Foxtrot/Samuel Maoz (director) and Lior Ashkenazi (actor)

When Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Dafna (Sarah Adler) are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty, they separately descend into their own personal horror rather than face the trauma together. Director Samuel Maoz employs the never-ending circularity of the foxtrot as a metaphor, melding tragicomic surrealism, highly choreographed cinematography, and a remarkable performance from Lior Ashkenazi to convey the truth that our private lives are inseparable from our communal history.  To view the trailer, click here •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. March 2.  Thank to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. 

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Itay Exlroad as Dancer Solider
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

DT: Samuel, your previous film Lebanon was shot entirely inside a tank. Needless to say, it was highly claustrophobic.  In Foxtrot, much of the film is shot in the desert, yet you managed to create that same feeling of claustrophobia, even though it takes place in the middle of these vast open spaces. How did you do that?

SM: We’re looking at one point at the end of the day. Usually in films you go from place to place, with many locations. The fact that with this film you’re stuck in the same point creates that feeling, I think.

LA: It’s the same as if you were in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing in the scenery…it’s all the same. You see sand. It’s open wide but without any details.

SM: It’s like being isolated.

LA: It’s like being on the sun or the moon. This is the claustrophobia. It’s not the same as claustrophobia in a small room, but wherever you look, you see the same, so in a way, there’s nowhere to run.

SM: There’s no way out.

LA: There’s no escape.

 

DT: The film reminded me of Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart/the center does not hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” At the end of Foxtrot, I felt like we had arrived at the end of things, like there’s nowhere to go, there’s no possibility of moving forward from here.

LA: That’s the focus of what the film is talking about: that’s the foxtrot [dance]. You need someone from the outside to take you by the hand and take you out of this circle that repeats itself.

SM: For me the conclusion of the film is that fate cannot be changed, not because it’s divine but because of the nature of the Israeli traumatic man/woman who shaped the nature of the collective, now stuck in trauma.

DT: That’s what was so depressing.

SM: The truth is that the little step that can save us from the loop of the foxtrot must be done by the leadership. Only not this leadership—they do the opposite. They press on the buttons of the trauma and they do it with slogans that have nothing to do with reality except maybe the emotional memory of the ancient trauma, the old trauma whose instinctual nature is stronger than any instinctual power, is stronger than any reality and logic. They used to say to us, “We are in existential danger.” This is the mother of slogans. When I hear politicians in Israel say “We are a technological superpower, we have the strongest army and a nuclear weapon because we are in existential danger” it’s more or less like saying, I’m young and strong and healthy because I’m sick.

Our culture minister, for example, attacked the film without seeing it, before it was released. In her attack she actually confirmed the film’s message, because she pressed on people’s buttons with slogans that bring them to their feet. “Foxtrot is destroying the country,” she said, as if the film was a nuclear weapon that will erase us from the map. In her attack, she once again lifted a mirror to the radical split in Israeli society.

DT: What specifically did she object to?

SM:In the beginning she said she’s against the film because there’s a scene where the army breaks into a Palestinian home and slaughters the family. A journalist who saw the film at an academy screening told her, “We saw the film and there is no such scene.”  The next day, she said, “It’s because of the scene where they bury the car.” When she was told that the scene is about something wider, that it’s allegorical, she said, “The fact that the director ends the film with this scene says that this was his message.” Then they told her, “We saw the film and it doesn’t end with this scene.” Anyway, the struggle is not only for the film itself, it became a struggle for freedom of speech and expression.

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

DT: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Like people, countries suffer psychological wounds from their own history. These wounds become the country’s DNA.

SM: Exactly.

DT: In the United States, our psychological wound is slavery. We’ve never gotten over it, and that’s why we can’t heal the racial divide. I’m wondering if in Israel it’s the Holocaust, and whether that’s a wound that will ever go away.

SM: Exactly.

LA: Yes. It’s the Holocaust. The leadership usually uses the Holocaust to present us as the victims. I don’t believe I’m a victim, neither does my generation. Maybe our grandparents did.

SM: The common image of the post-traumatic man is a cliche. People expect him to have nightmares, he’s alone, uncommunicative. For Michael [the protagonist of the film, played by Lior Askhenazi], like many of his generation, it’s a case of repression and denial. He would do anything to prove that he is alive and that he would benefit from it somehow: he would be the successful businessman, raise a family, arm himself with buying an expensive apartment and luxury, but in a desperate attempt to hide his weakness, his secret. From outside everything seems to be fine, but from inside his soul is bleeding, and when he has nowhere to go in his experience, he kicks the dog. In Israeli society there are many versions of Michael, because his generation—my generation, the second generation of the Holocaust survivors—couldn’t complain about anything. Our teachers, our parents were naturally not very stable, because they’d experienced perhaps the worst trauma in human history. They used to wave the numbers on their arms and shout at us from the morning to the evening that they survived the Holocaust and who are we to complain. When I got a 7 in math at school, my mother said, “For a 7 in math I survived the Holocaust?” When we came back from the war with two hands, two legs, ten fingers, without any burning marks but expressing that we felt hurt inside, it was unacceptable. They used to tell us, “Get over it, be a man, we survived the Holocaust.” So we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, so we have become an additional generation of traumatic victims. This is the endless traumatic circle that I’m talking about. I think we need another three, four, five, I don’t know how many generations…

 

DT: It should have been forty years in the desert, but we’re already past that. Lior,  this is quite a change from your role in Norman. I’ve seen you in many films, but in this one, you just…seemed like yourself in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t know if it was the particular role—

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

LA: It’s a mixture of things. I’m not acting, actually. It’s not about acting. In Israel you’re surrounded by people who’ve lost dear ones in terror attacks, in the war, so you know them. They have their daily life, everything is OK, but there’s something that’s not quite right. You can’t point to it, you can’t say, Ah, this is it. It’s not about a sad face or depression. We were trying to find out how I could bring it out without doing a sad face, so I thought it could be done physically.  I didn’t sleep the two days preceding the shoot.

SM: He was exhausted.

LA: Just to exhaust myself. Now that I tell you that, you can see it, because it’s almost like slow motion. The eyes are falling down, when I’m leaning on the furniture, I needed to lean because I was falling down from exhaustion.

SM: Lior didn’t want to tell me because he thought I wouldn’t like it.

LA: I was afraid to tell Samuel.

SM: I told him I liked it because I really believe that when you need to deal with something emotional or mental, the best way to do it is through something physical.

When I was preparing to shoot Lebanon, I thought, How can I explain to an actor what it’s like to be inside a tank and suddenly someone attacks you? I could use my best description and they would say, Yeah, yeah yeah, but they wouldn’t understand anything. So I took each one of them and put them inside a container. It’s 122 degrees, it’s dark, you can’t sit, but after you survive the first five minutes you get over it because the body recognizes emergency conditions and starts to save energy. You start to breathe slowly and you start to feel like you are floating. You’re saving energy, and it’s OK. After half an hour, I had someone beat on the outside of the container with an iron pipe. When the actor came out of the container after 90 minutes, I could see in his eyes that I didn’t need to explain anything, because he understood.

I even had an actor who couldn’t shoot a gun. How could I explain that to him?  I took him and a prop gun to a friend’s apartment in the center of Tel Aviv. I took the actor to the window, gave him the toy gun, and said, “Put him in the cross hairs and press the trigger.” It’s a toy, a prop, everybody knows it, but the feeling that someone is in your cross hairs… He couldn’t do it, and suddenly [he understood].

 

DT: The film is based in part on a real-life incident with your daughter. Can you tell us about that, because I think it puts the film in context.

SM: My daughter never woke up early enough to get to school on time, so in order for her not to be late, she would ask me to call a taxi. This habit started to cost us quite a bit of money, and it also seemed to me to be bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her, “You will get the bus like everyone else does. If you’re late, you’re late.”  There was a big argument, and I was mad, and I told her quite firmly, “You are taking the bus. Now go.” Her bus was line 5, a quite famous line in Tel Aviv. Twenty minutes after she left, I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on line 5 and that dozens of people had been killed. I tried to call her, of course, but the cellular service had collapsed because of the unexpected load—this was at the beginning of cell phones in Israel.

She returned home an hour later. She told us that when she got to the station, she saw the bus, started to run, waved at the driver, but the bus left the station and she took the next bus. That was the worst hour in my life. It was worse than the entire Lebanon war. I asked myself, What can I learn from this experience? and very quickly I understood that I couldn’t learn anything.

LA: He could just make a movie.

SM: I didn’t want to investigate or explore but to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond our control. To explore this limbo where we make decisions. We also tried to do a kind of Greek tragedy in which the hero creates his own punishment and fights against anyone who tries to save him. He’s obviously unaware of the outcome that his actions will bring about. This is the difference between a casual coincidence and a spooky coincidence that looks like a plan of fate, because chaos is certain, the punishment corresponds with the sin almost in its exact form, and there is something round and complete in such a dramatic form.

 

DT: It’s a little like film noir, where character is destiny. Let’s talk about the overhead shots and that gorgeous 360 degree pan. Samuel, what do those shots mean to you as a director, and Lior, as an actor, are you aware of the camera’s position?

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Lior Ashkenazi as Michael and Yehuda Almagor as Avigdor, Michael’s brother.
Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

SM: I couldn’t make those shots if Lior wasn’t aware. I need a partner. I will give an example. For the first overhead shot when he’s going to open the door, the long closeup when they trick him and leave, I chose the floor. I do not do realistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential. I try to penetrate, reflect the thoughts of my characters. First I told my DOP, “That floor will make us dizzy.” Next, cinematographers usually do their movement with the movement of the actor. So I told my DOP, “Let’s go against his movements because the audience will lose their orientation.”

But to do this, you must have an actor who’s aware of the camera, because he needs to do five or six steps very, very slowly, to take his time. I know actors who I could continue to shoot to this day and they still wouldn’t be able to do this shot. I know that Lior can squeeze his soul, he can really feel, but deep inside there is a computer program working in the background that makes him aware of the camera.

LA: It’s also a choreography. I  didn’t just speak with Samuel; I was also [communicating] with the DOP. I needed to be aware of what the camera was doing  because the timing was split second, a hairsbreadth…I’m standing up, I know the camera now has to finish the turn and then I can start walking, but not like people normally walk, I’m walking there very, very slowly because of the camera…

SM: He takes time to lean on the table…

LA: It was like a dance.

SM: I believe in low tech when you create those shots. In Lebanon, where we were on a studio set, I needed to simulate the movement of the tank. They sent the script to Cinecitta in Italy because they have a platform they used to lend to American films for helicopter scenes. They told me, “Listen, we love the script, for you it’s $250,000.” So my production designer went to a junkyard and bought a wagon for $300, because it was simply a matter of balance—two people here, two people there, and two wheels in the middle. Here, in Foxtrot, it’s the DOP that controlled the movement, along with the two grips, one with the crane and one with the dolly. It’s the combination of three people who need to synchronize between themselves and the actor. The actor must depend on them, they can’t rely on him.

DT: Lior, are you watching them while the camera is rolling?

LA: No. We are just doing it.

SM: We shot a first take, and then I showed it to Lior. He’s the kind of actor—

LA: I need to see what just happened, and then I can be much better, because I know, OK this is the shot, I understand it now, I know the timing, so let’s do it.

DT: Is that the way you work all the time?

LA: Usually.

SM: Not all directors will show the take to the actors because the actors will say, “This angle is not good…”

 

LA: The light, the angle.

SM: But I believe this is the best way to learn. If you’re an actor, you need to get used to yourself from all different angles.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

The Insult/Ziad Doueiri

When a Palestinian refugee insults a Lebanese Christian in Beirut, the Palestinian’s refusal to apologize sparks a national crisis. With director Ziad Doueiri’s ubiquitous honesty and intelligence, this Academy Award hopeful examines the excesses of hate, the Middle East’s addiction to words, and paths to reconciliation. Availability: Opens New York City, January 12, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

DT: Ziad, in your last film, The Attack, Israelis and Palestinians are each other’s enemies.  When I interviewed you for that film, you said, “I went to Israel and met these Israeli actors and they’re fantastic. The whole image of the ultimate enemy became demystified. I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him.” Is it the same with the characters in The Insult?

