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Interview with filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad: 'My films condemn oppression'

Oct. 29, 2013 12:38 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 29, 2013 11:31 P.M.)
By: Frank Barat
Frank Barat is an activist based in Belgium and is one of the former coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He recently conducted an interview with Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad for "The Wall has Ears: Conversations for Palestine."

Hany Abu Assad is the director of many films including Academy Award-nominated Paradise Now, which focuses on two young Palestinian men preparing for a suicide bombing in Israel.

How did a Palestinian airplane engineer become a filmmaker?

It is because of a lot of elements. One of the most important one was love! I was in love with somebody who was not in love with me and I thought that if I become a famous filmmaker, maybe she will regret her decision one day!

This is what I need, when I feel good or bad, a medium where I can express myself, in a way that is more interesting than dealing with numbers and formulas.

Why did you leave Nazareth in 1980? Was it also for love or was it for something else?

Once again, there are so many reasons that make you do what you have to do. The major reason in 1980 when I left Nazareth was that I felt for a Palestinian living in Israel that there were no other options for you to explore the world. Almost everything was closed to you whether you wanted to make a career in science, art or business.

If you want to explore the world, be curious, have access to information as a Palestinian in Israel, most of the doors are closed to you. There are doors opened to a certain limit. I felt like I wanted to explore more that these borders they gave me. Europe was the station that I felt at that time could become my source for knowing what’s going on over the world.

So, are you still based in the Netherlands nowadays or are you traveling between Nazareth and Europe?

I settled down in Nazareth three years ago now. I don’t live in Holland anymore.

We spoke to Saleh Bakri yesterday that you must know. Adam, his brother, is actually one of the main character in your film Omar. Saleh mentioned a few times that as a Palestinian of 48, a citizen of Israel, that is dream was to return, for some of his family to return. Do you entertain the same dream?

Yes, one of my biggest dreams is to have an environment in the Middle East where we all become one, where we have one interest like in Europe, with no borders where everybody is equal. Where there is no state for certain religion or certain race or for certain family, you know some states are for family or tribes, like Israel is a tribal state.

All these states are in my opinion artificial, supported by the West to make the area weak. My dream is to have an environment where you have interest for your neighbor bigger than your conflict and where you share the area with equal rights and equal access to resource and power.

And I guess your way of doing this is via art. So is art political by nature for you? Especially when you are a Palestinian born in Israel but who will never truly be able to be an Israeli. As you know the Israeli Supreme Court recently rejected "Israeli" as a nationality. So is art obviously political for you?

Yes, art is political. Politics for me is any kind of interest in human beings. I think the most important part in art is to have an interest in sharing ideas, beauty, feelings, or thoughts with others. Politics are a major component in our life. Art without politics will become a ridiculous form of expression.

You are now outside of Palestine, with Elia Suleiman, the most well known Palestinian Director. Does it come with a lot of pressure?

Not pressure because I am a well-known Palestinian filmmaker but because as filmmaker, you do good movies and people like what you are doing, there will be pressure on you even if you are Belgian or French. Any director nominated for a price in Cannes, for an Oscar or Golden Globe will have this pressure. I don’t think as a Palestinian there is an extra pressure.

In 2010, for an interview for Electronic Intifada, you said, "Palestinian cinema is a cause." Do you see yourself as a filmmaker first and an activist second or the opposite? Or maybe it is one thing together?

It is one thing together. First of all, I am a filmmaker, I am a storyteller and then if you want to tell stories you have to choose stories that bother you, not just Palestinian stories, any stories that you want to tell. It is about stories that interest you, that you can explore in your relationship with the film, with human nature.

Again, I think my main interests are human beings on earth. How they can communicate and create better environments for themselves. This is my major interest in life. I am a filmmaker and both things cannot be separated but again if you want to separate them, I am first a filmmaker, a storyteller.

Speaking of film making, can you tell us about your ground-breaking 2007 film Paradise Now? You were accused by pro-Israel supporters of humanizing suicide bombers. Why did you pick this subject?

I didn't pick the subject to humanize or dehumanize anybody. First of all, whether you like it or not, they are human beings. They might do things for you that are criminal, but which are for others a heroic act, but whether you think they are heroes or criminals, for me they are human beings in the first place. In order to have an interested eye to that case then you have to humanize them and look at them from a human point of view, not from the villain’s point of view but from the ethical point of view.

I thought Paradise Now was fantastic mainly because it showed that you can understand something even though you do not agree with it. Showing a mainstream audience that suicide bombers are also human beings, was very important. I wanted to ask you about Palestinian cinema. How hard is it to make a Palestinian film nowadays?

In general Palestinian cinema is growing. We used to make a movie every three years. Now we are making almost three movies a year. This is progress. It does not mean it becomes easier to make movies; actually, sometimes it is harder. It's the opposite.

There is less and less money for Palestinian cinema. We are trying to find alternative ways to finance films. For example (the recent film) Omar was fully financed by Palestinian businessmen. There are more and more filmmakers coming, which is good, but because of the lack of money, it is becoming more and more difficult. Still I remain optimistic that good stories will survive and will make it on to the screen.

Omar, your latest film, got a lot of positive attention and very good reviews. You gave interviews for very mainstream magazines and newspapers around the world. Do you see this as an opportunity to talk about Palestine or are those interviews always staying outside politics?

I am trying to stay outside politics in general. Like now, I am not really politicizing the interview for a very important reason. It's not my job to talk politics. I am making political movies. My movies are condemning oppression. I do not need to give an interview in order to say that. As a filmmaker I am trying to tell stories that matter. When I give interviews, I try to put a focus on the film, not on the politics.

What about your US movie? How did it go?

It failed. It went straight to DVD. It was not a good movie. But I don't regret it. I learned more from it than from my successful films. You learn from your mistakes you know. It's a movie I made, called The Courier.

How was it for a Palestinian filmmaker to work in the US and deal with a US studio and US press?

It was interesting and I learned from it a lot. I did not work with a studio. Actually, the movie was financed from people outside of the US. It was an experience because I learned a lot technically. The technical aspect of movie making. Also, I learned how to make bad movies. Once you know how to make them, it's easier to make only good ones. In general, I am very positive about the experience even though the results are not good. The process was important.

The one thing that put Palestine on the map last year was the fact that 5 Broken Cameras was nominated for an academy award in the US. Today, it's Omar's turn to make people talk about Palestine. Are movies going to help free Palestine?

Sure, they are an element. Not a major one in the overall scheme of things, but it's one of the elements. I am aware of our role. I also know that it is not that big. At the end of the day, putting pressure on the USA is key. The sooner this happens, the sooner you will have liberation.

People need to pressure their governments to stop supporting Israel. This is crucial. I also believe in the resistance. It's an Arab struggle. There is no possibility to win without a joint struggle. No freedom without it. All those elements together will help liberate Palestine. Which does not mean, of course, throwing the Jews into the sea. Freeing Palestine means living with the Jews as equals.

So the struggle is to change the nature of the State of Israel from a discriminatory state, to a state that treats all its citizens as equals?

Yes, Israel is a discriminatory, a racist state. I don't think this is good for the Jews or the Arabs. It's actually even worse for the Jews. The nature of the State of Israel is a shame for the Jews. They should be ashamed of it. They should try to change it by all means. It's not good for Jewish values.

Interview originally published on "The Wall has Ears: Conversations for Palestine" on Oct. 28, 2013.
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