3 Palestinian short films available on Netflix show life under occupation.
For those wondering what life in Palestine looks like, Condom Lead (2013), directed by Palestinian twins Arab and Tarzan Nasser, offers a striking visual metaphor: The short film opens with an apartment full of balloons, drawing the viewer in. But the scripted work takes place during the first Gaza War in 2008 and 2009. Why are there so many balloons in this house during a war, when there is no celebration occurring?
That night, we see the residents of the house, a married couple, as they try to have sex. They draw toward each other, softly touching feet and thighs, but they are interrupted by the sound of bombs, which makes their infant cry. The husband then takes a condom, blows it up, and lets it float through the apartment wherever it may land — on the floor, on the bookcase, on their child. We realize this is his compulsion, a coping technique, a way of keeping score of what is taken from them.
Over the last seven weeks, life in Gaza has been quite literally unimaginable. Following the October 7 attacks by Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis and Israel’s subsequent siege of Gaza with its 13,000 Palestinian deaths, there have been intermittent communications blackouts in the territory. The siege has meant Palestinians are contending with a full-blown humanitarian crisis, including attacks on refugee camps and hospitals and increased violence in the West Bank. Even knowing all that, communication failures and incredible challenges for journalists mean there is so much we don’t know.
This story, however, did not begin in October 2023; the roots of the conflict reach much further back. By understanding what came before, and what everyday life looks like for people, couples, and families under occupation, we can add to our understanding of what’s happening now and how we got here. A selection of short films, all easily available on Netflix, from Palestinian directors can give viewers outside the region a sense of the alienation, oppression, and human longing that have characterized life in the territories for decades. These films tell the story of trying to make a life under sustained duress.
By the end of the 15-minute Condom Lead, the apartment is even more full of balloons, representing 22 days since the couple has successfully had sex. Each balloon stands for a missed opportunity for communion, intimacy, and love. Each balloon represents an act of Israeli aggression, an occupation whose chokehold is so strong it invades even this couple’s bed. We’re not told what this couple’s plans for children are, but judging by the condoms, we know they’re not looking to conceive right now. We know, at least, that their home is currently being bombed. Not only has the military assault made having children feel fraught and dangerous, but it has taken away the opportunity for closeness.
The specter of the Israeli forces looms large throughout these films, but maybe nowhere so intensely as in the Israeli prison system, the location of writer-director Rakan Mayasi’s Bonboné (2017). In this film, a Palestinian woman (Rana Alamuddin) smuggles sperm from her imprisoned husband (Saleh Bakri) so that she can become pregnant.
When director Mayasi, who, like many members of the Palestinian diaspora is prevented by the Israeli occupation to visit or live in Palestine, heard stories of couples navigating love and procreation amid the prison system, he felt an urge to put it in his art. “The strength, beauty, and creativity of resisting occupation with love is a subject that needs to be told,” he says.
The Israeli prison system is harrowing for Palestinians. The testimony of Mazen Abu ’Arish, a 22-year-old surveyor from the West Bank who spent 20 days in solitary confinement in Israel’s Shikma prison, speaks clearly to the spirit-breaking conditions; “In there, you have no room to move and no desire to do a thing,” he wrote.
Bonboné is set against this backdrop and addresses “the issue of reproduction, both sexual and social,” says Umayyah Cable, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of Michigan who researches the role that art, film, and media play in the mobilization of Palestine solidarity politics. The film speaks “to anxieties and worries about Palestinian sexuality, the nuclear family, intimacy, and the literal reproduction of Palestinian society.”
Israel does not allow conjugal visits for prisoners, so smuggling sperm is the only way families can reproduce when a partner is incarcerated. In 2020, Walid Daqqah, sentenced to life in prison, petitioned the Israeli court to allow him to have children with his wife San Salameh in a fertility clinic. His request was denied, so he smuggled his sperm to his wife, leading to the birth of their daughter Milad, whose name means “birth” in Arabic. This story inspired Mayasi. “I think such a story needs to be told,” the director told Short of the Week. “It is so beautiful to defy occupation and resist with love and life.”
Conceiving in this way has an inevitable element of dehumanization, but it also shows how Palestinians resist their oppression. Bonboné doesn’t shy away from humiliation; the film shows the husband trying to masturbate as practice the night before but having trouble, his attempts constantly interrupted by sounds of prison guard announcements and metal cages clinging. It’s clear that here, in this prison, he cannot connect with himself in such an intimate way. When his wife comes the next day, her body is violated by the Israeli female prison guard, who makes her strip naked, puts her hands in her hair, and forces her to bend over and squat.
“The Israeli state is extremely preoccupied with Palestinian reproduction,” Cable says. “Demographically, Palestinians outnumber Jewish Israelis. As we know from apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South in the US, minority rule over a majority population is not only frowned upon by human rights agencies and the United Nations, it’s recognized as anti-democratic.”