ZD: It’s the same. The Insult is my reexamination of the Christian  narrative, which I grew up hating all my life. I guess I spent all my life hating people and then saying, Let me think about it. We grew up thinking that the Christian political thinking was associated with a betrayal of the country. We thought that the Christians in Lebanon—and I’m talking about the Christians not in terms of religion but in terms of political parties: Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese forces, the Christian parties—were betraying Lebanon. Those people were associating themselves with the enemies of Lebanon, etc., etc., so their narrative for me as a child did not exist.

As time passes, you sit down and say, Let’s see, did they really not suffer as much? We always believed that the Muslims and the left wing are the people who suffered and the Christians did not suffer, they did not go through dilemmas. And then you start understanding their point of view, and you slowly demystify this thing. This film is about demystifying things, actually. I made a film because I had to go through my own thinking.

 

DT: Making a film is a huge project. It takes a lot of money and time and effort. People make them for different reasons. Guillermo Del Toro made Shape of Water for one reason, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction for another reason. Considering your background and the family you grew up in—very intellectual, very political, very left wing—I feel like your reason for making films is catharsis.

ZD: It’s telling the truth. I want to tell the truth. It’s so important that I don’t give the impression that I’m an idealist and want a larger-than-life figure. I hate those things. I want to tell you something: after The Insult came out in Lebanon and all these festivals, Venice, Valladolid, Telluride, a lot of journalists started asking me questions. At the beginning I did not know how to answer that fundamental question, Why are you making this movie? What inspired this movie? It’s not that I didn’t know the answer, I just had to figure it out, because it was so subconscious. And I started thinking in very practical terms in order to answer the journalists and give them the answers they were looking for, which consequently made me think about what voice was behind the writing of the film. It’s not insignificant. It’s significant, it’s just so buried in me.

It’s about being fair. Let me elaborate—what I’m telling you is very real. It’s not at all intellectual, and it’s not at all analytical. It’s very real. When I grew up in 1975, the war started, and all I can remember—I was twelve years old—is a lot of things that were happening in my daily life that were not fair. For example—it’s so banal—we got stopped at checkpoints day in, day out.

DT: That’s not banal.

ZD: No, but at that time it looked like just another event. Then Lebanon was invaded by armies. That’s a big theory, but Ziad growing up saw those invasions, because I had to run with my family into the shelters. I played with a rock band as a teenager. One day the left-wing militia came inside the basement and took all of my instruments, my bass guitar and everything. My dad came down and we tried to argue with them, but they were stronger than us because they had weapons. I looked at my dad and said, as I’d said all throughout my years, “This is unfair.” When you’re young, you don’t react intellectually—you say, “Why are they taking my instruments?” In 1977 I wanted to go visit my cousins who lived in Holland. We went to the Dutch embassy, and they did not give us a visa because there were restrictions on Lebanese citizens back then. I thought it was unfair. I thought it was unfair that I could not go on vacation. So many of these events happened day in, day out, not just one every six months. It was all the time, so you grow up and you say, “It’s not fair.”

The word fairness is something I hold onto. I’m still in the process of analyzing why I did The Insult, of understanding the woodpecker behind my brain. It’s fairness. I fucked up a lot in my life, I have a lot of immoral stuff in my life, but fairness is something I hold onto. I am so fair. The idea of The Insult is about a man to whom injustice was done, and he believes that he has to get it back. That’s what Toni Hanna’s character is. I don’t want to give an intellectual feeling to my explanation, because I’m really trying to answer from my gut. Being arrested, and being stopped, and being insulted and all these things have been buried since my childhood.

DT: That’s why I say it’s cathartic.

ZD: Yes. Yes.

 

DT: The film is very multilayered, but the particular juxtaposition between the private apology and the public insult was especially meaningful.

ZD: We did that on purpose, after having thought a lot about it. When Toni tells Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” there was a very big reason we made it on a Sunday. In the preceding scene, the boss tells the Palestinian [Yasser], “I want you to apologize.” The Palestinian is trying to avoid it, and he says, “He’s closed on Sunday,” to which the boss replies, “He’s open seven days a week.” It was not accidental that we picked Sunday, because we wanted the insult to be in private. On Sunday nobody goes to work—it’s only Toni and the mechanic. When he insulted him—it’s true, he insulted him during the day, but there were no workers, no Syrians around, no construction workers—we wanted to make it just in a private way in order to balance it in the end, when the Palestinian comes at night and the apology has to be private. It was not actually public. That’s what we wanted. We thought about all these things.

 

DT: Early in the film, I had a rather banal, but total, revelation. Because I wasn’t attuned to all of the social and cultural nuances, I only had a general understanding of the nature of Yasser’s insult. And I’m watching Toni and  wondering, Why is Toni so full of hate? All he has to do to rid himself of this situation is get rid of his hate. Then I remembered how I—a Jew—felt watching The Attack, and I realized there’s a complete difference when you’re looking at hate—

ZD: —from the outside. That’s right.

DT: It’s not going to get solved until we get rid of the hate.

ZD: It’s not going to be solved until you meet your enemy face-to-face. I’m saying this on a very personal level: When you don’t know your enemy, your hiding in fear becomes multiplied. If you think he’s scary and you don’t see him, you think he’s ten times more scary. When you meet him, it becomes demystified. I’m telling you, I sat down with Israelis just as much as I sat down with Christians from the right-wing party, and during the first interaction, something that holds you breaks down. And suddenly you start reaching behind him, and you start finding more similarity than difference.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone. I am like this. There are people who live through their hate no matter what you do. You put them in therapy for ten years and they can’t get over it. I’m the kind who has a tendency to be curious about the other side. In The Attack, I’ve been curious about understanding the Israeli perspective, and in The Insult and West Beirut I’ve been curious about understanding the Christian perspective. I’m curious, that’s it. It’s not more than that. For me there are no taboos that are not to be broken. I’m willing to go wherever…it’s the idea of fairness.

 

DT: You wrote the script with Joelle Touma, who’s Christian.

ZD: My ex-wife. She’s not a believer. We’re both very secular, but she grew up in a family that had sympathy for right-wing politics. They had their reasons, of course, but right wing, left wing doesn’t mean anything today. It’s all over the place.

 

DT: In a way the story is absurd, with a simple insult escalating into this national crisis. But you shot it in a hyperreal manner, so real that I wondered whether the film was based on an actual incident. Is it absurd? Is it real? Or is it both?

ZD: It’s not absurd. It happens. The whole screenwriting process started because of a very similar incident that actually happened to me. I was living in Beirut a few years ago, and I was watering my plants, when the water fell on one of the workers. We had an exchange; we insulted each other. He said, “You motherfucker,” and I said, “No, you’re the motherfucker.” We started yelling at each other, and I noticed that he had a Palestinian accent, and I just said that phrase: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” This is how it started. So it is not unreal. This is how it happened.

The question to ask is, In Lebanon, in the Arab world, could a simple insult develop into a national crisis? It can. It did happen. Several times. In writing the script, I took it to where it could have happened, but it didn’t happen with me because the Palestinian didn’t make a big deal of it. He was hurt and that was it. But in Lebanon words weigh heavy. They’re loaded. I could insult your mom, your dad, I could say, Screw your mom, and it wouldn’t matter. But there are certain subjects, like religion, that are loaded. If I say, I’m going to screw your religion, this is likely to create a huge problem. This is how it is in the Middle East. It’s very, very sensitive. People give too much attention to words. They don’t take it in a slight manner. It’s very, very heavy.

 

DT:  I’ve never been to Lebanon, but my impression is that it’s a very cosmopolitan, very secular country. Perhaps it’s not that way anymore.

ZD: It’s very secular and it’s very cosmopolitan and it’s very religious and it’s very chauvinistic, and it’s very provincial. It has everything. This is what is so interesting about Lebanon. It’s why I keep going back there in writing my stories, because it’s a melting pot of not just all cultures but all religions, all classes, all political affiliations. It has everything within a very confined space. Lebanon is the country of paradox. Such paradox. And it’s so dynamic. This is what I like about it, while sometimes I hate it.

The Insult created a lot of problems. The Attack created a lot of problems—that’s why it was banned. I want to say, Guys, get over yourselves, we’re just making movies. But the Arab population has not reconciled with itself yet, and as long as you don’t reconcile, you’re going to jump on that caravan, jump against that camp. I’m being very pragmatic. I’m not being analytical here; this is how it is. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, there was a price on his head that lasted twenty years. The queen of England literally put him under protection for twenty years. People take these things very, very seriously, so when we wrote The Insult, we did not walk a tightrope. We did not censor ourselves. We said things very bluntly, the way it is. But we knew it was going to touch on certain sensibilities. We knew it, even though that was not the purpose. Our purpose in writing this film, Joelle and I, was not to provoke, or accuse, or demonize. Not at all—otherwise you will screw up your film. We just wanted to tell a story about a man who has something very deeply buried in him and how he seeks to resolve it at the end. This is the Middle East; what can you do?

 

DT: At this point, your films are shown not just in the Middle East—they’re shown all over the world. While you’re writing or filming, do you make concessions to Western audiences?

ZD: Not at all. I can assure you we did not make any concessions. Look, I lived in the States for eighteen years. I worked in America [e.g., as Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction,  From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackie Brown]. I worked with the people. I didn’t come here as a tourist. The best way to learn about a culture is to work with its people. For eighteen years I learned Americanisms, the way of working on a film set, this society. It’s not insignificant.

Therefore when you learn the language and you learn the mentality and you learn what’s behind the psychology—there’s my rapport with you, and there’s my rapport with our subconscious—it’s going to affect the way you write. There are certain phrases I use when I write. I wrote this film in English, through the final draft, and then I translated it to Arabic.

So to answer your question, Did I make any concessions? Not at all. I managed—not because I’m smart, but because I lived in America as long as I lived in Lebanon—to find the phrases, how to build dialogue, and how to build story in a way that both cultures could understand, without confusing one or the other. Where I sometimes missed the point is some of the humorous phrases. There are certain phrases that made the Americans laugh when the Lebanese didn’t. For example, when the president says, “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American way of being humorous. In Lebanon, they didn’t get it. They don’t think that way. It’s not part of our colloquial language to say “If I want to choose between stability and integrity, I’ll choose stability.” This is an American idiom. An American way of thinking. Another example: When Tony takes the disc and says, “BOC, it’s missing the S” [i.e., to indicate that the disc brake in question was a Chinese knock-off rather than a German original].  The Americans smiled at this, but the Lebanese didn’t get it. When Tony says, “If I have to choose between secondhand German or brand-new Chinese, I choose secondhand German,” this is an American form of humor that the Lebanese didn’t understand. The Americans laughed even though it’s in Arabic.

This is the way your brain gets wired; sometime you blend what works for two cultures and sometimes you miss the point, especially with comedy or humorous lines. It’s very funny that the Lebanese didn’t get it. But to tell you the truth, in all modesty I felt myself well placed to be able to tell a completely Lebanese story and still have Americans relate to it. By the way, my film gets the most understood and appreciated in America and Lebanon and much less in France, because where is the French part of this psychology? Had I lived half my life in France, I would be doing a hybrid product, but my hybrid product as it is, is Lebanese American. The French financed the film, but Americans get it.

 

DT: Let me ask you one more question. You’re working on a project about the Camp David accords.

ZD: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too early. I have to take a little break for just a couple of weeks.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Divine Order/Petra Volpe

Where did women not have the right to vote until 1971? Where did they still need their husbands’ permission to work in 1988?  Where do political parties still advocate no punishment for rape in marriage? The Middle East? Africa? Central Asia? No: It’s Switzerland, where the church says that women who vote violate the divine order. In Divine Order, Petra Volpe tells this historically bizarre story with a good deal of insight and a great deal of charm. Switzerland’s submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign-Language Film. •Availability: Opens October 27 in New York City, Film Forum. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Jessica Uzzan, Hook Publicity, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: When Americans think of Switzerland, we think of mountains. We rarely think of the people or the social history. Is Switzerland such an enigma to other countries as well?

PV: Switzerland was very good at pushing a very particular image. After 1945 there was a very conscious process of the Swiss creating a very positive image of the country. There are a lot of positive things like the Red Cross and the chocolate, but there was a big scandal in the 1990s when the banks were sued because they had hidden all this Jewish money—that was the first time Switzerland got a little black mark. But I think in general Switzerland was very successful at consciously building a very positive image. Every country tries to do that, but Switzerland was really very successful.

DT: It almost feels like a world apart from Europe.

