Filmmaker’s ode to her father travels west

Palestinian director and writer Hind Shoufani takes Trip Along Exodus, a poetic documentary about her political father, from Dubai to audiences in Europe

Hind Shoufani is sitting quietly in a café across the street from The Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels. The last embers of daylight dance in her eyes and, although she is nervous, she hides it well. In half an hour, the grand and imposing theatre across the street will host the European premiere of a documentary that took her five years to make.

“Even though my father was a political figure, I didn’t want my documentary to be a straightforward, serious political film,” says the Palestinian poet and filmmaker. “I wanted it to look like one of my poems. I wanted it to work like your memory works, because your memory is never really chronological. And I attempted to be honest, I attempted to be brave. I attempted to make a film that told the story of a courageous man, a tragic man, a powerful man who was very much a broken figure by the end of his life.”

Making films is so hard. Sometimes I have to be reminded why we do it

Hind Shoufani, Filmmaker

After years of dedication, Shoufani’s film, Trip Along Exodus, is being taken to the world, although screening a long, dense, emotional and unforgiving Palestinian documentary in Europe will be no easy task. How do you take an experimental art house documentary that explores the past 70 years of Palestinian politics through the prism of the life of her father – the PLO leader, academic, writer and leftist intellectual Elias Shoufani – to the world? How do you reconcile experimentation with critical success? How do you draw audiences to a documentary steeped in the failure of its protagonist?

The film received its world premiere in front of hundreds of people at the Dubai International Film Festival last December. The audience at the KVS Bol in Brussels is smaller. While making independent films in the Arab world is challenging, the task of getting the finished product screened and watched can sometimes be harder.

Trip Along Exodus is in essence an examination of the familial and emotional cost of rebellion. It is also a daughter’s search for understanding of her own father. Who was this man who abandoned a life of academia in the Ivy League universities of the US? Why did he join the Palestinian revolution of the 1970s? Why did he make decisions that would have such a far-reaching effect on Hind and her family?

I attempted to be honest, I attempted to be brave. I attempted to make a film that told the story of a courageous man, a tragic man, a powerful man who was very much a broken figure by the end of his life

Hind Shoufani, Filmmaker

In many ways it is also a lesson in catharsis. It is a film, perhaps, that should be viewed through the emotional lens of Shoufani herself; a strong, beautiful, outspoken women who at the same time is affected by rootlessness.

After Brussels comes Paris and the European Independent Film Festival, where Scott Hillier, who founded the festival in 2006 as a showcase for films that demonstrate “quality, innovation and creativity in both form and content”, presents Shoufani with the festival’s Best Non-European Independent Documentary award. Shoufani – based in Dubai but remaining a refugee – is lost for words. 

“You know, I'm always worried that the West would think the film is too anti-Western and that the Arabs would think it’s too anti-Arab,” she says a short while later. Operating in a world where art is weighed against money and comfort is weighed against activism, Shoufani has found her European audience.

At the Cinéma Arabe festival in Amsterdam a week or so later, she interacts with the audiences for hours, both inside the cinema and outside in the main bar and dining area. “Making films is so hard,” she says whilst sitting outside the festival’s venue, the Rialto, an art-house cinema in Ceintuurbaan. “Sometimes I have to be reminded why we do it. Why we make films by hand. But then I get days like these and I remember.”

Trip Along Exodus is to screen at the Festival Ciné-Palestine in Paris on 31 May, and at the East End Film Festival in London on 11 July