For a young boy growing up in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, becoming a filmmaker and participating in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival seemed an impossible dream. Yet, for the 27-year-old Wissam al-Jafari, this dream became a reality this year at the 72nd Annual Cannes International Film Festival when his short film Ambience won the third prize in the Cinefondation competition.
For al-Jafari, the journey to the red carpet of Cannes began at age 15 when he first held a camera. From the moment he experienced the power of photography and filmmaking at a school workshop, he knew that he wanted to become a filmmaker. He attended the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, where he received a degree in Cinematography. Al-Jafari filmed Ambience with Dar al-Kalima Director of Film Programs Saed Andoni serving as the producer and with the supervision of Dar al-Kalima Professor Majdi al-Omari, both of whom he noted as key players in his work and success.
Al-Jafari’s own story echoes the narrative of his short film, which centers around two young musicians in Dheisheh Refugee Camp attempting to record a demo tape for a music competition. Despite their best efforts, their recordings are constantly interrupted by the sounds of the camp – neighbors fighting, the hubbub of daily life, even bombs and gunshots. Deciding to take their situation with humor and grace, the young musicians recorded the sounds of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and transformed that noise into art.
Like the young musicians in the film, al-Jafari did not have a lot of equipment and relied heavily on the resources that surrounded him. The film boasts an entirely Palestinian cast and crew and features amateur actors including workers on the streets of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. For lighting, al-Jafari and his crew often relied on the ambient light from nearby homes. This resourcefulness is characteristic of the Palestinian refugee population, who were displaced from their homes 71 years ago with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Al-Jafari noted that the success of his film is in reality the success of the camp in which he was born and raised and the University College where he received his education.
The Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture is certainly proud of Wissam al-Jafari, and of all of its students who have achieved great successes over the course of the institution’s decade of providing arts education. Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima, personally congratulated the young artist and emphasized how proud the University College is of him.
Saed Andoni, Director of the Film Program at Dar al-Kalima and producer of the film, seconded these sentiments, noting that “we are the first Palestinian cinema school to have the film of one of its students featured at this important festival. I am extremely happy for Wissam and all the staff who put so much effort into the film…This success gives an enormous moral boost to the rest of the students in the program, giving them incentive to work on films of high professional quality.”
The joy of this remarkable success is not complete, however, as one of the lead actors in the film was imprisoned without reason by Israeli Forces in September 2018 and remains in jail to this day. Wissam dedicated the award to this young man who could not be present at the prestigious festival due to the Israeli Occupation. Al-Jafari himself was imprisoned without justification at the age of 14. These twin experiences continue to influence his artistry, including inspiring a new short film about a love story experienced through letters sent to the prison.
It is the University College’s ongoing mission to support young people’s movement from refugee camps to red carpets by encouraging their development through arts and culture. It is Dar al-Kalima’s belief that art can play a transformative role in people’s lives, helping to foster hope, joy, and creative resistance in a population experiencing the struggle of thriving under Israeli Occupation. Wissam al-Jafari is one example of the success that has already been achieved to this effect.