PV: It is, actually. Switzerland is not in the EU. It always kept to itself. It has always had a very special position within Europe: It wasn’t harmed by the wars, not the First World War or the Second. In the Second World War all of Europe was in ashes, burned to the ground, and Switzerland was like a little oasis.

I believe that contributed to the conservatism in the country. There’s very much a notion in Switzerland that we must be doing something right. Our little system must be OK as it is, let’s not change anything. A woman’s right to a vote would change things in our society and we don’t want that. We want to maintain the old traditional Switzerland because it’s good for everybody. So there was also a very nationalistic idea why Swiss women shouldn’t vote. It was considered anti-Swiss to be for the right to vote.

 

DT: Can you talk about the real suffragette movement the film was based on.

PV: As I found out in my research—I didn’t learn any of this in school, because it doesn’t exist in schoolbooks in Switzerland—

DT: Still?

PV: I think there are certain chapters in the schoolbooks now, but when I went to school there was absolutely nothing. Of course I knew that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1971, but we didn’t read or learn anything about the hundred-year history of women fighting for the right to vote, about this very, very rich women’s movement. These women in Switzerland were internationally connected, they were networking, they were going to international congresses, they were doing political work, but it was like a parallel society of women doing very important social and political work but not being allowed to vote.

DT: They were doing this work in Switzerland?

 

PV: And also internationally, supporting other women. They petitioned, they put forward a lot of motions, for a hundred years they constantly said we need the right to vote, you can’t deny it to us. In 1959, the first time men went to the ballots with this— Switzerland is a direct democracy, so the men voted on it—it was struck down. It’s the only direct democracy where it happened like this. Sixty percent of the men were against women’s right to vote. 1959 was already so late. Here [in the US] they had it in 1920. In Germany, all of the surrounding countries, women had the right to vote already for twenty years, but in 1959 in Switzerland the men struck it down. It was a huge humiliation for the women in Switzerland and also for all the organizations that worked so hard to bring it to the ballot. It took another twelve years until they voted on it again.

But it wasn’t a case of the women sitting back and waiting submissively until they were given the right to vote. They were fighting for it, but they were ignored by politics. It wasn’t just the population that was against it. The politicians and the churches didn’t support the idea either. In 1971 they were about to sign a human rights treaty in Europe [Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms], but they wanted to sign it with a special chapter saying “but in our country the women can’t vote.” That gave the last push to the women’s movement, which said, There’s no way you’re signing this without us having the vote. Internationally it was so embarrassing for the Swiss that they just couldn’t keep it up anymore. So they supported the women’s right to vote because they were embarrassed internationally—not because they thought it’s so unfair towards our women.

 

DT: Divine Order is very dark in some ways, but it’s also very humorous.  How much did you veer from the reality of the real-life right-to-vote movement?

PV: What I tried to do was really capture the atmosphere of 1971. I wanted to make a very sensual story. I didn’t want to make a school lesson. I wanted to really look at the times and what it meant for women to live in these times; to make it almost a physical experience, how they were treated like objects, how they were treated like little children who couldn’t make their own decisions, who couldn’t go to work if they didn’t have their husbands’ permission. So it wasn’t really about depicting this whole movement but depicting this moment in time, showing how women were treated, and how realizing that the private is political, which is a very, very universal topic that can bring this person, this Nora, a very simple wife and mother who was a little bit like my mother, into motion. I felt that it was also very timeless. She’s definitely a woman of her times, but the process she goes through is also very timeless. We see it in the media today, happening now with all these women coming forward to talk about how they’ve been sexually harassed and abused. this whole thing was brought into motion by one woman speaking up. She made the first step, somebody wrote about it, and now all these women come out in solidarity. I think there is power in that.

 

DT: Switzelrand has four language groups. The one depicted in Divine Order is Swiss German. It was an extremely oppressive culture, not only to the women but also to the men—the grandfather in the film absolutely destroyed his sons. Can you talk about that specific culture.

PV: It’s very Swiss. The grandfather is modeled a little bit on my Swiss grandmother. The French part of Switzerland is a little bit more progressive, and they’re always very angry with the German-speaking part because they’re politically more conservative. They vote more conservatively, and the French don’t like that. The Italian part of Switzerland is also more conservative. The French part is really the most progressive and the most leftist.

The village in the film is like a metaphor for Switzerland. It’s a deeply conservative society, and it was not good for men and women. There was a lot of social control and a lot of ideas about what is a true man and what is a true woman. All these ideas were supported by the church, who said, This is the divine order. This is what a man is, this is what a woman is, and if we start to disrupt this order there will be apocalypse. That was really still an argument in 1971—they said it’s against divine order that women go into politics. God didn’t intend for women to be political. So the women in 1971 weren’t just up against the men; they were up against the divine.

DT: That’s a tall order! Are you speaking about the Lutheran Church?

PV: Switzerland is very Protestant and Catholic; it’s a mixture. The most conservative areas of Switzerland are Catholic, so the Catholics believed that if women vote, it will disrupt the peace in the family, the couple will fight, politics is dirty, women shouldn’t do dirty work. All of the arguments used by the antagonist in the movie—who is a woman—are all original quotes from their propaganda. I didn’t invent them. They would actually say that emancipation is bad for women. It’s a great gift that you can work for your family only. It’s against the divine order. I took that title from original material.

DT: Did the Protestant and Catholic churches work together?

PV: When it came to the women’s right to vote, they were pretty much on the same page. They wanted to maintain a traditional family, and for that they needed the women at home. They also had this image that if women go to vote, they don’t do the housework anymore, they don’t cook. It was very exaggerated, really propaganda. They also had these shows on television where professors would explain why women shouldn’t do politics. They created a science around it, how women are more for the inside and for the family, their brains weren’t wired for politics. They had a science proving that…even in 1971.

I really love one of their posters. You see a cradle and a baby falling out of the cradle. The window is open and a black cat sits in the window, and it reads, “Mother went to the ballots.” One of my favorite arguments is, “Look what happened in Germany when the women were allowed to vote. They voted for Hitler.” That was one of the arguments why women shouldn’t vote in Switzerland—they could vote for a potential new Hitler!

DT: Where are the mountains? Where’s the edelweiss?

PV: Unfortunately I’m ruining the nice image.

 

DT: That’s OK. How much has the country changed since women got the vote?

PV: Of course it’s changed, like it’s  changed here. I grew up with more liberties and freedom than my mother and grandmothers, and laws have changed. Marital law changed in 1988 so that a woman didn’t have to ask her husband for permission to work or open her own bank account. It took another many more years for marital law to be changed. Only thirteen years ago they voted on whether rape in marriage is punishable. There was still one party that was against the punishment.

DT: This is the image we have of Saudi Arabia.

PV: Exactly, and it’s not so long ago. We were always pointing a finger at them and saying, Look how primitive they are. I have a very good quote. One of our politicians was speaking to the Chinese minister, talking about human rights, and he said, “When did you women get the right to vote in Switzerland?” i thought that was a really good answer. We always think it’s so far away, and what they’re doing is so cruel and horrible. No question; women’s rights is a huge issue there, but we have enough shit in front of our own doors.

We can see the whole thing happening right in front of our eyes right now with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. So you ask if Switzerland has changed. Yes, it did change, the law changed, women are studying, a lot of young women feel they’re free to do what they want, but if you talk to them after they’ve become mothers, you can still say that a woman’s life after she gets married and has children goes back to the 1950s. That’s a bit exaggerated, but it’s true. Switzerland is still very conservative. It doesn’t encourage mothers to work—I I think Switzerland rates very, very low when it comes to support for mothers who want to work. Underneath all these changes there’s still the very traditional idea that a mother stays home with the kids and the husband brings home the money. We don’t have pay equality.

DT: We don’t have it here either.

PV: Yeah, it’s like here. We don’t have enough women in politics, we don’t have enough women in high positions in all kinds of industries and work environments. There’s a deeply rooted gender bias, and it’s as rampant as it is here [in the US] and everywhere else.

 

DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

PV: Actually, no. Because everybody was a little bit ashamed, they were like, Oh my God this is such a horrible part of our history we should support this film because maybe we can redeem ourselves. I had quite a hard time to get money for my previous film, about human trafficking in Switzerland. Then I wrote Heidi, which was very, very successful, so I already had a little bit of a track record. For this movie we got all the federal funds we needed. We got a lot of support, because these cultural organizations really saw the necessity for the movie and its timeliness also, so that’s a good thing.

 

DT: Can you talk abut the Swiss film industry? The only thing most Americans know about it is Alain Tanner.

PV: That was a long time ago.

DT: Exactly.

PV: The Swiss film industry is not really an industry. It’s extremely small. We have federal funding and state funding, so all our films are funded. There’s hardly any private money in our films, which is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you can get screenplay funds and treatment funds, so if you have a good producer and you write stuff that people want to see, you get paid for writing. I haven’t written a single word in the last fifteen years without getting paid. That doesn’t happen for writers here, because you first write, then you might get paid or not.

Of course it doesn’t work like this for everybody. The funding system also has a dark side, because it’s sometimes very random. When they didn’t give me the money for my human trafficking film, we couldn’t have done the film if my producer hadn’t stepped in. Then you don’t know: Is it a political decision? It’s always dependent on who the people  are on these juries. You may be unlucky, or they’re people who have a beef with your producer or are biased against you for some reason. It’s such a small scene, where  everybody knows everybody, and on these juries are all the people from this business. They’re not objective, and that’s a huge problem with the funding system in Switzerland.

DT: What about international coproductions? Can you look for money outside Switzerland?

PV: You can, but it’s not so easy. You can look for money in Germany, but of course the Germans also have a funding system, and usually they want to give the money to their people. There are also coproduction possibilities with France, but that doesn’t apply to every movie. This movie, for example, is such a Swiss topic that we knew we weren’t likely to get money. We thought we’d be able to  sell it internationally once it was made and it will be easier once it’s clear that it appeals to an international audience, but on the paper, people woulf say, “Why should we fund this movie? It’s completely Swiss, it’s about Swiss history.” So for this movie we really had to find the money within the country. That’s why we had a really small budget for a historical film, and it was only possible because I had the most amazing crew: a lot of women. Director of photography: woman. Composer: woman. Set designer: woman. Costume designer: woman. A lot of other positions: women.

 

DT: Good for you!  How’s the film dong in Switzerland?

PV: It’s a huge box office success. We can say it’s the Wonder Woman of Switzerland.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Sand Storm/Elite Zexer

In a Bedouin village in the south of Israel, Jalila’s husband is marrying a second, much younger, wife, and Jalila feels obligated to host the wedding. During the festivities, she discovers that her daughter has formed an illicit relationship with a boy from another village; humiliated on two fronts, Jalila forbids her daughter from seeing her boyfriend again. In this brilliant study of two women facing off in a culture that respects neither, director Elite Zexer delicately explores the bonds of family, self-identity, and tradition while remaining faithful to Bedouin reality. Winner of six Ophir Awards, the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and first prize in the Locarno International Film Festival Work-In-Progress Competition, Sand Storm is Israel’s official entry to the 2017 Academy Awards. •Availability: Opens September 28, New York City, Film Forum, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: When you wrote the script, you made yourself stick to two principles: be as authentic to the Bedouin experience as possible, and be as universal as possible. How did you meet the challenge of remaining both local and universal, and how did you reproduce an authentic Bedouin experience?

EZ:  On the authentic side, it took me ten years to make the movie. I first experienced the moment that made me think ‘I have to do this’ ten years ago. It took me about four more years spending time with [Bedouin] friends, meeting about fifty more girls and women with strong stories and realizing what film I wanted to make. After I acquired all the information and stories and everything that I knew I wanted to put in this film, I decided to test myself to see if it’s really OK for me to make a film about a culture that’s so far away from mine.

To see that it was OK for me and OK for the Bedouins, I did a short film called Tasnim, who is a character from the feature film. It was a twelve-minute movie about a young girl whose father marries a second wife. He’s coming to the village for the first time, and the young girl is really looking forward to seeing him, so she’s running after him the whole movie, but in the end she realizes that now things are different. It’s a coming-of-age story of a ten-year-old girl, and for me it was magic on set. I loved it. The whole crew felt like we were doing something good. When we finished the film, we pressed some DVDs, and the Bedouins started passing it around their villages and watching it without me. They were talking about it all the time, and whenever I would come back, they would say, “When are you coming back again? When are you going to do another film?” So I thought, ‘OK, I can go ahead and start making a feature.’

