Hany Abu-Assad: The POV interview

26 mins read

HANY ABUASSAD IS A STUDY IN DUALITIES. He has won prizes as a director of documentaries and feature dramas. Born in Nazareth and intensely concerned with his native Palestine, he has spent nearly half his life in the Netherlands. Having studied and worked as an airplane engineer, Abu-Assad abandoned the profession to become a committed filmmaker. A political artist, in person, he is a charming intellectual, willing to entertain opposing ideas and opinions.

Abu-Assad has garnered awards for his latest documentary Ford Transit (2002) in Thessaloniki, Jerusalem and the Human Rights Festival in New York. It depicted a diverse group of characters traveling in a Ford minivan past roadblocks and checkpoints from East Jerusalem to Ramallah. The director played with the verité format, including filmmaker B.Z. Goldberg and politician Hanna Ashwari as passengers, allowing them to vent about the political dilemmas in the Israeli-Palestinian state.

The same issues are at the foreground of Abu-Assad’s latest feature drama Paradise Now (2005). In it, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) decide to end the humiliating lives they lead in Palestine and become suicide bombers. Shot in Nablus, amidst daily bombings, the film has the immediacy of Iranian or early neo-realist Italian cinema. Paradise Now has won the Blue Angel Award in Berlin and the Amnesty International Award.

Hany Abu-Assad has been given the Carte Blanche to choose his favourite documentaries at IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) this year. He discussed documentaries, drama, Holland after van Gogh and the future of Palestine with POV.

POV: Paradise Now is a drama about suicide bombers. I know that before you started to do this film, you did research, just as you do with your documentaries. How did you do the research and what kind of stories did you hear?

HANY ABUASSAD (HAA): I took a number of directions in the research. One was to meet people who knew suicide bombers and [were willing to] talk about them: to see where they came from, what kind of a house they lived in; who’s the mother, who’s the father, who’s the brother? The second [type of] research we did involved reading the interrogations of people who’d been caught after they did it: let’s say something went wrong with the bomb and [now] they were in jail. Then, [third], we also read reports from all kinds of people, who had opinions about these things. But most helpful was a lawyer who was defending people in jail that had been caught.

POV: And he told you a lot about it?

HAA: Yes, he told me a lot of stories that were shocking.

POV: Shocking in terms of what people were willing to do?

HAA: No, in terms of how human they are. And it was shocking also that I was ignorant, thinking that they weren’t human. It was a double shock. Because it’s like anything else: you think they are being manipulated, they have no love, they don’t think in terms of humans, and suddenly [you realize that] they are very human. And suddenly you think you’re so stupid—for sure, they are human, why shouldn’t they be human?

POV: Is there a common denominator that allows them to give up a life, which in some cases seems to be very good?

HAA: I think the most important motive in Palestine for these kinds of actions is that you want to end your humiliation. The Occupation is really humiliating people every day. You feel that you are being [treated as] inferior. Secondly, you want to prove to yourself that you are not weak, because daily you are facing humiliation; you feel that you’re a coward if you do nothing about it, and by killing yourself in this manner—with others and causing damage—you’re telling the world and yourself, ‘I am not a coward. I am turning my cowardice, (or weakness, let’s say) to enormous power.’ These two factors are very important in the decision- making.

POV: What is the daily life like in Palestine? There’s humiliation, of course, but there’s also family life, the life in the
streets. There must still be a lot of warmth and companionship, no?

HAA: Yes, there is a lot of that. For every disadvantage you have an advantage; there are advantages to oppression. One advantage is that you invest a lot in your education. Another is that you care about others because when you are under threat, there is more community life. But there is also a lot of destruction. Living so long under oppression is creating an unhealthy society, a society that doesn’t believe in the law. Still, I was amazed that most of the people are civilized. That they still behave in a civilized way.

POV: You have a very interesting female character in Paradise Now. Suha (Lubna Azabal) is someone who’s been raised in the West, but she is the daughter of a freedom fighter. You have spent a lot of time in the West, in Europe. How is it for you and a character like Suha, to go back, to be in Palestine? Is that a huge cultural shock for you every time you go?

HAA: Well, Suha is not me!

POV: Then tell me about both. Tell me about Hany then tell me about Suha.

