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.
The film’s plot is about a young religious Israeli settler couple rushing home in time for Shabbat, who takes a shortcut on an “Arab road.” Along with the husband’s elderly mother (a secular kibbutznik) in the car, they accidentally crash into a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a convent.
What ensues is the humorous interaction between the Jews and the nuns, who have taken a vow of silence. Shabbat begins, and somehow they must work together to come up with a creative solution to get the Israeli family back on the road.
“Comedies are usually very talky. But this is clash-of-opposites comedy. It’s more visual,” Khalil, 34, told The Times of Israel via phone 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.
However, viewers are apparently surprised to see that Palestinian Christians exist in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and many have told Khalil that they only learned about this from his film.
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. That meant that he went to a Christian school and there was no TV in the house while he and his three younger siblings were growing up. Only biblical films (“The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur”) and family musicals (“The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins”) were allowed to be played on VHS tapes.
Later, after leaving home to study filmmaking and scriptwriting in the UK, Khalil honed his comedic sensibilities by binge watching classic American and British comedy TV shows.
“I caught up by watching a lot of awkward and embarrassing situation comedy. I’m a big fan of ‘Frasier’ and ‘The Office.’ I love Ricky Gervais’s stuff,” Khalil said.
While he does get inspiration from these shows, he believes his talent for comedy writing comes somewhat naturally. As a teen he was more interested in dreaming up ideas and writing stories than in the math- and science-heavy curriculum offered by his high school.
“And face it, you need a sense of humor as a minority in Israel, so it came from within,” he said.
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).
The cast and crew of “Ave Maria” includes Palestinians and Israelis. Khalil called the film a French-German-Palestinian production because the film’s funding sources are individuals and foundations from those countries, or of those nationalities.
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.
Khalil is extremely excited to walk the red carpet in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony on February 28.
Whether or not “Ave Maria” gets the Oscar, the serious message underlying its comedy is worth thinking about.
“It’s a what happens when two kinds of people, each living in their own bubble, meet and have to break their own rules,” Khalil said.