It took me another four and a half years to write it. I would go to a village for a few days and hear stories and comments about the way they see their culture that were really important for me to put in. I didn’t want to be an outsider putting my perspective on things; I wanted to get their inner perspective and show this from their point of view. So it was always, ‘Oh here’s something else,’ so I would go back and write a draft, then return to the village, spend a few more days there, again hear something that made me think, ‘Oh, I got it all wrong.’ Then I’d go back home, erase the last draft, write another draft. After four and a half years, I finally thought, ‘OK, now I feel like this is truthful enough.’ I gave it to some of the Bedouins to read, and I got their approval that it’s OK. That’s the answer to your question about being authentic to the Bedouin experience.

As for your question about being universal, I think my filmmaking is all about characters. It’s not about saying, This is the Bedouins, this is how they live, it’s far away. It’s about characters. It’s about the daughter, it’s about the mother, it’s about the father, it’s about the sisters, it’s about the boyfriend, it’s about the relationships. There are so many themes in the film. Even though the laws of this culture are different or more patriarchal or more extreme, all over the world relationships are still the same for everyone. Even the case of the second wife—the father leaving his family to take another wife is something we’re all very familiar with. Here it’s very extreme because he takes his second wife and stays in the same yard, but the core of the relationship is the same. I was trying really hard not to do an ethnographic film about Bedouin life. I wanted the ethnographic background to just be background and the main thing about the film would be the characters, the themes, the relationships, the feelings.

Wherever I go in the world, the first comment I always hear is, “It’s just like in our culture. I see myself in this movie. I see my mom in this movie.” I heard that in South Korea, I heard that in Taiwan, in Germany, in Spain. Everywhere I go I hear the same thing and it makes me feel proud that I achieved this, because it was very important to me.

 

DT:  In fact, that was my next question. The mother-daughter relationship was one of the most authentic I’ve ever seen onscreen, both in the way it was written and the way it was acted. It was almost tangible, something you could feel yourself experiencing. What was the process of getting that onscreen?

EZ: I do a lot of rehearsals with the actors. Every scene in this movie was rehearsed for at least a few hours. If it didn’t work, we did another rehearsal until we all felt like we had it right. The way I do rehearsal is not like a director; it’s a democracy. We start by speaking about the scene and what everybody is feeling and where they think their feelings are at the same moment and where they think they start and where they end. In the beginning it’s just a big discussion about feelings. Then we start working on it and get every word to be specifically where it should be, always talking about what’s going on internally. The actors always know why they say every sentence. It’s always about where this scene is located and the range of emotions it goes through in the film.

When we had everything really tight and we knew exactly what we were doing, we came on set and reopened everything again. Before I shot every scene we’d rehearse for thirty, forty-five minutes on set, and each time it completely changed what we’d planned. The scene was completely different because we’d been through such a process that now it was even deeper. I made my crew crazy because we’d known exactly what the shots were and then I changed everything, but I think it really made this film special, because we were improvising all the time. But while we were improvising we still remembered exactly what we’d planned, and we could impose it on the new information.

 

DT: “This will never happen to my daughter” is a subtext running throughout the entire film. How close is that sentiment to contemporary Bedouin reality?

EZ: My mom started taking still photographs of Bedouins ten years ago. In a matter of days she switched from being the fly on the wall to being completely the opposite, because there were so many people that she liked and loved, and so many people kept telling her, “You have to shoot this family too, you have to come to this house too, you have to come to this village too.” They were so loving, and kept telling her that God brought them together, that she got so much into these relationships that she started spending all her time in the villages. If I, and my father, and my sister ever wanted to see her, we had to go with her. And it was like that for years.

That’s how I came to the subject—for years we would go with my mom to meet Bedouins. It became a family bonding thing; we became good friends with a lot of families. We would go to visit them, they would come to visit us, and basically for me it was hanging with friends for years. Then some of the young girls realized my mom’s a very good photographer, and they asked her to come and take pictures of their weddings. This was just a personal favor—she couldn’t do anything with the photos because they’re very traditional and she couldn’t publish them later—but as a personal favor she started going to weddings, sometimes twice a week, taking pictures and making albums for their personal keep. These weddings last two days, and I went with her a lot. I started seeing many different weddings, meeting different women, hearing different stories.

At one wedding we met a young woman who had gone to university, where she met a boyfriend who was not from her village. Her family found out, and they told her, “You can’t go out anymore. You’re going to stay home and marry the man we choose for you.” This young woman loved her family very much, and she went through a whole debate about what to do. In the end she decided there’s no way she could hurt her family and she would marry the man they chose. At her wedding—in a scenario that was very much like a scene from my movie—she was waiting in her new bedroom, which she’d just stepped into for the first time to meet the new husband. The way that it’s done, women celebrate separately, and the men celebrate separately. There is no ceremony. The woman is brought to her new house, the man has a parade of men bringing him to the new house, and when he walks into the bedroom and there’s a second when they see each other for the first time, they’re married. So my mom and I were with this young woman in the bedroom, and we hear the parade of men coming and there are shouts and the skies are filled with fireworks, and she looks at me and my mother and says, “For my daughter, things are going to be different.”  That’s how I got the theme…and that’s the moment I decided I had to make this film.

DT: How did you react when she said that?

EZ: We were trying to be happy for her. We were supportive of her. It tore my stomach, but I tried not to show it.

 

DT: This was your first time shooting a feature. What did you learn, and what would you do differently?

EZ: You should be asking me this question in five years. Right now I’m very emotional about the film. In every step of the way, it felt that this is meant to happen, and something is keeping it safe. Even if it didn’t happen the way I planned it, it turned out better, so I don’t think I would have done anything different with this movie. The only thing that I’m hoping is that the next movie will take a shorter time, because the one month that I was directing on set was the best month of my life. I had so much fulfillment and fun and love and faith and craziness, but it was filled with so many good things in one month that when it ended I said there’s no way it’s going to take me another ten years to get to this moment.

 

DT:  You were absolutely born to do this.  You shot in Bedouin villages. How did that go?

EZ: It was amazing, because we only went to villages where I had friends or friends of friends, so we were very welcome everywhere we went. Everyone knew we were coming from a good place and that we could be trusted. I insisted on shooting on location; I didn’t want to hear anything else because (a) it was important to me to be as authentic as possible and (b) I wanted to be surrounded by Bedouins of all types so that if I made a mistake, someone would tell me on set. I didn’t want to find out later. So it was really, really good, because first of all it’s reality on screen—it’s not creating reality on screen. Second of all, we were always surrounded by people who were helping us and telling us if we needed any assistance with the culture or anything like that. And the Bedouin culture is very hospitable and very welcoming, so my crew felt very, very welcome.

 

DT: I assume the Bedouins have seen the film.

EZ: Before I locked it I showed it to a lot of Bedouins who were working on set with me, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any mistakes. That was actually my best screening to date. It was a lot of fun for me to watch them see it. They were very emotional—they were laughing, they were talking throughout the whole screening about the characters. At the end they said they were really proud to be part of it and that it was a really good representation of their life. Since then, the film is screening in three different theaters in the south, right next to the villages. We never thought the Bedouins would come to watch it, but they’re filling the theaters, and you can see their responses all over Facebook. Most of them are saying really, really good things, like “It’s like watching reality onscreen. I wish there was a second part. I didn’t want it to end.” Some of them are making really long comments, analyzing the film and understanding everything I tried to do. For me that means more than any award. It’s just so emotional to see the Bedouins’ reaction to this film, especially when it’s people I don’t know.

DT: Was there a difference between the way the men responded to the film and the way the women responded to the film?

EZ: Not that I can tell. I didn’t do a screening for women and a screening for women, so I can’t really compare, but from what I’m seeing so far, people are responding very well from every corner.

 

DT: Why is the film called Sand Storm?

EZ: I do have a reason, and I’ll tell you the reason in a second, but it was supposed to be a temporary name, a working title. We got into the Locarno film festival for a rough-cut competition, and we won. The film started getting so much noise and so much attention with the title Sand Storm that we couldn’t replace it anymore. I never wanted to stick with it, but I didn’t have a choice after the festival.

In terms of my reason for choosing it, you get sand storms in the desert most seasons of the year. They’re so thick that even if you put your hand out, you can’t see your fingers. You can’t see anything ahead of you but sand. It’s all a mess. Then, when the storm goes away, everything is clear and back to normal again, but on the floor there’s still a surface of dust that sticks and now you’re walking on the stuff. It’s like a symbol for the film.

 

DT: There was a big furor at the Ophir Awards [the Israeli Academy Awards] that had absolutely nothing to do with your film.

EZ: Thank you, yes.

DT: As an Israeli, can you talk about that moment?

EZ: I can only answer it personally, not as an Israeli. I’ve been touring the world with this film for a year, and I’ve been on my own most of the time. I’ve won a lot of awards, and the first thing I say onstage, even in Sundance, is “I wish my crew was here with me to celebrate.” At the Ophir Awards, the crew couldn’t come up because of the mess, and it was just me accepting the award again. It was supposed to be the best moment for this movie. There were thirty people from the production there because we were nominated for twelve awards, and it was supposed to be such a celebration but again I felt alone, and I just felt sad.

It was not supposed to be a sad moment. I left the awards ceremony feeling very mixed, because on the one hand we had an amazing night—we won six awards—but on the other hand it was a very sad moment for me. I ended up crying at the end. But then it was over and I had to walk home on the streets of Tel Aviv in my dress and my heels, holding the statue. People in the street started asking me, “What’s that statue, what’s going on?” and I yelled, “I just won an award for directing a movie!” The whole street started clapping me all the way back to my house.

For thirty minutes I was walking this way in my high heels, getting claps all the way back. Then I walked into my apartment, which is really small. There’s nowhere to put these heavy awards because no shelf can carry them, so I have the awards on my kitchen counter. The first thing you see when you walk into the apartment is the kitchen, and I saw the award from Sundance and I put the Academy Award [Ophir] next to the Sundance award, and I had this moment with myself, just thinking, ‘What an amazing year and how incredible this all is.’ Ever since then, this is the moment I’m keeping with me.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EZ: One of the reasons I made this movie is that I feel like this community is very, very isolated and none of the other people get to look inside it. Even though it’s very close to Israelis—I show this in the film too, how the Bedouin village is right next to a main road—people don’t stop and they don’t look and they don’t see what’s going on inside the village.

Another reason I made this movie is that it was so easy for me to go into this world. I was so welcomed there. It’s so easy to connect to the world, yet they’re so isolated. One of the main reactions I get from Israelis is “Thank you for making this movie because we now see what’s going on in there. We never knew, we never could tell. We never understood how they’re living, and now this is something we can see.” I think for Israel it’s eye opening, and of course for the world it’s going to be eye opening. I think this culture should be addressed and it should be shown and talked about. Yes, this movie is about characters and relationships and it’s very touching, but at the same time it’s speaking about a culture that’s important to be seen.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

A War/Tobias Lindholm

In 2003, NATO took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. As a founding member of NATO, Denmark sent troops to protect civilian Afghans. During their ten-year engagement in Afghanistan, the Danes lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army did. An Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film, A War explores the painful complexity of combat:  a company commander is tried as a war criminal after his decision to protect his men in battle inadvertently results in the deaths of a civilian family. •Availability: Now in theaters nationwide. Click here for the trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  During the Afghan engagement, Denmark lost more soldiers per capita than any other European army. What effect did that have on the national consciousness regarding the war in Afghanistan?

 

TL:  We hadn’t fought a war since WWII. We fought for five hours, and then we gave up. That defined my generation more than anything else. We didn’t really know what we were getting into in Afghanistan, but when the dead soldiers started to come home and we started to see the footage of the civilian population down there, that totally changed the Danish approach. We became very judgmental toward the soldiers, which, in my mind, was a mistake; we needed to hold politicians and lawmakers accountable. That didn’t happen, and suddenly we understood the danger and what we had gotten ourselves into as a nation. That confused the political environment for a while; nobody wanted to have an opinion, because everybody was afraid of the result. So instead of it inviting a conversation and a debate about what was going on, everybody talked even less about it when the dead bodies started to come back. It was almost ten years by that time, and we had forgotten why we were there. We were, on a small scale, in a post-Vietnam phase, where we as a nation tried to figure out what we were doing.

