Reel Palestine, the UAE’s premiere film festival dedicated to Palestinian film, is back for its fifth edition, kicking off from January 18 to 26. The weeklong festival will be screening independent Palestinian films in venues across two emirates: Alserkal Avenue in Dubai and Warehouse 421 and Manarat Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi,.
The pop-up festival, which debuted in 2015, is held in collaboration with independent arthouse theater Cinema Akil — which recently opened a permanent space in Al Serkal Avenue — in an effort to present Palestinian culture and heritage in an authentic and raw way through a handpicked selection of must-see films. But perhaps, among the films being screened during the event, the most stirring is the opening film, What Walaa Wants, a coming-of-age documentary that tells the story of Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji, a young girl who is determined to join the Palestinian Security Forces as a policewoman.
Directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Christy Garland and executive produced by Wael Kabbani, the award-winning documentary (it scooped up the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs International Film Festival) follows the rebellious and opinionated Walaa over the course of six-years and ten trips to the West Bank— from the time the then 15-year-old’s mother Latifa is released from an Israeli prison to the moment she begins her first job at the age of 21.
Raised in Balata, a refugee camp in the West Bank, Walaa had a challenging upbringing. When she was eight, her mother was arrested for aiding a suicide bomber, leaving the young girl under the care of relatives until she was 15-years-old. That same year (2012), Garland met Walaa while she was shooting with a Danish artist in the West Bank, and was immediately drawn to the teenager’s strong and bullheaded nature. She showed the trailer to her colleague, who commented “[Walaa is] a delinquent in a hijab. If she does make it into the PSF, she’ll be a rotten, bad cop”.
“That comment was a gift, a motivating force for the film and a challenge to my own assumptions,” explains Garland. “It focused my reasons for making the film and my belief in Walaa. It made clear how polarizing this story of a young teenage girl might be. The presence of her mother Latifa will provoke very different reactions. But Walaa is a teenager with a good heart and the same potential for positive growth and change as any other young person,” she stated.
Throughout the course of the documentary, which debuted at the 2018 Berlinale, viewers can’t help but root for Walaa, even through her wavering moments of petulance. Indeed, the teenager is highly relatable. “Even as a 49-year-old man, I can still relate to Walaa’s strong personality and her drive to pursue her dream in the face of great adversity,” shares Kabbani. “In many ways, her story is also a reflection of other Palestinians who never give up despite the Israeli occupation, illegal settlements, and apartheid they face every single day.” It’s true, life for young Palestinian females living in the West Bank is tough to say the least, and Walaa’s evolution from teenager to young adult, temperamental rule-breaker to disciplined policewoman (with the guidance and help of Palestinian Security Forces commanding officer Issa Abu-Allan) is encouraging.
“I’m making this film because it’s a positive, humorous, rousing story, with a focus on a great female character with some rough edges, battling demons on various levels, an intimate story that will resonate in a larger context,” explained Garland during production. “Walaa’s story will add something to the conversation. She’s smart, funny, yearning for something, and vulnerable, but she’s inherited her mother’s temper and can be a royal pain. I love her for all of it, and I’m rooting for her as a human being, a girl who is interesting because she breaks rules, and because there are some rules she’s learning to follow, the hard way.”
“What Walaa Wants” will be screened on January 18, 21, and 23 at Cinema Akil in Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai. Tickets cost AED 52 and can be purchased here.