Inspired by a day in the life of Palestinian painter Ismail Shammout, Ismail tells the compelling story of a young man struggling to support his parents after their expulsion to a Refugee camp in 1948. Valerie Grove speaks to director Nora Alsharif, whose father, Hatem Alsharif wrote the story.
In the formal political terms of what defines a state, Palestine doesn’t apparently exist. However, in the reality of a global present in which increasing numbers of people define themselves as culturally international – encompassing experience, movement and a multiplicity of intergenerational identities – Palestine is ahead of the curve.
As a consequence of numerous and complex 20th Century political failures, this cultural identity has not only survived but used creative genius to expand and develop a distinct and highly visible diaspora. What is more, this diaspora remains connected to the cultural life and creative developments of its national, if not ‘state’, ground. Despite the weariness of living in the endless circularity of a perceptibly failed political narrative, cultural life continues there too. And it goes out. And it comes back around again with new nuances and new generational takes. Contained within all of this is the memory and the ongoing reality both of the nation on the ground and its international nomadic expression.
Palestinian filmmaking has particularly developed over the past couple of decades. Numerous and often award-winning Palestinian features, shorts, animations and documentaries all feed into and maintain annual Palestinian film festivals and organisations in numerous countries. Although this is creating a constantly expanding library, many of these films then seem to disappear once the festivals are over and lose the opportunity for wider exposure.
This is very sad because these films not only represent an important ‘national’ body of work but often address very relatable and universally human themes. This is certainly the case with Ismail, one of the latest additions to the Alchemiya library. The film is based on the experiences of Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout (1930-2006) who told the story to close friend, and the writer of Ismail, Hatem Alsharif. The film’s director is Hatem’s daughter Nora Alsharif.
Ismail Shammout was 18 when he was forced to flee his hometown of Lydda in 1948. From there his journey was one very common to 1948 refugees, Gaza first, then to Beirut until 1982, Kuwait until 1991, and finally Jordan. He is one of Palestine’s most important artists for several different reasons. However, he was primarily one of the first whose work was defined by the experience of being a refugee and it became a compassionate chronicle of the human reality of Palestinian displacement.
This intensely powerful film begins with a scene of that 1948 exodus with a long line of families walking and carrying whatever belongings they can. The style of this opening is hugely effective in conveying the actual time, place and situation and therefore creates a cinematic reality that is usually seen only in archive newsreels. However, there are details that enable actor Khaled Alghwairi to reveal who Ismail Shammout is. When a soldier pushes Ismail’s suitcase to the ground, the contents that spill out immediately tell us who he is and what is important to him.
What is also striking about this scene is just how many times we have seen it since and how much we continue to see other versions of it in 24-hour newsfeeds. In this sense it is not like an archive at all but a reminder of structural and entrenched power dynamics that have neither incentive nor capacity to change.
The film then follows Ismail and his brother Jamal, beautifully played by Nizar Idrees, through a single day. It is early in the morning and they leave Khan Younes refugee camp in Gaza carrying cakes they have made to sell at the nearest train station. It is a long walk and there are small observations along the way that give a sense of both this real life and the life that Ismail actually dreams of. As they walk and talk their easy and loving brotherly relationship is revealed, as is their cake sales strategy. They have a good day and sell all the cakes so decide to head into the town to buy a few things. Strolling happily in what they think is the right direction they suddenly hear a Bedouin goat herder shouting at them to stop because they have unwittingly walked into a minefield.
Time slows down painfully as this hugely powerful and distressing scene unfolds. The way it is shot and the use of sound creates an unexpected emotional closeness to the experience. The fear of a wrong step and the enormity of the consequences for both of them is palpable and raw. In the acting out of this predicament the scene also crystallises something about the brutality of power and its casual and passive disregard of human consequences. In the words of Hatem Alsharif: ‘Why is he in a minefield and who put him there?’
As part of the research for this review I contacted the film’s director, Nora Alsharif. In the process of answering my questions she also sent me the statement that was made by her father Hatem when the film was first released. As a consequence the short interview below incorporates some of his words too.