 

DT:  In A War, you juxtapose the war in Afghanistan against the trial in Denmark. In A Hijacking, you juxtapose a hijacking by Somali pirates against the hostage negotiations, again in Denmark. In both films, you’re juxtaposing Danish interaction with a foreign agent against Denmark’s internal social logic. Is the similarity coincidental, or is this an area of personal interest for you?

TL:  It’s definitely an area of personal interest. I like the complexity of human life. Being human in the Western world, in the industrialized world, is being both a professional citizen and a private person. I’m not sure we can separate those and just look at private life without mentioning the other aspects of life. We are part of a democracy, we live under our law that is equal for all—at least in our nations—and we have professions that define our lives. All these areas rub off on each other, and I like the idea of trying to describe human life as complex as it is. Often in European cinema we have a tendency to be obsessed with psychology and forget other aspects of life, while in American films there’s a tendency to be overobsessed with profession. You have a police officer and the film is all about that. Real life is a mixture of it all, so that’s what I try to do.

 

DT:  Speaking of realism: I’ve never been to war, but the battle scenes felt particularly realistic. How did you achieve that?

TL:  I found it extremely hard to understand, because I hadn’t seen that much. I started to watch a lot of boot camp footage and documentaries, but it wasn’t until I saw the American documentary Restrepo that I totally understood what we needed to do. The fantastic thing about that film is that the photographer is out there, really in danger with the soldiers. This means that the camera can’t show you stuff that the soldiers can’t see, because the photographer would get shot. That’s the logic of it. In a lot of war films you’ll see the camera in cross fire between enemies; that’s already admitting to the audience that it’s not really dangerous, it’s just a film. I decided to just pretend that we were shooting a documentary and ask the cinematographer to be as aware and alert as if it had been a documentary.

It’s not that obvious, but we did a huge amount of work to make it sound real. Explosions are not that loud in real life—they always sound louder in films. In films, there’s more fire in the explosions than there are in real life. In real life it’s all dust and dirt thrown in the air. Instead of making references to other war films, we decided to make a reference to reality even though it didn’t feel as dramatic. I guess the good thing is that people feel it’s even more dramatic because it feels real.

 

DT:  I read that you consulted with veterans who had been in Afghanistan and that you actually cast real soldiers in the war scenes.

TL:  I knew I couldn’t pull off asking actors to become soldiers in three months of training. To make it possible for the actors to do that, I would have had to simplify the work of the soldiers. Instead, I used the actors as the dramatic engine and the carrier of emotion, and then surrounded them with professional soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who knew this reality that we were portraying. In  that way we could make sure that we got it right and didn’t make false choices. We didn’t simplify but maintained the complexity of the situation, because we knew what was going on and how to handle stuff.

DT:  That’s brilliant.

TL:  The same thing happened in the courtroom. The judge is a real judge. She retired two weeks before we started to shoot. She took control of that courtroom, and I didn’t need to direct that much. She did it pretty much for me.

DT:  Like the real-life hostage negotiator you used in A Hijacking.

TL: Exactly. The gifts you get from these real people, the understanding they have of their own lives and their own jobs, is amazing. They share a lot, and they are proud professionals. I don’t ask them to be emotional. I don’t ask them to lie. I don’t ask them to act. I just ask them to react in a professional way, to see situations that they know. That makes them come off brilliant and authentic, if you ask me.

DT:  How was it working with the soldiers?

TL:  They do what they’re told. They show up on time. It’s not the same with actors, so in that way, it’s brilliant. Even if I only had two on a call sheet for the day, the whole platoon would show up and help us carry the lights. They came in and worked very, very hard to do the film with us. And it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure to feel how honest they were, to each other and to me about life in Afghanistan, and in that way I built up a very close friendship with them all. They’re all going to fly out to L.A. and celebrate the Oscars with us.

DT: I imagine making the film was important for them.

TL:  It turned out to be. I never ask questions when I start to work with people like this. I just wait for them to start telling. If I start to ask, it’s because I know what I’m looking for, and I don’t. So I would not ask too many questions, I would just listen, and suddenly all the stuff that you didn’t know you want to know becomes extremely interesting. It was small stuff, like the phone calls home to your wife with a broken phone line, and how do you manage to maintain an emotional connection to your family when you’re in the desert and they’re far, far away at home, scared, and afraid for your life? That whole complexity came from conversations with the soldiers. But not only the soldiers and the judge; the Afghans in this film are refugees from Helmand Province, so they all knew the reality as well and added the Afghan reality to this film. The Afghan family who we get to know really well escaped the war in Helmand on the back of a donkey. They would help me make sure that the village looked correct. I’m not amused by my own imagination. I love to get it right and understand the world around me, and these professionals and these real people help me do that.

 

DT: One of your inspirations, actually, is the documentarian Jorgen Leth, who is famous for his anthropological studies of people. How has he affected your filmmaking?

TL: Just watching his film I learned that you can get a lot of story told without being judgmental and without going into melodrama but just by looking at people. I think that’s fascinating. He taught me a very simple thing, which is that we are all trained throughout our lives to walk into rooms that we haven’t been in before, meet people that we haven’t met before, and still understand them, connect with them on a human level. What we often see in cinema is that we’re forgetting the audience has this talent. We’re almost asking them to leave that talent outside the theater and come in blank, like a page, and then we fill in all the blanks with all this kind of information that I’m not sure we need. I learned from Jorgen Leth that the cynical, honest, and nonjudgmental camera will be able to capture humanity and therefore, without being sentimental, will help you through situations you didn’t know of before.

 

DT:  You wrote the screenplay for Hunt, in addition to writing and directing A Hijacking and A War. In all three of these films, there’s a sort of hero character who becomes isolated from the group. Can you talk about that dynamic in your films?

TL:  When I was nineteen years old, I sold what I had, bought a train ticket, and traveled around Europe alone for a year. I remember being alone, and I remember being confronted with who I was. When you’re around other people, you pretend to be somebody, to fit in. Then, when you’re isolated and you’re suddenly all by yourself, you become the honest you in some way. I always found that it’s interesting to look at who we are when we’re part of the group and who we are when we’re left outside.

I don’t think there’s anything more challenging to human life than isolation. Basically that’s what I’m looking for in these dramas, to challenge our heroes as much as possible. Everybody knows that you can feel all right when you have your friends at your house and everything is great, then everybody leaves and suddenly you’re caught in that emptiness where it’s just you and all your thoughts. That can be a very scary place to be. I talked to a psychiatrist the other day about his work, and he said something really interesting: “I’ve started to keep my phone open for my clients after five o’clock in the afternoon because it’s not until the darkness arrives and people start to get isolated that the demons come.” I think there’s a very, very human truth to that, and that’s one of the things I’m looking for.

I view Scandinavians as a group of penguins. When it’s really, really cold, we get together and stand and turn our backs to the cold, looking in the same direction and trying to help each other keep warm. But if, by mistake or coincidence, you get pushed out of that circle and you’re left out in the cold, nobody sees it because everybody has their eyes turned away. And then you freeze to death. And that’s very brutal, of course, but nevertheless it’s a very precise way of talking about Scandinavians.

 

DT:  That’s an amazing analogy. Your philosophy in filmmaking, I think, seems to be best described as better too little than too much. How would you say that applies to this film?

TL: There are so many scenes that you would like to see about a wife being afraid of her husband dying, so many melodramatic scenes that could come in there, but they would remove the movie from reality. We never talk about what we feel. We always talk about other stuff, and through that we understand how each other feels. We don’t wait for a plot to begin. We live our lives and then stuff happens, and it’s not until years later that we even look back and say, “Wow, there was a connection between that choice and that choice.” We just do stuff, and the connection is created later. I feel that that’s a simple, simple way of understanding life; it’s a great way to try to understand storytelling as well. Often we don’t need that many setups and that many recalls and structural scenes that will make sure the audience understands what’s going on. People are very good at living, so they can watch a film for two hours—understanding a movie is not as hard as living, anyway, and that’s why I don’t need all that information in the stuff that I do.

 

DT:  You wrote and directed A Hijacking before doing the same with A War. On A Hijacking, did you ever find yourself as director looking at the script and saying, I’ve got to get rid of this scene or change this line of dialogue? If so, did that experience change the way you wrote the screenplay for A War?

TL:  When I write a screenplay for me as the director, I allow myself to be a little lazy and sloppy because I know I can fix it when we’re on set. When I write for Thomas Vinterberg, for example, my greatest job is to make sure the screenplay is fully proofed and that everybody who reads  it understands what the vision is. When it’s for me, I’m there to explain it anyway, so I can be a little looser about it. I always try to create situations that feel so natural that the actors really don’t need the lines I’ve written because it’s logical what they’re going to say and how they’re going to respond.

We try not to bring too many copies of the screenplay to the set. I rather want us to have a conversation about the scenes. I know what the scene is going to be about anyway, so we have people try it on, and then we have the screenplay as a secure place to go back to if it doesn’t work. So basically there’s a lot of guys who’ve never read the screenplay, and you’d be surprised how many of them actually say lines that I’ve written without ever reading them.

DT:  So you don’t distribute the script in advance?

TL: Not to everybody, and not all scenes. Some of the scenes you don’t need to know, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in real life, so if you know because you’ve read the story already, you’re not going to be surprised. And I need people’s surprise.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

I never gave the actors the last five pages of the script, which means they didn’t know whether Pedersen was going to jail or not. The first take we did in the courtroom, I actually sent him to jail for six years. Everybody went mad and started to cry; they were angry with me because I did this dark tragedy, and they didn’t understand it. Then I said, Let’s do it again, and I ended up changing it for the second take, so now the judge came out and she let him go. Everybody was extremely relieved, and I do believe that the authentic relief we see in that scene comes from that.

END OF SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

 

DT:  Let me ask you about the testimony given at the trial by the different members of the platoon. Almost none of them came to the aid of their commander. Was there a sort of racial/ethnic divide in their testimony? I don’t know if I was picking up on something that wasn’t there…

TL: If you picked it up, then it was there, but it was not my intention. This can sound pretty naïve, but I just took the actors and the guys I thought were best for the part. I really didn’t think about ethnicity. It’s not part of my toolbox. I don’t want to control that. It’s part of life. I have Muslim friends, I have friends from everywhere in the world. They populate my world, and therefore they populate my films. It’s not a conscious choice of ethnicity and race, it’s all about who I found was good for the part.

 

DT: In the press notes, you’re quoted as saying, “I was never in a war, so I thought I’d start with something my sweet leftist mother taught me: ‘War is evil, and so people at war are evil, too.’  I wanted to challenge that inference.” Why did you want to challenge that inference, and how did that perspective influence the making of the film?

TL:  I wanted to challenge it because I believe that the world is extremely complex, and it’s extremely easy to sit on my couch at home and be judgmental when I watch the news and look at soldiers who have killed civilians and say, Well, they are evil and violent. I thought, Let me challenge that. I want to challenge stuff to become smarter and understand the world even better. I was brought up in the ’80s in Denmark, where the world was blue and red: in the cold war you were either a capitalist or a communist. That world disappeared in ’89 when the wall went down and the world changed.

I’m not a big celebrator of fixed ideas. I think that as soon as you think you know the truth, you can always find its antithesis. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s part of evolution. And therefore I was a little provoked.

I love my mother. She’s great. And she’s a product of her time, as I am a product of my time. She brought me up believing that rich people stole their money from poor people. Maybe that’s partly true, but I realized it wasn’t the full truth. And I thought to myself, if I want to prove the complexity of war, I have to tell a story where I can get my mother to sympathize with a war criminal. If I can do that, then I’m getting close to the complexity of it all. That became a goal for me—to make sure that I could make a story where everybody could identify with a guy who ended up being a war criminal. I think the prosecutor at the trial is right when she says, “We cannot accept this” [i.e., his decision to save his comrades at the expense of the lives of Afghan civilians].

Even if we can understand it, we can’t accept it. But then again, having an emotional connection to his children and his wife, I’m not sure that I would want to send him to jail. To be able to admit that—if we can admit the complexity of our own emotions and the world around us like that, then I think that we have opened up to have a really important conversation instead of just standing in each corner and screaming, I am for or against the war.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Theeb/Naji Abu Nowar

1916. When an insolent British officer forces a young Bedouin man to guide him on an ill-advised journey, the Bedouin’s younger brother takes matters into his own hands. Based on Bedouin tales, with a nearly all-Bedouin cast, this captivating film is the official Jordanian Selection for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens November 6, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and throughout Canada, with national rollouts to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Theeb is a nominee for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview. A Film Movement release. 

