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The Real Kuffiyeh, Made in Palestine!

Made in Palestine tells the story of the Hirbawi textile factory in the West Bank city of Hebron, which has been making Palestinian kuffiyehs for over 70 years. Beautiful and moving, this short film is a gentle mirror of Palestine’s struggle for statehood itself. We talk to filmmaker, Mariam Dwedar, about how the film was created.

by Valerie Grove

“I like the movement of the machines. When I am here and the machines are running I feel content. I’ve been doing this work for 50 years”

Abdul Aziz Karaki

Made in Palestine is intensely ‘nationalistic’ but not in any ideological or didactic way. It is rather a deeply affecting, emotional expression of the kuffiyeh – the strongest symbol of Palestinian identity and “.. the twin of the Palestinian flag.” 

In a sense, the Hebron kuffiyeh factory so gently portrayed in this beautiful, eight minute documentary, is a metaphor for the Palestinian struggle for statehood itself. It survives against all odds including the complete shutdown of the old city of Hebron by various military directives over decades.

Established by Yasser Hirbawi in 1961, the business thrived and by the early 1990s employed 25 workers who operated 15 machines and annually produced 150,000 kuffiyehs. Following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the adoption of a free market policy, the import of cheap kuffiyehs from China began to flood the markets worldwide. By 2010, only four machines remained in operation in the factory, with its annual production dropping to a mere 10,000 scarves. Not one of these scarves were exported. The combination of mass production elsewhere and the impact of increasing checkpoints, roadblocks and constant and arbitrary security measures, shrunk the Palestinian economy even further. There is a reference to the business surviving, in part, with the aid of tourism but that is also in very short supply as it is elsewhere in Palestine.

In 2010, the factory began to receive attention from international media warning that production of original Palestinian kuffiyehs risked disappearing altogether. This raised awareness enough to get some international resellers on board and in 2012 the Hirbawi factory went into cooperation with Germany based online retailer MadeinPalestine.

Made in Palestine

he remarkable beauty of this film is that it manages to communicate so much in such a short space of time.  It immerses the viewer completely in the daily rhythm of both the factory and its people as they each dedicate themselves to their particular tasks. It uses some archive photographs to situate the kuffiyeh in history and it very succinctly demonstrates the ghostly reality of Hebron in the present.

As the film concludes, we hear part of a phenomenal live performance of the song, Ali Al-Keffiyeh, performed by Mohammad Assaf. He is the Palestinian pop singer from Gaza who won Arab Idol in 2012, a victory welcomed with sheer joy, not only by Palestinians but across the Arab world. It is a delightful and powerfully uplifting conclusion to the Hirbawi brother’s story. 

The film was made by Mariam Dwedar, an Emmy award-winning, Egyptian – Filipina filmmaker and cinematographer from Brooklyn, New York. She has contributed to Peabody and Webby Award-winning projects, filmed on field productions around the world, covering a range of often controversial topics. She has worked across independent documentary, television comedy and news programmes. She was recently, recognised by DOCNYC, America’s largest documentary festival, as one of ’40 Under 40′ rising stars in documentary filmmaking.

Alchemiya is delighted to be able to ask her a few questions about Made in Palestine

Is the German company, also called Made in Palestine, which sells Hirbawi Kuffiyehs, connected to your ability to produce this film or are the names coincidental?

There isn’t really an official association between this film and the German company, though I do believe their work is important and they should be supported (!

The inspiration for the title of the film comes from the labels which the Hirbawi factory attaches to each kuffiyeh. It reads “Made in Palestine.” The production of the kuffiyeh in Palestine is a great source of pride for the Hirbawis and the textile workers. And as a hugely iconic symbol of Palestinian resistance, for it to actually be made in Palestine is incredible. 

Everyone who chooses or wishes to wear a kuffiyeh should consider directly supporting the factory by ordering a kuffiyeh from them:

You made an earlier film in Palestine about house demolitions in East Jerusalem so you already had a connection to the Palestinian story.  However, how did you come to make this film about the Hirbawi textile factory and why?

I actually produced “Made in Palestine” before the recent film about forced evictions and home demolitions in Silwan, Jerusalem. 

I first visited the Hirbawi Textile Factory in the spring of 2013, and the experience always stayed with me. It’s a place that completely engages the senses – the look of the old Japanese looms, the loud sounds of them working, the texture of the fabrics used, the endless colors and designs of the kuffiyehs. I knew immediately that I would eventually return to film something there.

Around that time, I had also been thinking a lot about Palestinian culture and heritage, and how it is often appropriated. The occupation of Palestine has been ongoing for over 73 years, and one of the many strategies that occupation forces often employ involves erasure of indigenous culture. So I wanted to make a sort of time capsule that would document and recognize that the kuffiyeh is Palestinian.

What were the main challenges of making the film?

Fortunately, there weren’t too many big hurdles to making the film – everyone was willing and happy to participate and I felt very welcomed and free to film as I pleased.  However, as with much of daily life in Palestine, the occupation was always present and  looming. One of the only sort of “obstacles” I faced was a degree of self-censorship, as some of the participants in the film were worried about speaking too openly about the occupation, politics, or their work, for fear of retaliation or a potential shutting down of the factory (which would be devastating as so many families and livelihoods rely on it).

How long (approximately!) did it take to make the film including the planning, days spent filming and editing?

I would say the process altogether to make the film took about a month. I spent a week or so filming at the Hirbawi factory every day from the start of the workday until the end. The edit, sound mix, and coloring then took a couple of weeks.

You have a very inspiring and wide ranging filmography covering many contemporary social and global issues of crucial importance and concern to this generation (and all!)  What advice would you give to aspiring young filmmakers?

Thank you so much for the kinds words 🙂 

My advice to aspiring young filmmakers is to always follow your instinct. We all have intuition for a reason. Some stories or encounters that we’re drawn to may may seem insignificant or odd to others, but I think it’s really important to pursue things that strike you or leave an impression.

Another piece of advice is that there aren’t really limits when it comes to creating art – we artists make the rules. I think a lot of creatives believe there are certain standards or bars that need to be met to create work ‘of value’, but I think the most important thing is to just get out there and create!

Made in Palestine

Made in Palestine is the latest addition to our Palestinian Film and Documentary collection. To read more about some of these films see previous articles: Celebrating Palestine: Stories and Culture and Ismail: A Palestinian Journey, which includes an interview with its Director, Nora Alsharif.

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