This interview was conducted with director Hany Abu-Assad after the release last month of his new film, The Mountain Between Us, starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.
Isis Nusair (IS): How did you start making movies?
Hany Abu Assad (HA): After graduating from high school I left Nazareth for the Netherlands to study aerial engineering. I worked for two years as an engineer but did not feel fulfilled. I returned to Nazareth and worked with my father for a while. At the time, Rashid Masharawi and Bashir Abu-Rabia’ were making documentary films. I first met Rashid in 1990. After that I returned to the Netherlands to develop my knowledge of cinema, and I made my first fiction film 14th Chick (1998) and the documentary film Nazareth 2000 (2000). When the second Palestinian Intifada broke out, I made Rana’s Wedding (2002), Ford Transit (2002) and Paradise Now (2005). Then my films got more international attention and I made The Courier (2012) which did not succeed. I made Omar (2013) and waited a while before making The Idol (2015).
IN: You started by making documentary films?
HA: In Nazareth 2000 the gas station becomes a central site in the film where people stop to tell their story then leave. That is when I started understanding the relation between documentary and fiction film making.
IN: Also in Ford Transit, the van becomes a theatrical stage where people come to tell their story then leave.
HA: Ford Transit is not exactly documentary or fiction. I enjoyed exploring the relation between the two. In Ford Transit, I turned the van into a theatrical fictional stage. There were people who knew beforehand what they should say and the performance continued without anyone paying attention. There were also people who were not told what to say. We had few professional actors and their part was fictional but the rest of the film was a documentary and people were not aware that they were part of a performance.
IN: In Paradise Now you moved completely into making fiction films.
HA: In Paradise Now we have the reality of the istishhadiyeen and I wanted to make this reality into drama. I was thinking about how to turn reality into drama while still keeping it “real”, and how to exaggerate the events to add to the melodramatic effect. The film has a neo-realism feel to it where you make a story out of events taking place in the street. We held the camera on our shoulders while filming and I used a studio effect for silent dramatic movements. We filmed in Nablus and the movie created its own kind of realism. In Omar, I mixed different genres of action, comedy and tragic comedy.
IN: Paradise Now has a scene of the last supper that is quite unique.
HA: I rebuilt the myth of the last supper in that scene. That dinner took place in north Jerusalem. Here we have Palestine as a real story constituting a background for a myth. Sa'id in the film was aware that he will become part of that myth but with new dimensions. I reconstructed a scene very similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper except that I substituted the light with a florescent one (laughs)! I am making a film, a cinematic landscape, through rebuilding the portrait with all the parameters and problematics entailed in that.
IN: Did you maintain the same style in The Idol?
HA: My work allowed me to understand how much cinema could compensate for seventy years of frustration because of the lack of control over our land and lives. When Mohammad Assaf won Arab Idol in 2013 it compensated, in part, for that loss. In Madih Al-Dhill Al-'Ali (A Euology for a Tall Shadow), Mahmoud Darwish talks about loss. In this poem, he consoles and transforms values into poetics, and turns tragedy into an historic epic. I remember him reading that poem for ninety minutes at the opening of the Palestinian National Council in Algeria in 1983. Nour El-Sherif, an Egyptian actor, opened the meeting. Where else could you find this many artists involved in politics! Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad, Arafat, and George Habash were all there. That is when I understood that art has a major role to play in people’s development. With every defeat, something historic emerges.
[Image from The Idol (2015).]
IN: What is the significance of Mohammad Assaf winning Arab Idol?
HA: Through winning Arab Idol, Assaf brought a revival through uniting Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, the 1948 area, and the Diaspora. I was in Nazareth at the time when they announced the results. We gathered at the Square by Mary’s Well. There were people from all walks of life and it felt like a symbolic act that could bring people together. MBC wanted me to make a movie about Assaf’s life. I decided to make a fiction film based on his life story; a guy that turns overnight from poor to rich. It is like a fairytale from rags-to-riches. It is rare for something like this to happen. The Palestinians are usually invisible and I tried to give them visibility in this fairytale. I ended up breaking the fairytale by mixing the comic with the tragic!
IN: The film is similar to Slumdog Millionaire.
HA: I was partly inspired when making the film by Slumdog Millionaire and by another Iranian film called Rumen. The story is more imaginary as it rarely happens but the framework in which it takes place is real. It is an imaginary story in a realistic theater. We got permission from the Israeli authorities to film in Gaza for three days. Whatever you do as a Palestinian filmmaker, you will be entering the realm of politics. We are usually represented as invisible and when visible only as terrorists. The minute you decide to say that you are Palestinian, you are challenging a global policy and not just the Zionist project.
IN: What connection do you see between poetics and politics?
HA: We are a people with cultural history and when you challenge and contest the label, “Israeli Arabs,” to refer to Palestinians in the 1948 area, you become political. Paradise Now focused on the international political debate about the advantage of istishhadiyeen operations. In Omar, the dialogue was against the Israeli occupation. There is resistance to the occupation but it gets into a maze. The Idol in fact is one big joke about Israel. The film is political in that it challenges the idea that Palestinians do not have roots. Mohammed Assaf is part and parcel of an artistic movement. He did not come out of nowhere or from a vacuum. We are part of these historic and cultural developments. Yet, this could be a universal story that has nothing to do with the particularities of a specific place. The Idol has been the most distributed Arab film in the world. It is being shown in Turkey, Poland, and many other places. The Palestinians have a story to tell that is full of art and music. They are not victims and there is no self-pity. My relation to the political is there even if I do not talk directly about it.
IN: Your recent film The Mountain Between Us is a departure from Palestine or is it not?
HA: The Mountain Between Us is an opportunity to get closer to the dominant cinema industry. You can learn a lot from that, and to me, putting the name of a Palestinian director on a Hollywood movie is an achievement.
IN: The Mountain Between Us deals with questions of crossing borders and survival.
HA: The Mountain Between Us deals with two main themes that are very intriguing to me. The theme of survival and that of love. Aren’t they one and the same? Don't we want to survive in order to be with the one we love? And don’t we fall in love in order to survive? To get the chance to make a mainstream movie dealing with survival and love in a poetic, realistic language is a challenge, and I always love to take on challenges. If you actually look carefully at all of my movies, they are about two normal people who get caught in an extreme situation. This setting allows for an exploration of values and vision, and allows the audience to question what they already know.
[Idris Elba and Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us (2017).]