 

DT:  Can you give us a little background about the film? Then can you tell us why this is the story you wanted to tell?

 

NAN:  The film is set in 1916, and we’re coming to the end of a four-hundred-year empire of Ottoman rule—one of the biggest empires in the world, part of it stretching over the modern Middle East. The Bedouins in the deserts of Arabia have been living a nomadic lifestyle, a very peaceful, untouched lifestyle, for hundreds of years. Their oral storytelling almost sounds like the Old Testament. All of a sudden the First World War kicks off, and you have the Allied powers—Britain, in particular—fighting against the Ottomans in that region. As you probably know from Lawrence of Arabia, the British start stirring things up in Arabia to take pressure off the major war fronts in Gallipoli and elsewhere by tying up the Ottomans and draining their resources away from the key battle areas. So they’re fomenting revolution in that area, and what happens is that these Bedouin, who really know nothing of the outside world and outside life, suddenly have their first contact with modern industrial powers in a state of war. It was a huge shock for them. Their whole world was transformed.

What you have is the Ottomans being overthrown and the redrawing of the map, the consequences of which we are still seeing today. All these conflicts you’re seeing in the Middle East today? They all in some way stem from, and are caused by, that moment in history, that radical redrawing of the map.

 

DT:  A peace to end all peace.

 

NAN:  It’s a vital and crazy moment. From listening to the Bedouins’ stories and studying their history, I thought it was very interesting to tell a film that happens at that point, because it’s such a crucial point in history.

 

DT:  So that was a point in time that was significant for the Bedouin themselves.

 

NAN:  It’s the end of their nomadic culture. It marks the extinction of their culture. After that, everything goes downhill for them, and now there are virtually no nomadic Bedouin in Jordan. They’ve all been settled, very much like what you see with the Native American culture in the United States and the aboriginal culture in Australia: social degradation and poverty.

 

DT:  Your actors were Bedouin.

 

NAN:  All the actors apart from the English officer were Bedouin. We spent a year looking for a tribe, and these were the last nomadic tribesmen to be settled; they were settled in the late ’90s. The men had the experience of living as nomads, and we chose them because they had that knowledge. After we found them, we moved in with them and I lived there for a year, at first gaining their trust, then casting the film with them. We did eight months of acting workshops to prepare these Bedouin men to be actors, and then we eventually shot the film with them.

 

DT: The boy who played Theeb did not grow up in that nomadic lifestyle.

 

NAN:  Being a twelve-year-old, he was born in the village after his tribe was settled, in the territory they used to roam nomadically. In making the film, they were all revisiting their heritage in a way, but it was especially interesting for Jacir, who plays Theeb. For the first time he was learning his heritage. He was learning how to ride a camel and do all those things that had been lost to him. That’s how rapid the loss of knowledge is: The adult males all knew how to ride camels and do tricks on camels, while Jacir, who was born in the village, didn’t. That’s how quickly the culture and heritage are being lost.

 

DT:  Is there no attempt to pass it on?

 

NAN:  The onus on life changes. Once you’re brought into a society where you start having responsibilities like paying taxes or getting a job, or you’ve got to shop in a supermarket, survival becomes something different. You immediately start losing all the traits and knowledge you have, like tracking.

There was an old man in the village who could track anything. We used to call him the Bedouin Sherlock Holmes because the police used to call him in to track people’s footprints from a crime scene. He was amazing. Once the crew arrived, he learned all of our footprints, and he knew exactly who was who. He would know if a camel was pregnant just by looking at its track. He knew everything. When he was growing up, it started with human feet and animal tracks, but now it’s car tracks. I thought I was like a Bedouin after a few months of living there, and I got confident and went out driving by myself. I got horribly lost and stuck in the sand, and he tracked me. He tracked the car tracks and found me and saved me.

But none of the younger people can do that. That’s gone. Mothers used to boil the poison from certain types of scorpions, crush the animal, mix it in a powder, and put it on their nipples to breast-feed. That way the baby would be inoculated against scorpions. They’re not anymore. All these bits of knowledge are being lost.

All the props in the film were made by a very old lady in the village who still remembered how to make a water pouch and other things we needed. We hired her, and she created a prop factory with the local women. They made the props, but the younger women had to be taught how. It was interesting, because through the process of making the film, they were reintegrating with their history again, which was really nice. It was a way of actually passing down the information to the younger generations; there are now women who know how to make a water pouch, and Jacir learned many things. So that’s good, but their culture is pretty much done.  Modern technology has taken over, and it’s changing.

 

DT:  In other interviews, you’ve drawn a parallel between Bedouin culture and the culture of the Wild West in the US, while other people have drawn a parallel between this film and Westerns.

 

NAN:  For us there was a very clear rule when we made the film. The whole Western thing was a conceptual device at the beginning, then the film took on its own life as we lived with the Bedouin and developed the idea from their storytelling. One of the interesting things was that the Ottoman Empire didn’t interfere in Bedouin life because they saw the Bedouins as savages: The Bedouins were left untouched for so long because no one went there during Ottoman rule. That meant living in a world where there were no codified laws, courts of law, police, government officials. If someone commits a crime here in the US, you call the police, they’re processed through a court of law, and justice is served. In the desert, there was none of that—a world of unwritten law, where each man had to be held accountable to the agreed tribal laws but it was up to him to enforce them on the spot. I’m not an historian, but what I seem to infer from a lot of the Western genre films is that the Wild West was a place where there was a similar kind of situation, where the long arm of the law couldn’t come out and rout you; it was up to people’s perceptions of morality and what was right and what was wrong. So that was a similar element.

A lot of my favorite Westerns deal with two other major contexts or backdrops. One is civilization encroaching on the Wild West, often in the form of the railroad, which was an amazing parallel with the Ottoman railroad. Listening to the Bedouin stories, I often thought, Gosh, that felt so much like a Western. Yet the Bedouins are the ones who told me about it, so we discovered it through them. And obviously both take place during a time of war. That’s primarily why we chose that period of history, because originally we hadn’t decided upon the time frame—originally we were just looking at this concept of a Bedouin kind of Western, then we kept our minds open as we started researching with the Bedouin and listening to their stories.

Through their stories they led us into noticing these things. Often their stories center around a boy’s circumcision ceremony, which takes place at the age of thirteen, when he’s considered to be a man. At that point he goes through a series of organized trials and is circumcised. He’s considered a man and takes on the role of a man in the tribe.

He can be targeted for revenge under revenge law, so he can fight a war. It’s crazy if you think about it, but life is tough out there. The Bedouin stories also center around wells and trials around wells. A lot of it felt very similar to biblical stories, like the story of Moses; this young boy going through rites of passage and growing up to be a man. Basically the Bedouin come from that world; they were living the lifestyle from the Old Testament, and that’s where their stories come from, passed down through the generations. We knew that the main element of the film was the story of a boy going through an experience similar to stories the Bedouin told us, then we found the setting for it at the time of the Arab Revolt, because that was something that was fresh in the memory of the tribe. There were lots of stories about that, and we took many elements from their storytelling and put them in the film.

 

DT:  From what I understand, the Ottoman Empire used the railroad and controlled the wells in order to protect pilgrims going through Jordan on their way to make hajj in Mecca.

 

NAN: That was a side business for the Ottomans. At that point in history you’ve got the militarization of countries—the nationalization of militarization, the beginnings of this theory of total war, a kind of Ludendorff theory, though that came later—where you’ve got rapid deployment and mobilization of a nation to go to war, using the railroads to rapidly deploy, and ideas like King and Country and Service to the Nation, which is when you get the total insanity and slaughter of the First World War. Acceptable losses gone insane. They built this railway to maintain control of supplies and troops, but they could also make money on the side, because pilgrims would travel to Mecca on the train. It was quick, but that’s where all the Bedouin tribes lost their livelihood from transporting the vast numbers of people who went on yearly pilgrimage.

 

DT:  That’s a main theme of the film.

 

NAN:  Anyone who comes from northern Arabia, Iran, anyone going on that trip is going to pass through these tribes. These tribes would guide them to earn money…so they literally lost their biggest source of income [when the Ottomans built the railroad]. The trade routes, the Silk Road…all of that’s gone now, because everyone is taking their trade on these trains. It really destroyed the Bedouins.

It’s something that’s mentioned in the film when the stranger [played by Hassan Mutlag] refers to the black days, the black period, which is basically the loss of livelihood followed by a period of intertribal raiding. There always was intertribal raiding, but it was more of a game. It became a lot more violent when they lost their livelihood, and then it got really bad afterwards. That might be a subject for the next film. So yes, the railroad had a huge impact on their lives. It’s possible that they were a lot more amiable to the idea of the revolt because they had lost their livelihood.

 

DT:  Let’s get back to Bedouin storytelling. In addition to the content, was there also a form to Bedouin storytelling that you adopted in the film? Your story was linear, but it had a very, very different feel from Western films, and I was wondering if that was  a flavor you picked up from the Bedouin.

 

NAN: Absolutely. Obviously the film’s not a musical, but the Bedouin tradition of poetry and song is very, very powerful; a lot of their stories are told through poetry and song. The father’s poem in the beginning of the film—that’s how you would impart that information to your son. You wouldn’t necessarily say, “Don’t do that.” You would tell a story or sing a song or recite a poem. The film does that throughout. You’ve got the poem in the beginning, you’ve got the song of the traveler, which is called a riding song, and then obviously you have the really great ancient poem read by the stranger to Theeb, which has all this subtext about the wolf and the wolf. The wolf story is from that area, and the ancient poem is a real historical text. [In the film] it was adapted to the name Theeb, but it actually comes from a song about the Red Sea. It’s the main melody in the film as well.  They’re all vocal melodies…

 

DT:  You mean in the sound track?

 

NAN:  Yes. The Red Sea poem at the beginning is actually a song, and that’s one of the main bases of the film. It’s where the main musical theme of the film comes from. There are two musical themes in the film—the melody and the countermelody. The melody is a real Bedouin melody, and then there’s the countermelody to it. The countermelody is the negative—the loss of the father, a feeling of emptiness and not knowing one’s way—while the melody is the idea of fulfillment and the brotherhood experience, a feeling of completion or coming of age. They’re  used very carefully throughout the film. It’s all based on that, it all comes from that.

Also for me, as I was growing up, my father, who’s a historian and a great storyteller, never, ever in his life told me, “Don’t do this. It’s wrong.” He would tell me a story, and I’d have to work it out myself. This film is very much about that style of storytelling, of telling a story and leaving people to take from it what they may.  That’s a big thing for me, because that’s how my father brought me up.

 

DT:  It gives the film a very, very beautiful feeling. This is Jordan’s official entry for the Academy Awards. What’s the selection process in Jordan?

 

NAN:  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe we’re only the second film to be put forward by Jordan. There have been about ten films made in the last ten years.

 

DT:  In Jordan proper…

 

NAN:  Yes. The Royal Film Commission of Jordan set up an independent board made of local film people and people of note in the arts to vote on whether or not we should be put forward. Thankfully they decided we should be. Once they did that, they did it officially and applied to the Academy. Thankfully the Academy accepted us, so we got through, which is amazing.

It was really great for us, not just because of the Academy but also to have that happen in Jordan. For people to support us in Jordan meant a lot as well, because it’s great to get recognition at home. Jordan doesn’t have a film industry, and it’s very difficult to make films in the country. I’ve been living in Jordan for ten years now, and we’ve been struggling.

I don’t want to make it sound like the whole country’s going crazy or something, but it’s really touched me that strangers have come up to me, saying, “We’re so proud that you’ve been put forward, we’re rooting for you. It’s been a crappy year, and at least now we have something positive.” Right now Jordan is in the eye of the storm. A lot of bad catastrophes are happening all around us, and we’ve been hit by that as well, living under threat. So I’m not saying it’s everyone, but it’s really cool when people come up and say, “You’ve made us happy. You’ve given us something to root for.” That’s a really nice feeling outside of the artistic element of filmmaking and the enjoyment of making films and being nominated for it. That we’ve brightened up people’s days is pretty cool. I’m definitely proud of that.

 

DT:  There are theaters in Amman, which is a cosmopolitan capital, but what is filmgoing like in the rest of the country? Are the Bedouin seeing this film?

