Telling stories about Palestine: An interview with writer/director Suha Arraf
The Bristol Palestine Film Festival returns from Fri 13 – Sun 22 March to present a special short season of internationally acclaimed Palestinian feature films as part of Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict.
The Festival’s director David Owen sat down with Palestinian film director and writer Suha Arraf to talk more about her directorial debut Villa Touma, a drama about three sisters who refuse to acknowledge the passing of time post-1967 which we will screen on Sun 15 March at 15:00.
Suha shares her frustrations and pleasures of being a director as opposed to a screenwriter (she penned the award-winning The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree), and the challenges of being a Palestinian living in Israel. Continue the conversation with Suha on Twitter on Fri 13 March from 14:00-15:00 – share questions, comments and thoughts by using #convocinema.
“It isn’t an all-out official war, nor is it a time of peace; it is like a haemorrhage of war, a trickle of war that drains one out slowly” Suha Arraf
How would you describe Villa Touma?
It is a film that puts the focus on the human being, and shows the intimacy of a Palestinian family. It is also a political film, without showing images of the occupation.
Why this story? What impact do you want this film to have?
Denial is very interesting but also a painful attribute to have. Having someone living for 30-40 years in denial really got me curious and interested in this story, of people who’ve sentenced themselves into a prison because of their inability of standing up to or accepting their new reality of life under a military occupation.
The impact I wanted to have was for us to see the individual Palestinian with all of their personal baggage and shades of good and bad, and not the hero-victim we have become accustomed to seeing in the media.
Do you see sections of Palestinian society today that remain in denial about the occupation?
The whole film is symbolic to the Palestinian situation, and the frozen situation they’re in - the frozen peace process, the status quo of the occupation and the refugee camps in the region. It isn’t an all-out official war, nor is it a time of peace; it is like a haemorrhage of war, a trickle of war that drains one out slowly.
What attracted me to this theme is the basic humanity of these women, strong willed women, who were quite educated, who chose this self-imposed prison and life of silence, in contrast to the noisy streets of Palestine.
Villa Touma is your first feature as director, what do you like about being a director, and what do you miss about the screenwriting role you had for The Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride?
Being a director was a lot more stressful than anything else I’ve ever done. At times it took a toll on my health, strength and patience. I sometimes felt like I was all alone doing everything by myself. Being a scriptwriter was a lot less stressful, where I’d work on the script for a while, hand it over to the producer/director and my problems were over. There was no risk involved, no worry about its reception in the press or about the sales - I just showed up at award ceremonies and collected prizes, it was fabulous!
What is your happiest memory in making the film?
While observing the scene unfold in front of me, I got so involved and moved it was not unusual to see me on set bursting into tears in front of the monitor or out loud laughter.
Can you explain a little more about the country of origin of this film and why it has been listed as ‘stateless’ in so many festivals?
There are about 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel – about 20% of the country. They pay taxes just like any other citizen, however unfortunately they get far less than their quota of government spending. One would expect the ministry of culture to be spending 20% of its budget on the Palestinian minority, yet it is merely 2%. I received funding from the state to help with the costs of making this film. However, when the film was listed on the Venice website as “Palestine” it caused an uproar in Israel - the Israeli public, media and politicians just couldn’t grasp the concept that we have our own cultural identity.
It was a very difficult time for me, and at the same time festival organisers were getting some pressure form their local Israeli representatives. It was suggested I put Palestine/Israel, which I refused. It was then suggested that we put it as “stateless” which I accepted, as it perfectly describes me and my film. To some people it might be strange that I took money from Israel, yet refused to put it as an Israeli film, however it isn’t as simple as that. I was under no obligation contractually to state the film as Israeli, which is why the Israeli government weren’t able to take me to court, furthermore, that money is from my taxes, I am entitled to it, so no one is doing me a favour here.
What have you learnt from these experiences, and how will this influence you moving forward?
I have been blacklisted in Israel from receiving any funding, I actually have it in a letter from the cinema council of Israel, which I thought was funny that they had to write me that, after some heads of film funds called me a prostitute and a suicide bomber in the press. I also find it very ironic how they are happy for my taxes to go finance other Israeli filmmakers, but I can’t finance my own.
But what I have learned that we, as a minority in Israel, we need to fight even more for our most basic rights, and say no to discriminating laws, even though I know I won’t get their money, but as a principle I will continue to fight for us to receive these grants that we are entitled to without having any discriminating strings attached. From what it looks like, my only other option to financing my future films is from abroad.
What drives you? What makes this all worthwhile?
What drives me is storytelling. I am very passionate about it. I have so much to tell the world and I love telling it through cinema. We have so many issues, human issues, and minority issues, unheard voices that I want the world to hear. We are in 2015 and living under an apartheid system that people chose to ignore, this pushes me to bring it to the forefront and challenge people who think it’s okay for it to continue like that.