Shoot and run

Palestinian cinema is starting to emerge with its own distinctive, improvisational style. But it's n

Kalandia checkpoint outside Jerusalem must vie with the Hollywood sign as the most photographed location on earth. Kalandia is the largest checkpoint along the main north-south road of the West Bank, making it the valve for the area's economy. So footage from there of a middle-aged Palestinian arguing with an Israeli soldier is hardly out of the ordinary. There are many such scenes in Subhi Zobaidi's acclaimed Crossing Kalandia (2002), a year-long video project featuring in the film season Palestine at the Pictures II at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. But there is something different about the man in Rashid Masharawi's Ticket to Jerusalem (2002). He has a cine- projector strapped to a little wooden handcart - though that is not so unusual. When Israel forbids the use of cars, these handcarts are the only way to keep things moving. It takes some time for the real oddity to sink in: the Palestinian is an actor, while the soldier and all the military equipment - the tanks, the watchtowers, the camouflage netting, the razor wire - as well as the crowds of Palestinians waiting in line, are real. The scene comes from a feature film about a man attempting to keep a mobile cinema on the road, and it represents a small triumph. Palestinians live at a pace dictated by the Israeli occupation. Here, the actor turns the tables and the Israeli military becomes part of a world determined by a Palestinian.

The ICA is showing films from international film-makers and from the Palestinian diaspora in the season. Maryse Gargour's Blanche's Homeland (2001) contains the unforgettable account of a young Palestinian's honeymoon at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris and her discovery of a pavilion from "the Jews of Palestine". Photographs showed the local Arabs as desert-living Bedouins; her own life - indeed her entire city - had already been erased from the record. Katie Barlow provides intense insights into resistance in Jenin and Bethlehem (Caoimhe, Ayat and Hanadi, all 2003), while the American Rachel Leah Jones, in 500 Dunam on the Moon (2002), takes a considered long view of two accounts of Ein Hod, once an Arab village but now home to a community of Israeli artists who believe they have built their own Montparnasse. Jones's film stands as a portrayal in miniature of the competing narratives of Israel and Palestine.

But the films made by Palestinians within Palestine are the real revelation. In the 1990s, a book called The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook [sic] championed a shoot-and-run attitude to cinema, becoming the bible of the generation of cineastes who grew up with the Sundance Festival. As Ticket to Jerusalem shows, this philosophy has reached another level. These films are not simply made on the run, but have turned all of the big negatives, the things designed to make life impossible, into springboards for their drama. There are imperfections, as one would expect in the circumstances, yet there is also a definite style emerging. It is an exciting moment, the beginnings of a uniquely Palestinian cinema, characterised by a flexible, improvisational approach. The surprise is that the results are so often comic, at times almost frivolous.

Images of Palestinian suffering are easy to find. As Israel searches for a final, irrefutable demonstration of its military power, such images have assumed a special value. The Palestinians are recognised, even applauded, as the most modern of sufferers: a people betrayed by hypocritical notions of international justice and abandoned to the mercies of a nation that believes the F-16 fighter is just another policing tool. The danger is that the image of indomitable martyrdom begins to infect the way the Palestinians view themselves - that it comes to be regarded as a unique selling point that must never be diluted.

I have an intimate knowledge of one of the films showing in the ICA season: Leila Sansour's Jeremy Hardy v the Israeli Army (2002). The film was made by my wife, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and I even appear in one scene, drifting around an Easter Sunday party. During the planning stage, my wife was questioned about this scene: what was the value of showing wealthy Palestinians at play in their beautiful home? In the event, Israel declared the reimposition of military law hours before the party. Only five of the 60 guests arrived and, before the party's end, military vehicles had appeared on the road outside. A review of the film in the Lebanese Daily Star singled me out, suggesting that, as I grew more frightened, I became better dressed. But the power of this sequence lies chiefly in a simple, failed attempt to celebrate Easter.

Israeli Jews who have seen the film are shocked by the sight of wealthy Palestinians. The double blow comes as they realise that they have psychologically accepted the justice of a war against the poor. They understand that they are tolerating a crime only when they see rich people - people like themselves - in a state of permanent anxiety yet still attempting to be gracious to English guests who are literally stiffening with fear.

A new generation of Palestinian film-makers, at home with digital technology, is emerging from television. As they put distance between themselves and conventional ways of viewing the Palestinians' lot, humour comes to play a twofold role: it brings out an under-represented side of the Palestinian temperament, and it becomes a tool for blending the darkest and the lightest material. This is evident in Hany Abu-Assad's acclaimed documentary Ford Transit (2002). As the Palestinian van driver brings all his ebullient wiles and good humour to bear in the most tense of situations, running road closures and checkpoints, we see a universal figure - White Van Man - finally using his power for good rather than evil.

It was Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (2001) that first introduced the Palestinian sense of humour to western audiences. The film, which is not being shown in the ICA festival, occasionally made even the most sympathetic critics uncomfortable. In one memorable scene, Suleiman blended fantasies of ninja warriors with Christian iconography. A halo of stars revolving around the female warrior's head turned her, at one fleeting moment, into an icon of Orthodox Christianity. The image was criticised as tendentious, and even misread as a reference to Jews as Christ-killers. The right of a Palestinian Christian to draw upon imagery that reflects his own 2,000-year-old culture was forgotten, or judged illegitimate.

Palestinian cinema exists within a tightly circumscribed area. As such, it is particularly unfair that further limits are placed on film-makers: demands that they provide a model of suffering or political rectitude. It is their ability to mix things up that is valuable. This is particularly true in Muhammad Bakri's Jenin, Jenin (2002), a first documentary by the noted Palestinian actor. For most of its length, this film portrays the Palestinians as a people who have had the burden of martyrdom thrust upon them. But it contains other, stranger scenes - for instance, a young man, possibly a mute, miming the battle of Jenin with startling dramatic verve. The film ends with an impromptu performance by a street vendor holding a plastic sandal to his ear while improvising a telephone call to Kofi Annan, asking when the UN investigators are going to show up.

The tone of Jenin, Jenin, as well as Ford Transit, Divine Intervention and others, could be described as black whimsy - a strange combination that is both immediate and immediately disconcerting. Leila Sansour suggests it is a response to Palestinian history, when history is seen as something that is always dumped on people from above. The Palestinians have a refined sense of comedy, particularly of comedy as a performance. It is both wide-eyed and deadpan: a peculiarly effective way to convey stories from a world that is plainly nuts.

Palestine at the Pictures II runs throughout July at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1. For tickets and information, call 020 7930 3647 or click on: www.ica.org.uk