Nazareth-born filmmaker Shady Srour does not like being called an “Israeli Arab.”
“I am Palestinian. I was born in Israel. The term ‘Israeli Arab’ detaches me from my own identity and from my family members who live in Ramallah,” Srour told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
So it could be considered ironic that ahead of last month’s Seret International Film Festival in London, Srour was targeted by the UK branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for allowing the Israeli festival to screen his 2017 film “Holy Air.”
The film centers around a desperate Nazareth salesman who simultaneously discovers that his wife is pregnant with their first child and that his father is terminally ill — all while struggling to market a “natural product” to naive religious pilgrims.
Srour wrote, starred in and directed the film, which was supported by a mix of groups, including the Israel Film Fund, Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, Israel Lottery Council for Culture & Arts, and Tabar Hotels. It premiered in 2017 at New York’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival with five screenings in the event’s International Narrative Competition. It has since played around the world, including at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
At the time of last month’s London Seret festival, the 45-year-old filmmaker, who still lives in his native Nazareth, made headlines for refusing to bow to BDS pressure. But the move was hardly intended by Srour as a show of support for the Jewish state.
“I’m a free person and artist who believes in dialogue and freedom of individual and collective speech and expression. I refuse to allow anybody to use my art for their agenda,” Srour said.
The director is one of the founders of the Palestinian New Wave cinema movement, and prefers to utilize his soapbox to spread his message rather than suppress it out of spite.
Still, he said, one of his biggest challenges lies in humanizing his subjects — making them more than just the sum of their tribulations — and this often means relegating politics to a background role.
This suits Srour just fine, since he prefers to play the artist rather than the politician.
Srour took a moment to speak with The Times of Israel about “Holy Air,” identity politics, female libido, and what he has in common with Diaspora Jews. The following interview has been edited.
How did the screening go at the Seret festival in London?
There was a BDS campaign against my film, organized by Palestinians and Israeli Jewish leftist filmmakers and activists. Before the BDS campaign there was a screening. After the campaign there was actually more demand for an additional screening.
I did contact the festival organizers about an accusation in the BDS letter that the festival had become a political event supporting and celebrating Israel’s 70th anniversary. The Seret festival organizers answered that they are registered as an NGO in London and according to British law, any political or religious funding is prohibited.
There was the logo “70” on the film festival materials celebrating the anniversary of the founding of Israel, which was a problem for me. For those of us who are Palestinians, we link this day of founding to the Nakba, when Palestinian identity became dispersed. It is not a time of celebration for us – that is just a fact. With the backing of my friend and fellow director Anan Barakat, I asked them to take off the logo and adapt the materials. The festival organizers were very receptive to a dialogue, and as a result, they removed the logo and changed some texts. I was frankly surprised to see such concessions. Actually, this was an historical achievement for us as Palestinian filmmakers and activists through our art and ideologies.
Did you find it ironic being targeted by the BDS movement?
Obviously I don’t support the tactics used against me. I believe that there are important stories to be told about the people and the community of which I am a part. Everyone should understand that there must be space for the artist — it’s different from a politician or a religious leader.
I’m against occupation, suppression, killing, and violence. These are part of my themes in “Holy Air.” But boycotting cinema or cultural dialogue doesn’t make sense to me, so I take a different approach. I believe in confronting an audience. I put up a mirror to the audience so that they see a reality as I see it – something they may not have seen before. I want a cultural dialogue. How could anybody claim human enlightenment and respond with a cultural boycott?
For example, the great filmmaker Jean Luc Godard boycotted an Israeli art event. It’s heartwarming to me that he did this out of sympathy for the Palestinian people; however somebody like him who is mature politically and cinematically can take advantage of his tremendous platform and say what he has to say — and this can be stronger than any boycott.
I have a big issue with politics. This whole BDS situation was about politics, and I hate it because it takes a lot of energy, and I want to make films. If I wanted to go into politics, I would have been in the Knesset or somewhere else. I love film, I love art, and I have many things to speak about — and the problem is that wherever I go, when I go onstage they start to talk about politics.
I’ll take the hint. There are a lot of really funny gags throughout the film. Can you tell me about some of your comedic influences?
I have humor in my blood. When I studied acting, I was good in pantomime class. In fact, our teacher was a student of the legendary Marcel Marceau, who visited the [Tel Aviv] University. I was very impressed by him.
When it comes to humor, I have it onscreen, but somehow I don’t really use is as much in real life as in film. I teach at the [Open] University [in Ra’anana], and every lesson is about three hours. I have a lot of fun during the lessons and a lot of students want to take this course with me because it’s a fun class. But I use smart humor – I respect my audience when I kid around.
Actually, my grandfather was known for his sense of humor in his home village of Eilabun. He died around 15 years ago, but people still remember him. He gave nicknames to everyone in the [northern Israel] village, and I do this, too. In class, I often call students by funny nicknames.
