Palestinian filmmaking by way of SF: Director Muayad offers advice to actress Hanin Tarabiya on set in Jerusalem.

'Lesh Sabreen?' On Red Vic Screen

Robert Avila March 15, 2010

Muayad Alayan, a 24-year-old filmmaker from the only remaining Arab neighborhood in West Jerusalem, was not even aware there was such a thing as Palestinian cinema until, as a teenager, he came to the Bay Area to visit his brother and sister. Later, after a stint at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, he returned to San Francisco as a film student at City College. Among his teachers was local filmmaker Christian Bruno, who this year traveled to Jerusalem as the director of photography for Alayan’s Lesh Sabreen? ("Why Sabreen?").

[ Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 29, 2008. The film plays Tuesday, March 16, in a special screening of selections from the Arab Film Festival at the Red Vic Movie House.]

"I liked him immediately," remembers Bruno of their first meeting at City College. "He was really attracted to cinema in a way that someone raised on Jean-Luc Godard could only be. He was the youngest person in the class, but he struck me more as somebody in their late 20s or 30s." The two kept in touch sporadically afterward, until one day Alayan called on Bruno to recommend a DP for a feature he planned to shoot in his hometown. Bruno immediately volunteered. "Mostly because I was interested in working with him," he says. Beyond the logistical nightmares both before and while shooting in Israel and the occupied West Bank (discussed by Alayan below), Bruno found the task of filming in Israel/Palestine at once eye opening and familiar.

"Particularly coming from San Francisco, where it’s a lot about pulling together people that you know, drawing on your own resources whether they are film-related or not. It was very much made in that way. It was all Muayad’s friends and his family. People were like, ‘If Muayad’s making a movie, we’ll help him.’ Just as if Muayad needed help fixing his car, his friends and family would have helped him with that. He always says, in Palestinian culture, if you’re going to have a wedding, who are the people that you want to have help you? You don’t turn to professionals; you turn to people who are really dear to you because they will rise to the occasion. I felt this affinity—having come from a more guerrilla style of filmmaking—to show up there and be learning on the run as we were doing it, and teaching people along the way who had no experience making films. It was this great learning process both for me and for them—not to mention the whole cultural thing too, which was pretty darn amazing."

Alayan’s third film and first narrative (he’s made two short documentaries to date) concerns a young couple from the director’s hometown of Beit Safafa who attempt to run away together and start their own lives free from the dictates of their families and the taboos of their society, only to run headlong into the Israeli occupation which, literally, walls them in.

Considerable obstacles remain to Palestinian cinema as well under such conditions—even as Palestinian films reach an unprecedented level of visibility and popularity worldwide—but, as Bruno attests, family and village culture were not among them. Alayan himself relates that making Lesh Sabreen? taught him how local culture could feed a distinct cinematic movement, with everyone from his parents and immediate family to local merchants and taxi drivers pitching in to scout locations, act as extras, feed the crew, prepare the lights (a set of which were normally used for nighttime weddings) and in general make a sometimes precarious production a thorough success.

In town in June to raise money for post-production costs to complete the film (donations are still being accepted at, the warm and personable Alayan sat down with me at Momi Toby’s Caf‚ in SF to speak about his work as well as the advantages and challenges facing the next generation of Palestinian filmmakers.

SF360: Beit Safafa, the town you’re from and the setting for the film’s story, is a part of West Jerusalem. Can you explain the nature and significance of this setting?

Muayah Alayan: Beit Safafa is actually the only [Palestinian] village on the west side [of Jerusalem], but not completely under Israeli control. In 1948, the village itself was split in half between the Israeli side and the Arab side, which was run by Jordan at the time. There was a fence in the middle of the village cutting it in half. My first film [Exiles in Jerusalem (2005)] was about two generations of Palestinians who lived in Jerusalem and experienced exile and separation. My father, who is 75 years old now, used to live on one side of the town with his mother, who was divorced from his father who was living on the other side. There are so many stories like that in the village. People in weddings used to walk or march across the fence from [one] side to [the other] so that the [entire] family could participate in the wedding. Same with funerals: They would carry the body in a [procession] across the fence. So the town is not exactly isolated but it’s not in East Jerusalem. It’s an Arab neighborhood now in West Jerusalem.

