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Israel-born director dedicates film at Cannes Festival to ‘assassinated’ reporter

‘We will never forget you Shireen… We dedicate this premiere to you,’ says Maha Haj, director of the Palestinian film ‘Mediterranean Fever’

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Arab-Israeli director Maha Haj poses during a photocall for the film "Mediterranean Fever" at the 75th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2022. (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)
Arab-Israeli director Maha Haj poses during a photocall for the film "Mediterranean Fever" at the 75th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2022. (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

The director of a movie that premiered at the 75th prestigious Cannes Film Festival used the screening to highlight the death of American-Palestinian reporter Shireen Abu Akleh and presented it as a targeted killing by Israel.

“They shot her in the head for simply doing her job,” Nazareth-born director Maha Haj, who lives in Haifa and identifies as Palestinian, said on the international stage at the Wednesday premiere.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict often figures in the Cannes Festival. This year, it was during the premiere of Haj’s second feature-length film, titled “Mediterranean Fever.”

The film was featured in the festival’s Un Certain Regard (which translates from French as “a certain glance”) section, which features 20 films with non-traditional plots that tend to receive international recognition.

“Two weeks ago, Shireen Abu Akleh, an icon, an excellent journalist, and a beloved daughter of Palestine, was assassinated, shot in the head, for simply doing her job in the refugee camp of Jenin, covering yet another horrific story of the occupation,” Haj said, according to video posted by the Walla news site.

“We will never forget you Shireen. We love you and cherish you. While they might have killed the narrator, the story will always be alive. We dedicate this premiere to you,” she added, to applause.

Abu Akleh, a 25-year veteran of Al Jazeera, was killed earlier this month amid a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while covering an Israeli military operation in the Palestinian city.

A mural of slain of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is on display, in Gaza City, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Haj’s film defines itself as a production of Palestine, Qatar, France, Germany, and Cyprus. Despite taking place and being filmed in Haifa in northern Israel, it does not characterize itself as an Israeli production and received no Israeli funding.

Haj chose not to receive Israeli funding for her film, noting the Israeli law that requires productions that receive state funding to present themselves as “Israeli movies,” which has led Palestinians to boycott local productions before.

“I wanted to make a film without Israeli money because I wanted to present it to the world as Palestinian,” Haj said in an interview with Variety magazine on Wednesday. “We had to be very patient in order to find money elsewhere, so it took quite a few years. Then COVID was there as an extra bonus to test our patience,” she added.

“Mediterranean Fever” is about two Palestinian neighbors, Waleed and Jalal, played by Palestinian actors Ashraf Farah and Amar Hlehel, who embark on an emotional journey toward unraveling their pain and unrealized dreams.

Both characters present masculine characteristics but gradually open up to their own vulnerability and create a deep bond with one another. The film touches on issues usually unaddressed in the Palestinian community, and is probably one of the only Palestinian films to date to feature a man seeking therapy, according to Walla.

Except for a Jewish nurse who appears in one scene, the movie does not include any Israeli characters.

“When you say Haifa, the first thing that comes to mind is co-existence. But this isn’t the Haifa that I was representing because there are no Israelis in the film,” Haj said.

“There is the historic Haifa that was occupied in 1948, when so many neighborhoods were left neglected, like ghost towns, and the people who lived there were forced to leave. This is the Haifa that I wanted to show, in a way,” she said, adding that she used shots of these neighborhoods “to depict the sadness of Waleed and Jalal, the sadness of the city.”

Arab-Israeli actor Amer Hlehel, Arab-Israeli director Maha Haj and Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Farah attend a photocall for the film “Mediterranean Fever” during the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 25, 2022. (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

“The idea came to me five years ago,” Haj said, “but I can’t really tell you how or what exactly inspired me. It is partly about the frustration that we Palestinians live with daily, whether we’re in Gaza, the West Bank, inside the state of Israel or exiled. It’s the sense of being imprisoned and not knowing when you’re going to be free, if you’re going to be free.”

Despite her political remarks, Haj’s film avoids overtly addressing the political situation in Israel and the West Bank, and its references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are mostly allegorical.

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