What came first, acting or directing?
I have acted in plays since I was a kid, and also wrote and directed. I always admired artists who wrote, directed, and acted in their films, like Orson Welles and Woody Allen, and in their plays, like Moliere and Shakespeare.
After I finished my acting studies, I auditioned for the roles of Arab characters in cinema, but what was available were mostly terrorists or superficial roles. And, ironically, I was not “Arab enough” for these roles because they thought I was Russian or Argentinian. So I decided to continue my studies in filmmaking and act in my films. That way, I could take the lead roles and bring respectful Arab characters into the cinema, not only stereotypical ones.
It’s easier for me to act in my film than to bring in an actor, because I wrote it and I lived every second of that experience. I can also give my acting partner a lot and feel the real moments in front of the camera. I can tell if it’s a good take or not without looking at the monitor.
When I said that I was going to act in “Holy Air,” everybody was against it, except my co-producer Ilan Moskovitch, who understood that this is a very personal film for me.
Do people give you a hard time for liking the most Jewish director out there?
Woody Allen is Jewish, but I really think that the Jewish people in the Diaspora are very close to me, because I feel what it means to be a minority, and I think we have that in common.
How much is the character Adam like you? Can you talk about where the identities overlap, and where, if at all, they diverge?
Adam is the cinematic expression of me. My situation is complicated – it has political, social, religious, existential, philosophical, and psychological layers. I was pregnant with Adam growing inside of me for 11 years. In the beginning, the script was about a couple that finds out about their pregnancy and decides to emigrate in order to have a better life for themselves and their child. It was a personal story.
But writing and applying for funding takes time, so I already had two daughters and still saw myself applying for funding. Adam remained young, while I turned into a father and got more mature while still living in Nazareth. I felt that Adam and I were further apart. I dropped the idea of emigrating, and decided to change the script by keeping the couple in Nazareth, which brought up different aspects of the story and was more challenging.
The question for me became: what would Adam do in a place where dreams do not exist, and what would he leave to his kids?
Ever since I was a kid, I had many dreams, but in my situation, being a minority, I had to either drop or compromise many of them. For instance, every kid dreams of being a pilot one day. I had this dream as well. My parents, of course, were happy and encouraging, but they didn’t tell me that I had no chance of becoming a pilot in this country. They were supportive, but effectively, they lied to me.
When I became a teenager, I figured out that if you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel you can’t be a pilot. If you stay here you have to drop this idea, just like becoming the president of Israel, or working for the only electricity company in the country because they [historically] don’t hire Arabs.
As I grew up, the list of dreams that I had to forget about got longer. The situation is still the same or worse and now, it’s my turn to deal with the dreams of my kids. Am I supposed to lie to them too?
All the Palestinian Arabs here have the same feeling. They sarcastically use the term “selling air” – we have to sell air in order to survive in such a place. So I took this term and dramatized it into a film. It became the leitmotiv of the story, a symbol. In order for Adam to survive he has to be able to sell air, an impossible mission, but he manages to team up the three religions under the flag of holy air. Adam’s father is being buried in the air; pilgrims are buying holy air for spirituality.
There’s also the character of Lamia.
Yeah – Lamia is a really powerful and revolutionary portrayal of a woman here in the Arab world.
She’s very sexually liberated, as well.
Exactly. I also wanted to raise the topic of sexuality because people here don’t really talk about it. There’s shame, and it’s very taboo. I wanted to do the opposite – to show that sexuality has to have room to develop between a couple. You know, in one scene she’s holding a dildo – she’s a powerful woman. [Laughing.] Remember the dildo?
Yeah, she’s waving it around at that interview and the guys are terrified.
Imagine – in that room there are three men and one lady, and she’s more powerful than them. They are afraid of the dildo, or of a woman like that. In a society like that, women who are very powerful are dangerous for the men. That’s why you’ll see that women with careers often don’t get married. The men feel very threatened.
But at the same time, Lamia is also a woman. She is living in the Middle East, and you know, it’s hard for a woman who’s living here to see all the death and the killing – whether it’s Israeli soldiers, or Palestinian children, or even what’s happening in Syria. As a woman, she senses all this very strongly. That’s why she has a nervous breakdown – it’s idealistic, actually. This was also something that influenced me from Lady Macbeth.
And what about from real life?
Yes. I got the idea for the panic attack in the film from my wife – she had a panic attack because we didn’t want to bring this kid into the world, so we decided to get an abortion. She had a hellish week. For four or five days, she was just a roller coaster of emotions, going up and down. One night I found her in the living room shivering and sweating, and I didn’t understand what was happening. After that I realized that it was anxiety. But we decided to keep the baby.
Can you tell me about your upcoming projects? What’s next?
I’m developing a few projects at the same time, both features and a TV series. I just shot a short film called “OSLO,” and it’s my own artistic expression of the Oslo Accords.