Hiam Abbas: “If we human beings stand together, we can break down the real boundaries!”
On October 2nd, as part of its “Film of the Arab World” day, the film that won her plaudits as an actress in 2002, “Red Satin”. Today a filmmaker, Hiam Abbas is just back from the shoot for her first full-length movie “Inheritance”, an ARTE co-production. She shares with us her thoughts on the Arab Spring as a Palestinian from Israel who lives mostly in France and who shot her film entirely outside of Arab lands.
Since the Arab Spring, have there been any changes regarding filmmaking in Palestine or Israel?
Hiam Abbas: I don’t live there. Anyway, the Arab Spring doesn’t really concern Palestinian artists inside Israel. People think and reflect. I have noticed an awakening, and almost on all levels. And that may also be true of the artistic though of certain Palestinian filmmakers. But since it isn’t really taking place in our country, I think that, as always, there’s more priority given to what’s happening within the territories concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People still talk more today of Palestine and of Israel – a country that remains an occupier of the Palestinian people – and not necessarily of Arab thinking and the Arab awakening against Arab regimes in a wider sense. I get the impression that each Arab country, each conflict, each regime, has its own internal problems which don’t resemble those of the others. We call it “a conflict”, but it’s not necessarily the same conflict.
Don’t you think that the changes in Arab countries might influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Hiam Abbas: I think everything’s linked; nothing’s really unconnected. It’s like when you talk about politics and not daily life. I see daily life, for a number of these conflicts, as part of the politics of these countries; there’s a personal engagement from individuals to what’s going on around them. As I think everything’s connected, at some point, yes, there will be an influence; there will be an uprising that puts pressure on leaders everywhere to try to get things moving. One image that is burned into my memory is the image of those Syrians who crossed the border into the State of Israel. They were immediately oppressed, arrested and either escorted back to the border or thrown in jail. But there will come a time when we’ll realize that if we human beings stand together, we can break down the real boundaries. But before breaking down geographical boundaries, we must first be ready to break down the psychological boundaries that keep us apart. So for me, this image is a metaphor of my thinking, and that’s why I do the job I do; that’s why I want to tell stories about human beings caught up in such conflicts, to offer a new way of sharing feelings; different stories about people’s inner workings, to which we don’t have access in real life. So, at least when you see them on a movie screen, you get the feeling of taking part for 90 minutes in a story which, in real life, you couldn’t take part in because the people involved are too far away from us.
Regarding all these recent events, when did you stop writing your screenplay exactly? Were the events able to influence your screenplay in any way?
Hiam Abbas: No, my screenplay was finished well before. I had already been paid for the screenplay and had begun preparation before everything flared up. So I didn’t make any changes so the film could go in that direction, because there was no need for it in my story. The story of Inheritance is more about the conflicts inside one Palestinian family living in a Palestinian village in Israel on the Lebanese border; it’s more about internal conflicts against a backdrop of war. It’s almost a virtual war, which hangs constantly over the heads of us Palestinians of Israel, because there’s always the threat of a war between Israel and the Arab nations. There wasn’t room in my story to start adding extra layers concerning the awakening in Arab countries.
Where do things stand regarding censorship and freedom of expression at the moment?
Hiam Abbas: I made my film in Israel. In Israel, you know that when a film receives state financial backing, there will be no censorship. I had no problems shooting where I did. I was inside the State of Israel’s borders, in a Palestinian village not far from the Lebanese border. So for all the exterior shots, everything went well. You negotiate more with the villager or more with the mayor of the village. In Haifa it was the same. I have a hospital scene, a scene in an Arab café in Haifa. For all that, I needed all the normal shooting permits for any film made there. There really is no censorship as long as you don’t jeopardize the State of Israel’s security. For any filmmaker from the world over, whether Palestinian, Israeli – although not Arab, since Arabs are not allowed to enter Israel unless they have a foreign passport – everything works normally as though you were shooting in France or the US. There’s no censorship like there is in some Arab countries; plus I didn’t shoot inside the State of Palestine, meaning neither the West Bank nor Gaza. The whole shoot took place inside the State of Israel. So it’s considered an Israeli movie with all the permits that are given to any filmmaker from the world over who wants to shoot inside the State with the normal procedure of authorizations and shooting permits imposed by the authorities.
What’s your definition of democracy?
Hiam Abbas: Democracy is freedom of expression, freedom to live and freedom to have a decent life. And equality – that’s very important! By which I mean: if I have the right, my neighbour has the same right, wherever he or she is from, regardless of race, religion, personal beliefs, intellect and level of education. We all have the right to a decent life in this life and to express ourselves freely.
Interview: Sabine Lange
Hiam ABBAS – Biographie
Hiam Abbass was born in 1960 and raised in a village in northern Galilee, in Israel.
After studying photography in Haifa, Hiam Abbass moved to France in the late 1980s an embarked on a career as a movie actress. She earned fame in the role of a mother who takes up belly dancing in Satin Rouge (Red Satin) by Tunisian director Raja Amari. She has worked with top Middle-Eastern filmmakers such as Yousry Nasrallah and Amos Gitaï, but has also been in demand from French directors (Patrice Chéreau, Jean Becker and Nicolas Saada), and the Americans, Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control), Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) and Julian Schnabel (Miral, Le Scaphandre et le papillon a.k.a. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
Multilingual and well-versed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hiam Abbass was an adviser to Stephen Spielberg during the filming of Munich.
Hiam Abbass had made two short movies, Le Pain (Bread), in which she acts, and La Danse éternelle (The Eternal Dance), which she co-wrote.
She is currently working on the first full-length movie, Inheritance, starring Hafsia Herzi.
We’ll see Hiam Abbass on screen again soon in the latest movie by Radu Mihaileanu, La Source des femmes (The Source), in competition at the last Cannes Film Festival.