HAA: For me, it is not so much [of a shock] because I live in a kind of isolation. When you’re in Canada or in Palestine, it’s just the décor that’s changing. Because you live on a kind of island; you’re not a part of daily life wherever you go. It’s a contradiction, because at the same time that you want to make films about real life, that is not your life as a filmmaker. The difference here is, if you want to go to Montreal, you just take the train and go, and there, you have to be Tarzan just to…

POV: …get through all those checkpoints…

HAA: For Suha, it’s different, because she has a lot of admiration for the West. She’s the daughter of a hero, and in our culture, it’s something you’re proud of; Suha likes it, everyone likes to be admired, but in the West she’s one of the millions walking around. For her, it’s not a shock, it’s…it’s funny I haven’t thought of this before, because you’re talking about characters that don’t exist, and you go back to the character and you think ‘Who was she?’

POV: Well, who is she?

HAA: I think for Suha, wherever she goes, she will not feel at home…Suha doesn’t feel a part of [Palestinian] society because she’s different and a woman also. And in Europe it’s the same. She can behave [however she wants] and walk wherever she wants, but still she doesn’t have the compassion from the society.

POV: Is it because she’s been identified as a Muslim in the West?

HAA: Well, a foreigner. She doesn’t wear a [head] scarf so in Europe she won’t be identified as a Muslim woman, but more as a foreigner. In this big city life, you are an individual entity, a small thing moving in this political and economic system.

POV: Has the West changed Palestine?

HAA: Well, consumerism is also entering Palestinian society. And so is individualism, which you need for better consuming, because when you’re an individual, you need your own computer, your own television, and car, and then you become a better slave to consuming! With all the horror, we also have Coco-Cola; McDonald’s is opening everywhere, and individualism has become the most important issue.

POV: Hany, you’ve worked in documentaries and you’ve worked in fiction. And you’ve mixed the two, particularly in Ford Transit. Can you tell me about your experiences in both forms?

HAA: What is documentary and what is fiction? In my opinion, they’re genres. In the genre of documentary, the camera is visible and people talk directly to it. In fiction films, the camera is invisible and nobody looks into the lens. And the second difference between fiction and documentary is that in fiction, you are dictating reality. If you don’t like the colour, you paint it. In documentary, it’s the opposite; it’s the reality dictating you, which is again a contradiction, because the moment you appear with a camera and make the selection, already you are dictating reality. But let’s say the dictation of reality [in documentary] is more spontaneous: some things happen which you hadn’t thought of before. We call it ‘the unique moment.’ And you can also have it in fiction, that an actor can surprise you with a unique moment of his own feelings. This is the difference between the two, in the genres…

Between the two genres [of fiction and documentary] there is an abstract border, which exists in your imagination. That’s also true in other genres—for example, between comedy and tragedy; you don’t know where the line is, but there is what we call…

POV: They bang into each other…

HAA: They bang into each other, these two genres. And always when two genres bang into each other, there is more magic happening. This is what cinema is about, that you are surprised by what you find. And I think it’s always interesting to have this clash between the genres of fiction and non-fiction. And if you choose the documentary style or genre, you [should] push it to the side of fiction, and if you have fiction you [should] push it to the documentary side.

What I did with Paradise Now was very important. It was fiction, pushed to an almost hyper realistic place and time. And the same with Ford Transit: it was a documentary style, but I wanted to see how I could make a film that is neither documentary nor fiction. It’s really both. And nobody can say it’s not.

POV: Right. But why did you put in characters in Ford Transit who are real, and who had opinions that you knew they were going to express in the film?

HAA: For me it was very interesting to see whether they would be dictating to me or I would be dictating to them. You push it to that level; you think, ‘OK, I have a scenario, but, at the same time, it’s something that will happen at a unique moment. Unique moments in FordTransit involve actors—not only actors but also people—and I knew what they were going to say, I even told them what to say. But I caught more unique moments in Ford Transit than many other documentaries…

Let me tell you about a unique moment. Before Ford Transit, I made a film called Nazareth 2000. There’s a scene where I am telling my niece what to say. I prepared her: ‘Now I’m going to ask you what you think about conflict.’ And she knew the answer. Then I said, ‘Ready! Camera…now what do think about the conflict?’ She repeated a very wise answer. And then I asked her, ‘Who told you this?’ She was very surprised, ‘What am I supposed to say now?’ Because it was supposed to be a documentary! Finally, she said, ‘Well this is my answer.’ And I looked at her again and said ‘Who told you this?’ And she said, ‘It’s my answer. Nobody told me this.’ And then we were quiet and I looked at her and she looked at me, and she started to become really red! She was ashamed of herself; she turned her face and said ‘Hany told me this.’ And I had told her what to say. But I didn’t tell her what I was going to ask her after. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So, in the same shot, can you tell whether it’s documentary or fiction? It’s both.