 

NAN:  For the premier, we set up an outdoor cinema in Wadi Rum, which is where we shot the film. We invited all the tribespeople, which was a great experience. They loved the film, which was a huge relief for me, because I would have considered it a failure if they hadn’t, regardless of what else happened with the film. I was over the moon that the Bedouin liked it.

Outside of Amman, there are no cinemas in the rest of the country besides one in the north. When we finished the film, we got sponsorship from the King Abdullah Fund for Development, which helped us with going to all the local cultural centers putting up screens, like mobile cinema, and screening it for everyone.  It takes a long time, but we’re slowly moving around the country. We’ve had great reception all over, and particularly in the tribal regions.

It’s also cool because it’s the first time people are seeing cinema. What’s amazing for us is that they’re seeing their cinema. They’re seeing a film from them, in their world and their language. The world premier of the film was nutty, because we took Jacir, Hussein, and Hassan, the three main characters, and the Bedouin producer, who’s also Jacir’s father, to Venice. I got them their first passports, and we got on their first plane, and we flew over to Venice, which is the exact opposite of the desert; it’s made out of water, and literally can’t be more different. They walked into their first cinema for the first time to watch their film in premier, and they got a standing ovation for ten minutes. It almost brings me to tears now thinking about it, because they were so moved that some of them actually started tearing up. If you know the Bedouin, they won’t cry at their parents’ funeral because it’s considred unmanly. So to see them get emotional at that moment was just unbelievable. I love cinema, I devote my life to cinema, I obviously love what I do and am going to continue to do that, but I don’t think I could ever experience a moment like that again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you just cannot repeat, and I’m very, very happy that I’ve lived a life where I’ve had a moment like that.

 

DT:  I don’t want to sound negative, but do you think there could be any negative consequences to that moment?

 

NAN:  We were debating for a long time about whether or not we should take Jacir to the festival, because we were very concerned about exactly that, what would happen to him afterwards. But he wanted to go, and his parents wanted him to go, and we decided that to not allow him to come after he’d made the film just wasn’t fair. Still, we were very nervous about what would happen to him afterwards. We had arranged a full scholarship for him to the best school in Jordan, where the king’s son goes, but his family decided they didn’t want that for him. They wanted him to stay at home with the tribe. They don’t want him to lose his culture. We brought up summer camps and things like that just to follow his progress. To be honest, I think they’ve adjusted far better than I have to this post life experience.  A lot of them are getting work as actors. Hassan and Hussein have both done two films since, Jacir’s done one. Hassan and Hussein have also done drama series.

 

DT:  Within Jordan?

 

NAN: Within Jordan but foreign films and Arabic stuff. They’re definitely a lot better off than they were before, and they’re definitely not worse off financially or educationally. And we haven’t cut ties. The guys come up to the office all the time or come stay with me, so there’s constant contact. We put things their way when there are shoots in Wadi Rum.  They work with the line producer all the time now when she does foreign films. Which is quite funny, because in the beginning, they hated the idea of working with a woman. Both my executive producer—the boss, basically—and line producer are women, and the Bedouin really didn’t like the idea, because the line producer is the one who pays them and draws up the agreements. Now they work with her all the time.

The crew also has skills now. Several of the Bedouin guys worked on The Martian.

 

DT:  How did that happen?

 

NAN:  They’ve got production design skills now, so when The Martian came to shoot in Wadi Rum, they hired them as local crew.  The other day one of the Bedouin guys took out his phone, saying, “I just worked with some big Hollywood star.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He flipped through his phone and showed me a picture of him and Matt Damon, hugging and smiling.  He said, “He’s a big Hollywood star, isn’t he?”  And I said, “Yeah, he is.”

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

 

Labyrinth of Lies/Giulio Ricciarelli

While there is a great deal of controversy over how much the average German citizen knew about the concentration camps that lay hundreds of feet away from their farms and villages, there is little controversy over how much they were willing to admit:  Nothing. Until 1963, when Fritz Bauer, the Hessian State Attorney General, initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which 22 lower-ranking SS officers who served at Auschwitz were tried according to German criminal law. Giulio Ricciarelli pays homage to Fritz Bauer and the young attorneys who prosecuted the case in Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens nationwide September 30. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Most people don’t know about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Can you talk about their significance and why they attracted you as a subject for a feature film?

 

GR:  I must admit I didn’t know about them until I started working on the film. Amazingly, they are not known in Germany; they’re unknown all over the world. The historical importance of this Auschwitz trial—we’re talking 1963—is that it forced German society to look at the crimes of the past. Before that, for almost eighteen years, everybody tried to sweep the Holocaust under the rug, to deny it, to not talk about it. You had a young generation growing up who’d never heard the word. Before working on the film, my perception of German history was that there was the Second World War, there was the Holocaust, and then in 1945, Germany started dealing with its past. The truth is there were almost two decades of denial and negation. These two decades were ended by the trial. And these two decades are forgotten, so I found that an incredibly important and timeless story for today.

It was also the first time a country put its own soldiers on trial. That’s a given for democracies today, but it was unheard of before the trial, so I felt that historically it was quite an important moment in German history, probably the most important moment after the Second World War. The fact that it is forgotten is unbelievable to me.

 

DT:  Your name is Italian. Would you mind clarifying your background?

 

GR:  I have an Italian father who was born in Italy, but I have a German mother, and I moved to Germany when I was four. I grew up bilingual, and I feel both. I feel Italian and I feel German.

 

DT:  You cowrote and directed the film. What kind of research did you do?

 

GR:  Today there’s a huge amount of material that you can access; all the testimonies are online. We worked very closely with the Fritz Bauer Institute and the University of Frankfurt. They read every draft and saw three rough cuts of the film, always commenting on it. The most important thing for us was to have an historical stamp of approval, so it was very important to work very closely with historians on this. We did extensive reading, and we worked very closely with two of the original prosecutors from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, Joachim Kugler and  Gerhard Wiese. We basically started talking to anybody who was alive and conscious in the ’50s to get a glimpse, because you never know where there’s an idea for a scene or a dialogue.

 

DT:  What kind of questions did you ask Mr. Kugler and Mr. Wiese, who actually worked on the trial?

 

GR: We had an interesting concept. Historically, we were very precise. However, the character of Johann, the prosecutor in our film, is actually a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. We took liberties with his emotional life, so of course we asked the original prosecutors how it felt to be somebody doing this kind of work, this kind of research, at that time. These are men of the ’50s, so we had to be very sensitive to hear the little glimpses of emotion they would throw out; these are not men who talk about their emotions. Gerhard Wiese, who is now 87, said, “Well, it was a job and I did my job.” When you start talking to them more and more, though, you realize it was emotionally exhausting. For almost ten years Gerhard was researching these trials on Auschwitz while there was a country around him that was basically booming; it was “the economic miracle.” Gerhard told me, “My friends would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ and I would say, ‘Still working on Auschwitz.’” His life work was basically forgotten, as was Fritz Bauer’s, but one of the unsuspected gifts of the film was that Gerhard, at age 87, got the recognition he never got. He was at the opening night of the film in Frankfurt, and there was a standing ovation for him. He told me his grandchildren said, “You know what? Our grandfather’s a hero.” That was amazing.

 

DT:  You mentioned the fact that the character of Johann is a composite of the three real-life prosecutors. What difficulties did that approach present? I imagine in some ways it was also liberating.

 

GR:  Yes. If you’re making a historic film and you tell only the facts, you will not make a good film, because film has its own laws of dramatic structure. What often happens is that people start inventing or moving things up in history to make the story dramatic. We were very clear that we did not want to do that, because the most important thing to us was actually telling the atmosphere of Germany in the ’50s, because if you want to understand the historical dimension of the trial, you have to understand the atmosphere of denial that came before that. From a filmmaker’s point of view that is quite hard to get across, because we’re talking about the best-known crime of humanity, the Holocaust. Auschwitz has become a symbol of evil, and we were taking people into a time in Germany when that was not the case.

We don’t have an outer dramatic structure. Our dramatic structure is actually the emotional journey of the main character, Johann. He starts out very black-and-white, sitting on a high moral horse, and it’s a journey to humility, basically.  In the end he becomes the right man to do this trial…he has faced his own family, he has faced his own weakness. When he realizes that his father was a Party member, he denies it. He does what everybody else does even though he’s been so obsessed about the trial.

With that concept, you can then be really free. Emotional life is not history, it’s an invention, and it’s very clear that the dramatic arc is the inner life of this character. It allows us to be very precise with the facts without playing around with history, starting to invent meetings that never took place, or moving things up, or inventing a kidnapping, or a blackmail or things that didn’t happen, because the actual trial, as historically important as it was, was not a dramatic thing.

 

DT:  In the scene where the survivors reveal for the first time what they went through at Auschwitz, you didn’t use sound.  I found that incredibly moving. Why did you decide to do it that way? Also, you spoke to real-life survivors as part of your research. Did their stories influence how you shot that scene?

 

GR:  This is a core question to the film. There is a discussion in Holocaust filmography about what you should show and what you shouldn’t show when you make a film that in any way touches the Holocaust. In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann basically proclaimed you should not show. He didn’t use any documentary footage; he just used witnesses.

I feel that there’s one aspect to this discussion that is overlooked, and that is time.  There was a television series with Meryl Streep in the ’70s called Holocaust. It was the first time such a film was seen in Germany. It had an enormous impact, so making a film that re-created [scenes from the camps] had merit at that time. Today, in 2015, you’re making a film for an audience that is filled with images—iconic images, horrible images—and has the whole story very present. I felt that as filmmakers, we had to be bold in the sense of refraining from actually re-creating a scene from the camp, like in a flashback, but also from re-creating actual testimony. An audience knows this is an actor, in a costume, who’s been directed by the director, and he’s acting as if he was there. I felt that today in 2015 you cannot do that anymore.

The closest we get to actual testimony in the film is when the character of the painter talks about his children [who were murdered in the camps], but that is not something he witnessed. He says, “And then they told me what Mengele did to twins,” so that is also not direct testimony.  Regarding these moments, the concept of the film was that we weren’t making a film about the Holocaust; we were making a film about how Germany dealt with the Holocaust. We needed the Holocaust and the horror of it in the film, but every time the movie has that, it’s a canvas for the emotions of the audience. The filmmaking aspect of it was more like leaving it up to the audience to fill in their own stories. We felt that would be much stronger than if we tried to re-create it in any way.

There’s a deeper psychological explanation. When I was eight, somebody brought pictures from Auschwitz to school. You already have a worldview by the time you’re eight, and I was devastated. I was destroyed. I could not believe it. The whole world kind of crumbled, because I couldn’t match everything I thought about the world to these pictures. Interestingly, with all the research we did, we had the very basic experience of not comprehending what actually happened there… I know what happened there, but it’s like you cannot grasp it, you cannot digest it, you cannot deal with it in a way. This was also something that I felt needed to be in the film, and we did it by refraining from using sound. In the scene with the witnesses, they weren’t even actors, they were just extras. Everybody had forty-five minutes on camera, and we improvised. There was no sound, so they could be really open. We just worked to get these moments that we could use in a montage.

There is an even simpler example. We refer to a picture made by the character of the painter right after Auschwitz. It’s called The Angel of Death. The production department came to me and said, “Giulio, what are we going to do? Who is going to paint this?” I said, “We’re not going to do anything, because anything we do will be less strong than what the audience has in their minds.” If I tell you somebody painted a picture right after Auschwitz, you will have an image and an emotion in your head, and if I then show you what I think the picture is, you will be disappointed. So again, that’s also a point where we just see his reaction to it but we don’t see the actual painting.

 

DT:  The trial represented a turning point in Germany, but to be quite honest, even today there are young Germans who know nothing about the Holocaust. I’m wondering whether the trial simply exchanged ignorance for denial?

 

GR:  I grew up in the German system, and I was taught extensively about the Holocaust. I visited a camp in school, and I would say there is a clear political decision to really teach it to children, teach it in school, do films like my film, have memorials. I would say that if today there’s still somebody who’s ignorant, then it’s an active ignorance. It’s somebody really turning their head and actively walking away from what he’s taught, because it is taught in schools. I’ve traveled a lot with this film, and I think there’s a general recognition that Germany really is trying… There is no one hundred percent, it’s always an attempt, but I think people recognize that Germany really is trying to deal with its past. But that all started in 1963, not 1945.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Omar/Hany Abu-Assad

In Hany Abu-Assad‘s Omar, a young Palestinian informant is trapped between his Israeli handler and his love for a woman who lives on the other side of the separation wall.  Palestine’s entry to the 2014 Academy Awards,Omar is poised to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  One of the things that surprised me most in Omar was the fact that people scale the wall to visit family and friends on the other side.  What other kinds of adjustments do people make to live under occupation?

