which hosted some of the screenings in Jerusalem. Major sponsors included the Munib and Angela Masri Foundation, the Palestine Investment Fund, Irish Aid, the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Foundation, the Consul General of Spain in Jerusalem, al-Yabousioun, and the Masrouji Group.

The festival was also a place for social gatherings and for making connections with aspiring writers, directors, and actors. Throughout the festival, many people asked for such noncommercial and eye-opening films to screen elsewhere in Palestine.

In an interview for the TV program Donya Ya Donya on July 12, when asked about the significance of such a festival of Arab film in Jerusalem, Shaheen commented, “We as the Palestinian people and as the Jerusalem community are under immense threat and scrutiny. Our culture, identity, and presence in this city are all targeted. We thus see the great importance in our own contribution to creating spaces relating to preserving our culture in Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem has a special and precious place in the heart of the entire Arab world."3



Interview with the author, July 19, 2023.


Interview with the author.


Details of the Jerusalem Arab Film Festival” [in Arabic], Donya Ya Donya, July 12, 2023.

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