SF360: Just in your lifetime, has the town changed very much?

Alayan: There are more settlements being built around it. Recently, a month ago, the Jerusalem municipality announced this new project of a settlement on land that is next to the village. The land is supposedly owned by people from Beit Jalla—which is a Christian town next to Bethlehem—and I think also the Jordanian government. There’s a lot of action going on right now to try to stop that settlement because if this settlement is built the whole town will be surrounded. It’s surrounded from three sides right now.

SF360: Your new film, Lesh Sabreen?, deals with several layers of authority and control, reinforcing each other, although not necessarily consciously. The physical fact, the infrastructure of the occupation, sounds like it plays a big part in the film.

Alayan: It does. All the action takes place in Beit Safafa, but wherever you go, in the background you have these towers. And there are scenes that take place in, say, a garden—that you might feel is part of a countryside town—and then you walk just a few meters and find these stadiums and towers. So it’s there. It’s in your face. Another very important aspect is the financial difficulties people are going through, especially the job market available to Palestinian Arab residents of Jerusalem, which is basically in blue collar jobs, in settlements, sadly, which are built on their own land. It’s surrounding you wherever you go.

SF360: How does patriarchy enter into the film’s theme?

Alayan: [The film takes] the point of view of the youth of the town, the Palestinian youth who are living in Jerusalem right now, and their struggle against different kinds of oppression. There’s the patriarchal society, its taboos, and what’s right and what’s wrong [according to] the older generation. And there’s the [issue of] financial freedom. They’re struggling to find their place in their own city and make a living. And there’s also the occupation. I’m trying to show that the [village] society can be as tormenting to the young generation as the occupation. You feel that, because the two main characters in the film are struggling with their families. She [Sabreen] is being forced into a marriage. He’s not accepted by his mother, who always pushes him to accept any kind of job regardless of [his own] thoughts—just make a living. They’re trying to stand up for their rights.

SF360: Is this story based on personal experience?

Alayan: Personal and a collection of experiences from people that I know. It’s all based on true stories, including my own.

SF360: What was your other documentary about?

Alayan: The second documentary [Qater Al Nada (2007)] was about the Debke dance group in my village. It screened at the Arab Film Festival. It’s about youth reviving the tradition of that Debke dance, which is the old Palestinian dance—in my town, again, which is struggling with its surroundings, trying to find its place, its identity in the middle of this evolving city.

SF360: How did you come to be a filmmaker?

Alayan: The first experience was at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Back in the good days, there was a program where Palestinian students and Israeli students produced films on both sides of the town and then had screenings across town. That was the first experience, when I was in high school. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. But it was very hard to study film in Palestine/Israel. In Palestine there’s no film school, there’s only media, broadcast journalism. And in Israel there are only three schools and it’s really tough to get into any of them for many reasons. First, some schools require you to be 21, which means to have served in the Israeli army before you apply. Other schools, part of their application process is to have written a script in Hebrew, acted in a short role in Hebrew, or produced a short film and it has to be in Hebrew. I consulted a few friends, and my brother was living here in San Francisco, so I visited the schools [here]. Some of my instructors back at the Cinematheque advised me to come to City College because they knew some of the instructors who teach here.

SF360: You referred to "the good days" at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Alayan: A lot of these programs have since been canceled, [although] this particular program has not. I’m still close to the management. Actually, they’re going to be screening a short film that I produced here in San Francisco. It’s called I Am/You Are, which is the same name as the program. It’s a short experimental film about a Palestinian and an Israeli who are living together in an apartment in San Francisco. It’s going to be screening at the Jerusalem International Film Festival on the 13th of July. [But] the program is kind of small right now. Before the Intifada people used to be able to come to Jerusalem more. There was more interaction between the two sides. Now it’s more limited.

SF360: How do you see or measure the success of Palestinian film in general today?