In 2021, an Israeli professor argued in the right-wing tabloid Israel Hayom that, “Our strategy has to be demographic expansion and blocking Arab-Muslim migration to Israel. If we don’t understand that victory in the conflict — Jewish, or, God forbid, Arab — is demographic in nature rather than military, then we will lose.”
Bonboné doesn’t end the story with degradation, choosing instead to give the couple moments of love and eroticism. When the wife sees her husband, she is joyous and hopeful, asking what they will name the child if he is a boy. When her husband informs her that he might have difficulty performing, she takes it upon herself to arouse him right there through the glass. It’s not particularly graphic, but it is beautiful. She focuses the fantasy on a time when he was free, when they made love during a stolen moment at his brother’s engagement party, when they felt connected to each other and to their community. It is hard to tell if his arousal is physical or emotional, whether he is imagining his wife’s body or simply imagining being free, being allowed to connect with another human.
“I generally like to deconstruct stereotypes and challenge norms, and I found Bonboné a fruitful opportunity to do that. It innately has lovemaking in it, it is never an added scene or an added tool in the film; it is the central idea the film is built around,” director Mayasi tells Vox. “Taking the film into the genre of sensual eroticism has given the film a louder and bolder voice. This also changed the power dynamic at the prison, the couple were stronger than their occupiers.”
Despite prison conditions, the husband in Bonboné is able to feel desire and connection, even through the glass. Victorious, his wife retrieves the semen from him, smuggled in a candy wrapper (hence the title, a play on the French word for candy). On the way home, her bus is stopped by soldiers who search the bus. Once again, her attempt at a family is threatened. But she is not deterred, looking around to make sure the women are either asleep or looking away, and inseminates herself right there on the bus. It is an ending that has triumph, agency, and resilience, a portrait of a people who refuse to be denied their humanity.
As Palestinian film director Farah Nabulsi, director of The Present (2020), tells Vox, the systemic tyranny Palestinians face spreads to the “realm of love and intimacy.”
“The pervasive stress and anxiety of living in a constant state of fear can create emotional distance and conflict in intimate relationships. Restrictions on movement and segregation policies can severely limit opportunities for meeting partners and maintaining relationships,” Nabulsi says.
In The Present, Nabulsi’s film, a father in the West Bank named Yusuf (Saleh Bakri) and his daughter Yasmin (Maryam Kanj) set out on what seems a simple task: buying his wife and her mother Noor (Mariam Basha) an anniversary present — specifically, a new refrigerator. But the labyrinth of checkpoints and violence inflicted there makes what should have been a day of bonding between a daughter and father into a traumatic experience.
When they first try to leave, the Israeli soldiers force Yusuf to wait in a holding pen with other men. He asks them not to because he is with his daughter, but his pleas only seem to make them more insistent on cruelty. Later, after he is released, he sees that Yasmin has urinated herself because the wait was so long and traumatic. When Yusuf expresses concern and tells her she should have spoken up, Yasmin says, “It’s okay, Dad. There was nothing you could do.” His face crumples upon hearing this. A parent’s job is to protect their child, and he is devastated to see that at such a young age, she is already learning that, in the occupation, there are limits to what her father can do to protect her.
Nabulsi tells Vox that this story highlights how the occupation seeps its way into the fabric of family life for Palestinians. “In this hardship, the roots of their bond might grow deeper. The shared ordeal becomes a silent teacher of empathy. The young girl may come to understand the depth of her father’s struggles and the complexities of the world they navigate.”
It’s demonstrated to both of them again, at night, as they attempt to roll the fridge past the checkpoint. Even though their house is right there, in sight, the Israeli soldiers order them to take an hours-long detour. The soldiers dehumanize the family further, searching their grocery bags to find Yasmin’s soiled pants from before and taunting them. “You’re all disgusting,” one of the Israeli soldiers spits.
Yusuf pleads until he demands forcefully to be let through, resorting to yelling and banging on the table. It’s a terrifying moment: The Israeli soldier’s guns are pointed at him, and the audience imagines how this will end — a father shot to death in front of his daughter — but then we hear a creaking of the gate and see Yasmin, looking smaller than she has looked the entire film but somehow also stronger, rolling the refrigerator past the checkpoint herself. Yusuf and the soldiers are stunned, and Yusuf begins to walk alongside his daughter, who resolutely keeps going. It is a deeply sad triumph. And as Nabulsi points out, it is ultimately unrealistic.
“The stark reality often dictates a grim outcome — either an encounter with deadly force or the infliction of physical injury and/or arrest. But as a storyteller often drawn to the somber hues of human experience, I felt compelled to offer an ending with more hope,” Nabulsi says. “A suggestion that hinted at a brighter future, spearheaded by the youth — interestingly, a female. It’s her, and other youth like her, emerging resilient and assertive, who captivate my imagination.”
“I remain a woman anchored by hope, by an unwavering faith in the strength and potential of my community,” Nabulsi continues. “This film is a testament to that belief: a narrative that ultimately chooses to embrace the possibility of change and the promise of a generation poised to redefine their destiny.”
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