He was denied entry to the U.S. for the premiere of his debut film, a short documentary about Palestine’s underground music scene. But director Sami Alalul seems unfazed.
Sami Alalul sounds out every syllable of his Queen’s English, ending most sentences with an almost timid lilt. It’s a manner of speaking that can seem deferential, but listen more closely, and it becomes clear that Alalul’s measured speech masks a more complicated truth. For like many with his “third-culture” upbringing, this 33-year-old filmmaker, born to a Palestinian father in the English coastal town of Poole, has spent a lifetime scripting his way, cautiously, between two worlds.
Sometimes, like when he moved to Ramallah to help tell the stories of Palestinian farmers, those worlds could seem to enrich each other, playing to Alalul’s linguistic strengths. Other times, what happened in one world was better left unsaid in the other. And on rare occasions, these worlds did something they weren’t supposed to do: they collided.
That’s what happened last Thursday, as Alalul was preparing to attend the Washington, DC premiere of his debut film, From Beneath the Earth. His UK passport at the ready, Alalul was informed by airline agents that U.S. authorities had denied him permission to board his flight. No explanation was given. And according to a post-9/11 protocol that requires citizens of so-called visa waiver countries to seek “travel authorization,” no explanation was required.
Alalul, who had traveled to the U.S. many times without incident, couldn’t explain it either. “I don’t know what to say,” he told me. “But I know this: I don’t want to be defined as the director who got denied entry to the United States.”
To grasp why, one need only watch Alalul’s 21-minute short, in which five Palestinian musicians narrate their own struggles, not just with the day-to-day drudgery of life under occupation, but with their heartfelt attempts to transcend it.
The film begins with a hat-tip to the unmistakable sound of Mahmoud Jrere, one third of the groundbreaking Palestinian trio DAM. In the opening scene, Jrere’s voice overlays images of urban splendor—landscaped roundabouts, glistening high-rises, gated homes—that quickly recede into a shot of graffitied concrete, the infamous Apartheid Wall separating Palestinians from those privileges. This, of course, is visual shorthand for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and we are fully expecting Alalul to introduce us to more of its victims.
But there are no victims in Alalul’s film. We first...Read More