Alayan: Last year, there were three features shot in the country in one year—this is the first time that this has happened. One was shot by Rashid Masharawi, one was shot by Emily Jacir and [one by] Najwa Najjar. And there were a bunch of short narratives that were produced also. I think last year is going to go down in history as the year that started something. I don’t know what that thing is. It’s not an industry, and I don’t know if it’s going to be an industry soon, but something is happening and last year was a very important part of it. As long as funding is a problem, I don’t think it’s going to be bigger than a feature or two every couple of years. But last year produced a very, very good team of professionals who started working. Professional crews, funding and distribution are the most important problems facing Palestinian filmmaking. The professional crews are getting there, especially with the Palestinian Audio-Visual Project, which is run by Michel Khleifi and Omar Al-Qattan. I was actually an assistant to that. In the beginning, I really didn’t think it was going to go somewhere because we were so focused on broadcast journalism—because that’s the available job market there when it comes to audio-visual. But last year I saw people interning and working with major [cinematographers] and sound artists coming from Europe and the U.S. There’s this whole group of professionals trained right now and that’s going to make a big difference. Funding and distribution are still a big problem, though.

SF360: Funding is coming primarily from international sources?

Alayan: This is one of the biggest problems. I faced it myself; a lot of the other people face it. Most of the European producers or organizations that fund film build some kind of a relationship with specific filmmakers from the area. If you take X, he’s always getting his funds from Germany. And Germany, or any German institution, will never fund any other film by any other person except this guy. The French kind of try to, but there are specific countries that only fund specific filmmakers in Palestine. It’s the same places funding the same filmmakers.

SF360: Has the international high-profile attention given to filmmakers like Hany Abu Assad or Elia Suleiman had a beneficial effect in this respect? And is there a network of filmmakers operating in Palestine?

Alayan: There is a small network. But there’s this separation of the filmmakers that are inside and the filmmakers who are outside. I met Hany. Since he moved to L.A. I don’t see him often, and he’s a pretty busy guy right now. But I was with him in the Dubai Film Festival where he screened Paradise Now. And I worked with Michel Khleifi and Omar Al-Qattan on the Audio-Visual Project. I know Annemarie [Jacir], I know Elia [Suleiman]—I mean, I’ve met them; I didn’t work with them. But still, there was always this separation between people who are outside and people who are inside the country. Most of the films that were produced, by people who were outside in Europe or the U.S., were made in the same way: The filmmaker comes with a crew, they film and they leave. Last year, what happened was, when they came they found a crew that was at least ready to get experience. One of the reasons was the Audio-Visual Project, and another reason was that there are a lot of young filmmakers, this little base of filmmakers, that saw the success stories of the other Palestinian filmmakers and were ready to work with them, collaborate with them and help them. And this year also has a lot coming up. When I left last week, Elia was casting for his upcoming film. Tawfik Abu Wael, director of Thirst, I think he’s going to be filming in a couple of months. Cherien Dabis, who is based in New York—she shot a short film [called] Make a Wish—she’s also filming as we speak. And Michel [Khleifi] said he was going to be filming this year, [although] I never heard [anything more specific]. So this year is also going to be a busy year of filmmaking. Last year and this year are going to be the years that, I hope, make the difference.

SF360: And there’s now a pool of local talent and expertise to be drawn on by these filmmakers.

Alayan: It’s not yet [completely] ready. There’s a lot left to work on. This is something that Christian [Bruno] and I explored a lot when he came. There’s not a single 16 mm camera in the whole country, you know? There’s no lab. There’s only one or two people who operate motion picture cameras, as opposed to video, in the whole country and they’re living outside. There’s still a need for professional training.

SF360: Let’s talk about the experience you had making this most recent film. When was it shot?

Alayan: The first two weeks of April.

SF360: And Christian Bruno was brought over as DP. Any other Bay Area crew?