And this is what I meant by doing Ford Transit. I wanted these two genres to clash; what happens then is the contradiction of cinema. If it’s a movie or a documentary, if you [as an audience
member] don’t believe it, you say ‘F—-, bad movie!’ You want to believe it, even though you know there’s a camera filming it. Filmmaking is selection and editing and all these things, but at the same time you want to believe it. And by making the genres clash, I make you aware of it.

POV: Because then you become engaged with it because you are fascinated by it.

HAA: Because it’s real.

POV: Because it’s real.

HAA: You feel it’s real. It’s a feeling.

POV: So with Paradise Now is that why you put yourself and the crew at great danger, shooting in Nablus. Because that was the only way to do it, right?

HAA: To get this feeling. For the actors,
for the crew, for everybody, we felt, ‘this is not a film.’ Normally, when actors enter a set, they know there’s nothing behind it. Then they pretend to act. But when the actors [in Paradise Now ] came to a place that martyrs had really been prepared to meet their destiny, it was like (gasp). You look at the place and you think, ‘this is where they were standing,’ and you’re an actor and you think that you have to read your lines the way someone said them before you, and they killed themselves. And this is not a joke.

POV: What I like about that scene is the way you keep on starting and stopping the speeches. At first it’s very dramatic. The first speech is being delivered but then the Palestinians in the scene, who are supposed to be recording this moving declaration, have camera problems. So then the martyr’s speech has to be spoken again. And again they have camera problems. And then they’re not sure about the sound, and in the end they’re not sure whether they can record it at all properly. I thought this was terrific because you’ve taken what is a very dramatic moment and turned it into something else completely.

HAA: Because it’s also close to reality. Any dramatic moment in your life also has humour in it; sometimes you see it, sometimes not, but there is always something funny about it. Secondly in drama, you [must] have important turning points: you sign a contract and say ‘I’m going to do it.’ Suddenly, it’s not a game anymore… [But it’s interesting] when you make the turning point from a tragedy to a comedy.

 

POV: One of the key differences between documentary and fiction filmmaking is that you get to direct actors. What did you do to prepare Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman for their roles as Said and Khaled?

HAA: I asked them to work in the garage [where they are employed in the film] before we started shooting. I bumped them physically with the [the] reality [of working life in Palestine]. I let them work as mechanics. Every day they were supposed to wake up and go to the garage and work there. And I asked the owner to really let them work…and he was nasty with them to make them feel the humiliation of being a beginner, a worker. This is the second time I refused to shoot outside the Occupied Territories. We felt it when there was a curfew. You look outside and nobody’s there. What it’s like to hear shooting throughout the night and you can’t sleep. We were in the place and the time. I think my method was to make them more honest.

POV: You shot as well in Tel Aviv with an Israeli crew. They must have read the script. Were they sympathetic?

HAA: Israel doesn’t have just one voice. All of Israel is not Sharon. Paradise Now has an Isareli co-producer Amir Harel who helped us a lot in order to make this film.

POV: Where do you think we are in the peace process?

HAA: I don’t know how we will get there, but we will get there. I don’t know whether it will be tomorrow, or after two years, or ten years; I can’t tell you when. But I am confident that there is no other option for either of us than to share the land, the water, and the economy equally. The other option, that one of us will disappear, is much more difficult [even to imagine]…Did Hitler succeed by ethnic cleansing? No, he failed. He used the most horrible historic moment to do that. It was a horrible way and yet he didn’t succeed. There is no other option than to live together [as equals].

POV: In your mind would it be better to have one state or two states equally…

HAA: Doesn’t matter. These are details. If there are two states then they must be equals. They must have access to the same economy, the same power; access to knowledge, [jobs], and development equally… I think what will happen is that it will be one state with two nations!

POV: Hany, your personal response. It’s been a year now since Theo van Gogh was killed [in Amsterdam]. Have things changed for the worse? Is it a tougher society? Or do you still feel accepted— not just you, but when you talk to people, to friends…

HAA: Like I said, I’m really living on a kind of island. I’m hearing from others. My experience is always that I am accepted in Holland. I think it’s more in the classes that there is a clash. And I have no clash with the classes. I think it’s really horrible what happened [to Van Gogh] but what’s more horrible is that people use these actions to spread more and more fear. Which is leading to more and more terror. For sure a crime is a crime, but …they want to make us believe that Western Society is in big danger, which is ridiculous. Big danger…why? They are the most influential, powerful civilization ever, and they are playing the role of victim? It’s ridiculous! Spreading fear—for what? In order to maintain power or…[to address] moral issues? It’s disgusting. It’s more disgusting than the action itself. Because the action is disgusting, for sure there is no question about it. But the misusing of this action in order to generalize, in order to make people more and more afraid, when they are living in a very safe society, is disgusting.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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