 

HAA:  I don’t think the film is about that.  It’s about love, friendship, trust, betrayal, and paranoia, how connected they are to each other, and how important trust is to society and love and friendship.  In this instance, it’s a love story between Omar and Nadia.

In every love story you have obstacles—the outside obstacles and the inside obstacles.  The outside obstacle inRomeo and Juliet is the families that are fighting.  In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s race. In West Side Storyit’s the social differences.  In Omar, it’s the occupation.  Usually the wall is a depressing thing for me, but when I realized how powerful a visualization of the obstacle it was, I was happy with the wall for a second, because I felt, My God, how can I get a better image for visualizing the obstacle than this wall?  Who on earth in the history of cinema could visualize the outside obstacle?  In Romeo and Juliet you need so many shots and so much introduction and dialogue to visualize the obstacle.  Here—just the wall.  An image, and a boy trying to climb.  Oh my God.  It’s the best visualization of an obstacle ever.

 

DT:  But people really do scale the wall.

 

HAA:   Sure.  The wall doesn’t come between Israel and the West Bank.  The wall comes between Palestinian and Palestinian to divide them from themselves.  It’s inside the West Bank.  It’s not on the border.  This is why it’s divided a lot of families, and a lot of life, and even a lot of animals from each other.   Wild animals used to go down in the winter and up in the summer, and now they can’t move because of the wall. But again, the main goal of the film is not showing how people live under occupation.  It’s showing how human beings have to deal with important issues like love and friendship under extreme circumstances, which is occupation.

 

DT:  You’ve described the setting for Omar as a “virtual Palestinian city.”  What do you mean by that?

 

HAA:  Because the wall does not divide Israel from Palestine but Palestinian from Palestinians, my idea was not to portray an actual city but a virtual city where a wall cut it in the middle.  It’s not an actual city.

 

DT:  It’s not Nablus or Ramallah, for example.

 

HAA:  It can be four or five places.  It can’t be Jenin, because there is no wall in Jenin.  There is no wall in Nazareth.  There is no wall in Jericho.  But I think it can be in Beit Jala, Bethlehem, for example, between al-Ram or Qalandia, between Tulkarm, between Qalqilya and itself.  I didn’t want people to say, Oh, it’s Bethlehem, or Beit Jala, for example.

 

DT:  Two things struck me at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening.

 

HAA:  My answers.

 

DT:  First of all, you said the film is universal.  Then people got offended when you called Omar a hero.  Do you think the Palestinian narrative—and although you keep saying the film is not about the Palestinian narrative, the context is the Palestinian narrative—is universal, and why do you think Omar is a hero?

 

HAA:  Why did it strike you?  Is it illogical that it’s a universal issue?

 

DT:  I think that films about a terrorist are not comprehensible in the West the way they are in the Middle East.

 

HAA:  But why is Omar a terrorist?

 

DT:  Because he participated in a terrorist attack. Even though I’m against the occupation, I still saw his killing the soldier as a terrorist attack.

 

HAA:  This is your definition.  Even the most extreme right-wing definition of a terrorist attack is when you kill civilians or attack society for political reasons.  I think that for everybody on this earth, except you maybe, killing a soldier wouldn’t be called a terrorist attack.  But then everything is a terrorist attack.  What do you call war?  A terrorist attack?

 

DT:  Yes.

 

HAA:  I understand.  Any act of violence is already terror for you.

 

DT:  If it’s a political act of violence, yes.

 

HAA:  That’s interesting.  Could the Americans have freed themselves from the English without an armed struggle? Could Europe have freed itself from the Nazis?  If they were pacifists, as you want, the Nazis would rule the world.

 

DT:  Is this your answer to my question, or are we debating pacifism?

 

HAA:  How can I answer your question about Omar? I think it’s very universal.  Maybe not to you, but it’s universal to anyone I know in Europe and the United States.  They will fight against occupation.  The universal dividing line is this:  If it’s against soldiers, it’s not a terrorist attack.  If it’s against civilians, it’s a terrorist attack. This is why I think it’s universal.  But also the main themes are universal…falling in love, people under extreme circumstances having to make choices.  This is all universal.  Now the second thing that struck you:  Omar being a hero.

 

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING ANSWER CONTAINS A SPOILER.

HAA:  He’s a tragic hero, but he’s still a hero. Let’s define a tragic hero.  A tragic hero means well but ends up destroying the one he’s trying to protect.  In The Godfather, Michael Corleone intends to protect his family and ends up killing them.  An anithero acts as a hero but doesn’t want to:  He does something he doesn’t want to do and ends up saving someone.  A hero is somebody who consciously knows that his act will result in heroism.  In our case, Omar is a tragic hero because he did everything to get his love but ended up destroying his love.  And this is why his redemption is to kill Rami, his Israeli handler, in order to protect Nadia, because Rami is still a threat and Omar will sacrifice himself for Nadia.  This is why, according to the definitions, he’s a tragic hero.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

 

DT:  Can you talk about shooting in the territories, especially getting permission to shoot on the wall, using an all-Palestinian cast and crew, and the differences between when you shot Paradise Now and when you shot Omar?

 

HAA:  Wow, what a big difference, believe me.  2005 [shooting Paradise Now] was a traumatic experience.  I couldn’t go back to the West Bank for more than three years, it was so traumatic. I had so many troubles.

 

DT:  From the Israelis or Palestinians?

 

HAA:  From Israelis and some Palestinians, but from both.  It was too much.  It was the invasion at that time, it was curfews, no permission.  This time we had cooperation from everybody.

 

DT:  Why?

 

HAA:  Anybody knows that if they give me a problem, you, as a journalist, will ask me, “Did they give you any problems?”  And then I have to answer, “They did this to me.  They did that to me.” Now I don’t need to tell these stories.  They are happy that I’m not telling these stories, and I am more than happy that I’m doing my movies.  It’s good.  We even had permission to shoot on the wall up to a certain height.

 

DT:  Permission from the Israelis?

 

HAA:  Yes—til the last two meters from the top.  The last two meters we built somewhere else for all the closeup shots on top of the wall.  We used an all-Palestinian cast and crew in order to contribute to our community.  If your community is under occupation and seeking independence, you have to try to be less dependent on others by using your own resources.  It’s an act of good for the community.

 

DT:  Omar is your second film to compete for an Academy Award.  What’s the nominating procedure in Palestine?

 

HAA:  It’s a funny story.  The Ministry of Culture will form a commission from different disciplines.

 

DT:  Through the Palestinian Authority?

 

HAA:  Yes.  They have a Ministry of Culture, which has a cinema department. They appoint a commission of professionals from the field—producers, directors—and show them the films that are competing. Then the commission chooses one.  Now, in my case, there was no other film.  Mine was the only one being submitted, maybe because other directors thought they had no chance.  The head of the commission said, “What are we going to do?  We’re going to pretend?”  Everyone knew there was no other film, but when he called everybody, he said, “We choose Omar.  Do you agree?”  It was funny.   It was kind of like a joke.

 

DT:  You got into directing through producing.  How did being a producer affect your directing?

 

HAA:  As a director I always took the budget into consideration.  Even now I can’t get rid of that habit.  It’s not good sometimes.

 

DT:  What would you have done with Omar that you didn’t do?

 

HAA:  I would have spent more money on editing, and I think I needed more time on the fake wall.

 

DT:  Between Paradise Now and Omar, people think of you only as a director of Palestinian narratives, yet the first feature you directed was a comedy written by a Dutch Jew whose mother survived Auschwitz.  How do you want to be thought of as a director?

 

HAA:  As a Palestinian film director, because I have the most pain from that side.  Being a Palestinian is not easy;  simply being a Palestinian is already an accusation.  They say Omar is a controversial movie, for example.  I ask myself, if it were a Chinese movie, would it be controversial? Just being a Palestinian is already controversial.  It makes you angry.  Mad.  Because why is it that way?  It’s a painful situation to see that your family can’t visit each other, to see that if I want to go to the West Bank I have to go through checkpoints, through soldiers who have to control me.

You see we are living in ghettos.  The occupation is taking the land little by little.  It’s painful, and that’s why I give this identity as the biggest, because I want to get rid of this the most.  I want the Palestinians to be equal with Israelis.  Very simple.  To live equal.  Then I will feel better.  I am a selfish man.  I want to feel better because I want to be equal.  Anyhow, I’m partly European.  I’m Dutch, actually.

 

DT:  You have a Dutch passport?

 

HAA:  Not just a passport.  I’m Dutch.  I know the Dutch language very well.  Holland formed me culturally.  It’s an easy country.  I just got an invitation from the queen.

 

DT:  Mazel tov.

 

HAA:  Every year she invites several artists for lunch, and this year I’m one of them.  My Dutch identity is a lost identity because I have no problems from it.  I got a lot of pleasure working with Arnon Grunberg, the Jewish writer you referred to earlier.  He was very influential on me…I learned a lot of things about language from him.  He’s a great guy.

 

DT:  Is there anything you want to add?

 

HAA:  Judge the movie as a movie.  In terms of my politics, I am condemning the occupation.  Period.  I’m not apologetic about it, and I’m not going to do a movie in order to discuss whether there is an occupation or not.  From our point of view there is an occupation. Period. And I’m also not going to discuss whether there’s a good side to the occupation.  You want me to make a movie to show there is a good side to the occupation or that there are good people in Israel?  Why should I make a movie to tell you there are good people in Israel?  In all my films I condemn the occupation, and this time I didn’t even put Israel in it.  The word Israel doesn’t exist and the wordPalestinian doesn’t exist.  It’s just people under occupation.  But I really want people to judge me as a filmmaker.  If you don’t like what I have to say about politics, so what?  There are so many people saying what I’m saying about politics, but you don’t need to agree with me on politics.  Just go and watch Omar and judge it as a movie.  Don’t condemn it in advance because it’s Palestinian or taking the Palestinian side.  And yes, it’s taking the Palestinian side.  So what?  I’m Palestinian. Why shouldn’t I?  I should take the American side?

 

DT:  Let me ask you one more question:  What do you think of the nonviolent resistance movement in Bil’in?

 

HAA:  I am like you:  a pacifist in the sense that I’ve never harmed a person in my entire life.  Not only physicalIy; I don’t like to harm anybody.  Even my enemies.  I always try to forgive, because if you carry hate, it’s you who’s going to be paying.  I don’t carry hate.  I believe that violence—whether it’s an Arab struggle, which is legal, or any kind of violence that has its freedom fighters—will have its toll on society.  Violence will always take its toll. But I also understand from life that not everybody has the luxury to be nonviolent like me or the people who protest at Bil’in.

 

DT:  You think nonviolence is a luxury?

 

HAA:  You need to be morally superior to say to someone who’s hitting you, “You are wrong.”  Not everybody has this superior morality; most people don’t.  I can’t require them to act like me,  even if I’m a pacifist.  As a pacifist, you feel that even though a soldier will humiliate you, you are superior to him.  I feel superior to them.

 

DT:  In what way?

 

HAA:  I have more knowledge, I have more luck in life, I’m a talented guy…all these things make me feel that in general I take more from life than the soldiers do.  They have to stand at the checkpoints to kill people, so even if they have weapons, I’m luckier than them.  A soldier  once tried to shoot me, but I just stood there and said, “You can kill me, but you’re wrong.”  You need to be morally superior to lose your hate.  Not everybody can easily lose their hate like me, because I know that hate will destroy me.  This is why I don’t hate.  It will destroy me before it destroys my enemy.  This is why I feel, Let him live his life.  I will be more than happy to be far from my enemies.  But not everybody can, and I can’t demand that they be like me.  This is the only difference I have from other pacifists: I can’t demand that everybody be like me.  I can teach them and lecture them.  But I also understand that no one on earth wants to live in an inferior position—no one—and they will find their way to fight.  Some people will be very destructive in the fight, and I think that violence is sometimes destructive in the fight for freedom, but I understand them.

I hope you are satisfied.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2014