Alayan: And Carlos Gutierez, who was the assistant camera. He’s also a San Francisco based filmmaker. The AC was Carlos, the DP was Christian, I was the director, the assistant director (I just found out) went to City College also—a Palestinian guy who lives in Jerusalem, Riyad Deis—and then there’s my brother [a longtime San Francisco resident] who wrote the story with me. So there was a big San Francisco involvement. And we were this close to renting the camera [in San Francisco] also, which gets me into the difficulties. When I came here to the Arab Film Festival [in 2007], I was trying to fundraise and find the strategy that would work to get the film produced. Fundraising was very difficult. I talked to everybody. I applied for all kinds of funds. Once the website was launched, we were sending emails for people to go and contribute 10 dollars, 20 dollars. Consulates in Jerusalem—the French supported a little bit, which was good. And also the Bethlehem Media Center, where I work. But in general it was hard and it still is. We’re having this fundraiser [June 18] to try and get through post. Technical difficulties included getting a 16mm camera. There are no 16mm cameras in the country. I was very close to getting the camera from Michel Khleifi, who owns his own but he was not sure if he was going to be filming at that time or not. So we were going to rent a camera here in San Francisco. The rate was OK, but then there’s insurance that you need to get to fly the camera over. [In the end,] we gave up because the number was just unbelievable. We started researching cameras on the Israeli part of the country. There, a week rate was like a three-week rate in San Francisco. It was so expensive. There’s only like three cameras in Israel, three 16mm cameras in the whole country. Video is just taking over.

SF360: Why did you not go with the HD or video option?

Alayan: I don’t like video. If I have the money I will never choose video because I just don’t like it. There’s this news thing about video, especially for me as a Palestinian, that I don’t like. I work in a media center that does all kinds of news and documentary and stuff, and HD has improved a lot. It looks good. It’s getting there. But there’s something about motion pictures. This is my first narrative and I wanted it to be done [in film]. Since I left San Francisco, I haven’t shot a single roll of film—although I have my own Super 8 and my own Bolex—because there are no labs. I really wanted to go for film and that’s what we did. And film gives you more options in post and with festivals. They were asking for 5500 dollars per week for the camera. That was impossible. I didn’t have the money to do that, for sure. That was like my whole budget. Christian and I [sent emails] to all kinds of people. And then a lot of people started calling the rental places in Israel. A lot of Jewish filmmakers here in the Bay Area were calling them because in the past, in the 1980s and 1990s, they were there and doing films. One of them was Judith Montell. She was an Academy Award nominee [for (Forever Activists: Stories From the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade*]. She actually visited us on the set, just surprised us. She called the guys. All kinds of people from here were calling the company in Israel and finally they gave us a very big discount.

SF360: What about casting?

Alayan: Most of the cast was nonprofessional actors, but there were three really popular actors who just volunteered because they know me. They are actors-slash-directors in theaters who volunteered to work with the film.

SF360: The rest of the crew were locals?

Alayan: The script supervisor, the boom operator—they came from Bethlehem. We were lucky to be shooting during the Easter holidays because people from Bethlehem do not [normally] have permits to go into Israel. At [Easter] Christian Palestinians get permits for three weeks to be able to go to churches in Jerusalem.

SF360: Was the shoot pretty straightforward?

Alayan: We had a problem getting soldier costumes. I had a scene with soldiers and I had to make a thousand phone calls, like to the director of the Cinematheque, who’s a friend of mine, to producers, Palestinians and Israelis who I knew, to finally be able to get them. We got them one day before the shoot started. A friend just worked it out and went to pick them up and brought them. My whole family was stressing out because there were these soldier costumes in the house. [Laughs.] The other thing was getting a permit to shoot in the Israeli mall, inside Jerusalem, which was difficult because you’re coming in with a camera [and] you’re Palestinian. Like every five minutes security would come and check us out. And the day we were filming in the mall there was some kind of security alert. There were checkpoints in the streets getting there. We had to make up all kinds of stories until we got to the mall. So although we finally got the permit from the mall, there was still getting there with cameras. All kinds of questions. What are you filming? What are you filming it with? Where are they [the American crew members] from? What about that [Mexican American] guy? All kinds of questions until we got there.

SF360: This must have slowed down the shoot a bit.