Q: Why did you want to make a film about Ismail Shammout in particular?
Hatem Alsharif: Ismail Shammout (1930-2006) was a giant name among Palestinian painters. With his exceptional talent he was able to portray the 1948 Palestinian uprooting and record a visual history following their exodus. As a result his name owns the undisputable right to be associated with the Palestinian cause and to be recognized as the most influential. Ismail was only eighteen when Israeli soldiers broke into their house in Lydda (Lod) and forced them to leave. Like hundreds of thousands they had to put up with the hardships of living in refugee camps. But Ismail’s soul was indestructible despite the injustice and destitution. His willpower and ambitious spirit eventually led him to study painting in Cairo and from there to Rome, the place he always dreamed of while walking through the bleak and barren alleys of Khan Younes refugee camp. In 2012, six years after his death, I wrote this film. It was inspired by what happened to him on one particular day and is in remembrance of this great man and a tribute to his rich and noble life.
Nora Alsharif: When I first heard my father say: ‘This would make great material for a short film’, I was already excited to know more. We both love the same films and have similar ideas and approaches in terms of narrative storytelling, so it was quite clear to me that something good would come out of this. The story was one of many that Ismail Shammout told my father during their usual meetings. This one stood out, as it was more personal, and the basis of how Ismail’s life was shaped after that.
When I read the finished script I realised that the story took on a whole new dimension. It wasn’t just a report of the events as they actually happened but was inspired by them. Even the two main characters that were based on the real Ismail and his brother Jamal took on a life of their own. They were developed in such a way that I immediately related to them. They became my friends and I wanted to do whatever it took to see them alive on screen.
Q: Given that Ismail’s journey (Gaza, Beirut, Kuwait, Jordan) corresponds in part with how you define your own international identity, is it true to say that your two families’ experiences mirrored each other?
I don’t think so. Ismail Shammout’s experience and journey are very different from mine or my father’s. Ismail Shammout was uprooted from his own home when he was 18 and he had to endure a lot with his family before he was able to pursue his dreams and move on in life. My father was born in Jerusalem but left before 1948 and lived in Syria and Egypt and considered them home before he moved to Jordan. As for me I do not identify myself by a specific place. So my experience is very different as I look at Palestine as an observer rather than someone from the inside.
Q: Although the film’s storyline is straightforward, Ismail is richly layered and communicates on many different levels. Can you tell us more about that?
My intention with Ismail wasn’t just to make a film about a real story but to create a visual language that would change the stereotypical perception of Palestinian characters in film. Here Palestinians are represented by Ismail, who is the product of a civilised society and people who are deeply rooted in their land. When compelled to live as a refugee Ismail holds onto his dream. He confronts the intolerable circumstances of day to day life with a high spirit and an air of rather cheerful defiance, because giving up means defeat and death. So are we talking here about Ismail or about all the Palestinians who were the subject of extreme injustice by people who themselves were the victims of the same oppression and persecution? Ismail in the story is not just a protagonist, he is a metaphor for a whole nation trapped in a country that has become a minefield. The tale is simple and avoids the usual oratorical speeches and allusions and does away with the direct political approach. Not once do we hear Ismail mention the Israelis, but their presence is heavy and cannot be mistaken or ignored. The audience will identify with the characters of the story either on the direct level of a simple storyline or on the higher, more complex, metaphorical level.
Nora and Hatem had collaborated on other film projects, but given that Ismail was based on the real life experiences of a friend, it was very personal and therefore a labour of love for them both. Ismail Shammout died in 2006, so sadly he never knew about the film or even the idea of it. This deeply moving tribute to him has now also become an epitaph for Hatem Alsharif who died in 2020. Ismail is a loving testament to friendship, to a national cultural memory and to the creative brilliance of an intergenerational collaboration. It is also part of an ongoing statement of survival and being.
By Tawfiq Zayyad (1932 – 1994)
When they ran over her,
the mulberry tree said:
‘Do what you wish,
my right to bear fruit
will never die.’