“Ismail” – A Look Back At A Great Palestinian Short Film

In light of the ongoing turmoil in Gaza wherein Israel’s President, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his IDF soldiers continue to conduct what can only be described as a genocide of the Palestinian people, I decided to take this week to share some thoughts on a short film that stuck with me. Inspired by the late Palestinian painter Ismail Shammout, “Ismail” tells the story of a pair of brothers and their struggle to make ends meet after being expelled by Israeli forces from their home and into a refugee camp. The film takes place in 1948 when Zionist paramilitaries forcefully – and violently – displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians, killing tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the process; an ethnic cleansing known as the “Nakba.”

Despite this harrowing backdrop, “Ismail” focuses its story on the relationship between the two brothers, with their charming banter bringing warmth to the film’s tone. After a blood-boiling opening that shows an Israeli soldier taunting and harassing Ismail and a group of Palestinians making their way to the camp, the scenes following see Ismail and his little brother Jamal taking homemade cakes to sell by the local train station. During their trek Ismail, an aspiring painter, tells Jamal about his dreams of going to Rome and how the great Michaelengo painted the Sistine Chapel. After a successful day of business, the brothers begin walking back home. However, on their way back, they are stopped by a stranger who warns them that they are walking through a minefield. What follows is an immensely tense; impeccably directed and performed ten or so minutes that sees the pair carefully traverse the hazardous sandy grounds beneath them.

Before either brother can reach safety, a black goat enters the minefield, scurrying around them with no understanding of the dangers that surround it. Goats are quite symbolic in Islam, often occurring throughout the sacred texts within the Quran. Though the animal has negative connotations in some other religions, their presence in Islam is symbolized more positively–black goats, in particular, being symbols of prosperity and richness. This makes what transpires in the scene all the more unnerving; a metaphor for both the success of Ismael Shammout’s career as one of Palestine’s most lauded artists, and the horrors that would come in the decades following for the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the film gives hope that despite the treacherous grounds these people have had to walk through, there still lies hope.

Image: Bumpy Road Films

In an interview with Alchemiya, the Jordanian father-daughter filmmaking duo that brought “Ismail” to life spoke about how this film came to be. Talking about the renowned painter, Hatem Alsharif says, “…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, the film’s director, had the following to say about the process, “When I read the finished script I realized 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.” Speaking of the two main characters, I would be remiss not to mention the performances by actors Khaled al Ghwairi and Nizar Idrees, who brought a beautiful tenderness to both characters. They had a chemistry that felt incredibly natural; a love and warmth that made it easy for me as an audience member to connect with and root for, something that even feature-length films struggle to do.

“Ismail” does a lot with its 28-minute runtime. From showcasing the beginning horrors of a soon-to-be decades-spanning genocide to aptly giving tribute to one of Palestine’s great artists. Doing all of it through a delicately written script, beautiful performances, and a striking sense of direction that had me at the edge of my seat. I hope that we get to see more Palestinian stories made by Palestinian artists in the years to come, when Palestine will, undoubtedly, be free.

Shaz Mohsin

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