London, UK – Palestinian film Ave Maria is a fable about doubting one’s assumptions. But what cannot be doubted is the film’s success.
After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it has played, so far, at 75 festivals in about 30 countries over nine months, and picked up 16 awards. Now, its Palestinian British director, Basil Khalil, is in Los Angeles, hoping to win an Oscar, having been nominated for Best Live Action Short Film. It is the first time an Arab film has been nominated in the category.
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Ave Maria is a black comedy about five nuns whose vow of silence is disturbed when an Israeli settler family crashes its car outside a West Bank convent just as the Sabbath, the day of rest on which religious Jews refrain from certain activities, comes into effect. The nuns and the settlers must confront the strict rules of silence and the Sabbath respectively in order to be rid of each other.
Khalil was born and raised in the Israeli city of Nazareth. His Palestinian father was an evangelical pastor. His upbringing was, he says, full of religious storytelling with “nothing else but” serious messages, and often morbid ones at that. It proved conducive for his future career, piquing the kind of rebellion that plays out in the script for Ave Maria, as well as inspiring sarcasm when confronted with taboos.
While Khalil has found solace in satire, he also acknowledges that growing up in a Christian household, where an exacting knowledge of Christian and Jewish laws was conferred, in a city where it is commonplace to see nuns on the street, gave him a unique standpoint from which to make Ave Maria.
His aim, he says, is to show that when you are born into a religious or political agenda that supposedly defines your views and definitely dictates how you are treated, you need to question those rules. Perhaps Ave Maria is the director delivering his own sermon.
The film’s characters have to do things that might seem everyday to others – entering a convent, taking off a headscarf or tichel to fix a statue of Mary, speaking – but which, for them, pose near-insurmountable hurdles.
Khalil, 34, is accustomed to looking at life from different perspectives. As a child, he says, he was always the foreigner – in Nazareth he was British, and in the UK he was Middle Eastern.
After growing up in Israel, he has lived most of his adult life in Britain. Middle Eastern countries, he says, are “ruled by fear-mongering. And that’s the way they [their leaders] stay in control”. He says that leaving the region helped him to realise that the standard for a good life ought to be more than just “I am not in prison”. With Ave Maria, Khalil says, he wants people in the region to be conscious that “we shouldn’t accept every situation that’s imposed on us”.
While the international reputations gained by filmmakers such as Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad have opened the industry for Palestinians, Khalil says there are still some limitations.
“What I find is the most patronising thing ever, especially from other people – not from Palestinians … – is they always expect me to have an opinion or have a statement or give a sermon on my political opinion just because I happen to be born Palestinian,” he says.
“And it’s annoying because this has been forced on me all my life and now they’re expecting it from me again in my films.”
It is an expectation Khalil believes is rarely placed upon directors from elsewhere, who are allowed to define themselves. “I wish people would treat me and my films the same way,” he adds.
It is difficult for Arab filmmakers who do not want to be limited to just making movies with political themes or about occupation, he says. “If you want to do an espionage thriller or a zombie film, they’re just going to tank because they all just want political stuff from us,” Khalil explains.
But he does see some signs of change, with films such as the Emirati thriller Zinzana, and hopes a broader range of movies made by Arabs is not too far off.
If Khalil does win the Oscar on February 28, he will be the first Arab to take the award home. He puts this down to the fact that Arabs in the industry typically lack the promotional and marketing machines needed to secure an award that often requires substantial lobbying to win. Ave Maria had that, he says, thanks to a “forward-thinking” Egyptian distributor and marketing firm, that, for instance, had booths at the Cannes and Berlin festivals, a rarity for the Arab film industry. The company’s drive to get Arab film on the international agenda has propelled Ave Maria forward, he says.
Shot in Israel and the West Bank, Ave Maria is a backed by Palestinian, German and French funding. But there has been a mixed response to the film in the Middle East. It won Best Short Film at the Dubai International Film Festival, while in Luxor it riled some members of the audience, who thought that it was pro-Israeli.
It is the first Arab short film to be given a cinematic release, being shown in countries in the Middle East as a double bill with this year’s other Arab Oscar-nominated film, Theeb, and is being released across the US. It will also be screened in several Palestinian cities on Oscars night.
Khalil’s next project is a departure from the themes of Ave Maria. Based in Nazareth, “the foodie capital of Palestine”, he says, it is a comedy about a food critic forced to look after his ageing, traditional-minded father.
As a Palestinian filmmaker, he doubts he would receive funding for such subject matter without the Oscar nomination. But he is keen to reap the rewards and take the opportunity to branch out. Khalil says that after Ave Maria, he is done with his preaching.