Oscar-nominated Palestinian: I don’t represent a country or a people

Nazareth-born director behind comedic short ‘Ave Maria’ wanted to say something about human beings ‘without political slogans’

Basil Khalil, the British-Palestinian director of the Oscar-nominated short film 'Ave Maria' (YouTube screenshot)
Basil Khalil, the British-Palestinian director of the Oscar-nominated short film 'Ave Maria' (YouTube screenshot)

A British-Palestinian director whose Oscar-nominated short film deals with the Arab-Jewish conflict has said he does not view himself as representing a people or a political faction, only himself.

“If I win the Oscar I will be winning for me, not for any country or people,” Basil Khalil told Haaretz Sunday ahead of the ceremony in Los Angeles.

Khalil’s film comedic film “Ave Maria” depicts the unlikely cooperation between a settler family who crash their car into a West Bank convent just before Shabbat, and the nuns, under a vow of silence, who try to help them get back on the road.

The humor is derived both from the barrier posed by each side’s religious obligations, and from the fact that, far from depicting a picture of rosy coexistence, the film makes it clear that the only reason the two sides work together is that they can’t wait to get away from each other.

“I wanted to make a comedy, and to say something about normal human beings and awkwardness, and about a culture clash — without political slogans being thrown around everywhere,” Khalil told Haaretz. “Politics and slogans one can get for free on the nightly news.”

Khalil thought he had made the comedic film, set at a convent for cloistered nuns in the West Bank, as a way of cutting his teeth in the entertainment business and proving himself to potential financial backers for a future feature film. Despite his modest ambitions, it ended up premiering at Cannes and being screened before receptive audiences at 60 festivals worldwide. “Ave Maria” has won 11 awards so far, and is now in the running for the biggest prize of all.

“Comedies are usually very talky. But this is clash-of-opposites comedy. It’s more visual,” Khalil, 34, recently told The Times of Israel from his home in London.

“The clash depicted in the film is one that people are already aware of, so audiences instantly get it,” he said.

Khalil himself is a Palestinian Christian and citizen of Israel. He was born to a Palestinian father and English mother in Nazareth and was raised in an evangelical Christian family.

Khalil reported that criticism has been leveled at him for not declaring “Ave Maria” an Israeli production or by not labelling himself as an Israeli filmmaker. In addition, savvy viewers will notice that the opening of the film states that the convent (actually an abandoned Greek Orthodox monastery at Qasr al-Yahud near Jericho) is located in “West Bank, Palestine” (rather than the Palestinian Territories).

In terms of his own identity, he refers to himself as British and Palestinian.

“I am an Israeli citizen and I hold an Israeli passport, but I don’t call myself Israeli. If and when the day comes when Israel will treat me with equality, the way I, as a minority, am treated here in the UK, then I’ll call myself Israeli,” the filmmaker said.

Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.

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