Alayan: Exactly. One of the sad and funny stories that happened: We were filming a soldier scene, and there was a construction site close by. And [afterward] one of the guys there, who I know, came to me and asked, ‘Man why didn’t you tell us that you were filming?’ He tells me there [had been] like 10 workers from the West Bank who were working in that construction site. When they saw soldiers, they thought they were coming to arrest them, because they don’t have permits, and they ran away. The boss was so mad at them because he realized later, when he saw the camera, that it was just a shoot. All kinds of things like that were going on. The police stopped so many times to check us out. But having Christian and Carlos around was a good thing because as Americans, as foreigners—it helped.

SF360: You wrote the script with your brother. Was the film shot more or less as written?

Alayan: We pretty much stuck to the script [except for] the performance of Sabreen, the girl, in the end. I left it a little bit open, because I didn’t want it to be a very negative, sad ending. [Now] she’s walking back home, she puts her hejab back on. She smiles. She reaches out and she talks to god and then she comes back. And we feel she makes a decision but we don’t know what it is. This is the only thing I really changed. In the [next to] last scene of the film, they get stopped by an Israeli security car and the soldiers ask them to strip because there was a security alert about suicide bombings. So they ask her to strip, [her boyfriend] gets offended and he starts to stand up for her. They just hush him and then she starts to strip. He goes crazy, he takes off all his clothes and throws them at the soldiers and stands there. And that is the first time they both see each other half-naked and they’re embarrassed. So when she walks back you don’t know what kind of decision she’s made. Are they going to run away? Are they going to try to escape? Or is she just going back to her little space and giving up? That’s why I left it open. When they strip and are standing there in the middle of nowhere, they’re so weak. Everything they planned to break out of, their [repressive] families and society, [leads them into] the occupation. At that moment when you think you’re standing up for yourself, you’re so powerless that they can ask you to take off your clothes in the middle of the road.

SF360: So the final note, with Sabreen’s unspecified decision, adds some dimension of autonomy and choice, however drastically circumscribed.

Alayan: Exactly.

SF360: What are your plans for the film once post-production is completed?

Alayan: I’ll be consulting with a few people here before making a decision. Hopefully it will be done by August. On the list [of film festivals to apply to] we have Sundance, Berlin, Milan, Tribeca, San Francisco International, of course. And then we don’t know what will happen. If any of those accept it that will be good.

SF360: Do you see Palestinian film today having an easier time finding an audience at home?

Alayan: Palestinian cinema is making it out there, for sure. But inside the country, again, distribution and funding is a big problem. The whole country has three 35 mm projectors. The whole country. All the cinemas were closed during the first Intifada by the Israeli military and they’re still not open. There are like two theaters in Ramallah, two theaters in Jerusalem and all over the others are half destroyed. I think they’re renovating one in Jerusalem. In Bethlehem there’s a place where I work, it’s a theater but they have a 35 mm projector. They screen like a film every month. So that also is a very important fact. I remember when I was in high school I organized this screening of Palestinian films because I was here visiting my brother and sister and I just discovered Palestinian films—they had Palestinian films they bought from Amazon or from Arab Film Distribution in Seattle. I didn’t know what Palestinian film was back then, because Palestinian films were very rarely distributed inside Palestine, you could not find them. Now things have changed. I think after Paradise Now things have changed. Because you get Warner Brothers distribution so you get the copies easily. But other films, in the ’80s or the ’90s, were not distributed. Now a lot of libraries and schools are making their own archives. But in the past it was really hard.

SF360: How important has the Bay Area been to you as a filmmaker?

Alayan: After living here and being a filmmaker in the Bay Area, working with filmmakers here and being a part of this amazing film community, wherever you go in the world, even elsewhere in the U.S., you really appreciate this town a lot. I always tell this to people back home—it’s part of a comment on networking and how networking is important for filmmakers—I tell them, When you go to a bar in San Francisco and there’s five people next to you, three of them will have done film [Laughs.] Acting, photography, I don’t know, but they’ve done film…. It’s a rich town.

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