Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A calculated step

Nahed Nasr finds out about the connection between Hollywood and Palestine


Stuck in Boise Airport, Idaho, after the sudden cancelation of their flight to Baltimore, photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) – who is late for her wedding, and neurologist Ben (Idris Elba) – who is late for an emergency surgery appointment decide to share a private flight. Their plane crashes on a mountaintop, however, leaving the two of them with the dead pilot and his live dog in the middle of nowhere at the top of the Utah mountains in subzero conditions. So begins Alex and Ben’s journey of survival.

CIFF’s opening film is a Hollywood production directed by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad, known for Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013). At first sight it looks like a typical Hollywood plot line in which two characters who start out as strangers end up as lovers, but with a huge budget compared to his previous two (US $ 35 vs US $ two million), the Chernin Entertainment-Fox 2000 Pictures production does not seem to be typical of Abu Assad, the focus of whose films – including the latest, The Idol (2016) – is Palestine. 

Abu Assad was born in Nazareth in 1961. In 1981 he emigrated to the Netherlands, where he studied aerodynamics and worked as an aeroplane engineer for several years. Going back to Palestine changed his life, however: he met the prominent Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi and worked with him as an assistant director; together they established a production company in 1990. Since then Abu Asaad, living between Holland and Palestine, made a series of films starting with Het 14de kippetje in 1998. Although his third film, Rana’s Wedding (2002) won five  awards including the best director in the Haifa International Film Festival and Marrakech International Film Festival, he did not gain international recognition until 2006 when he made Paradise Now. 

The film was the Palestinian entry to the Oscars in 2006 and it was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. It was also nominated for 16 and received 13 awards including three at the Berlin International Film Festival. After a few commercial films came Omar (2013), emphasising not Abu Assad’s competence but his vision and his perspective on the Palestinian cause. Again it was the Palestinian entry to the Oscars and an Academy Award nominee, winning 11 awards including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and Dubai’s Muhr Arab Award for best film and best director.  The Idol (2015) was not as well received by the critics, but by then Abu Assad had been invited into Hollywood – the first Arab director to be.

The Mountain Between Us, however, has not lived up to expectations either at festivals or at the box office. It had its premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in September without any nominations, and expected to gross $ 11-12 million at 3,088 theatres in the US during the opening weekend, it debuted to $ 10.1 million, finishing second after Blade Runner 2049 ($32.5 million) and dropping 47 percent in the second weekend, falling to fifth place. Arab critics pointed to an unremarkable Hollywood production coopting Abu Assad’s name, what is more. How does the director himself justify it?

Abu Assad

At CIFF, where he is also a jury member, Abu Assad’s response suggests the step was calculated. For one thing, the director does not think it is the usual Hollywood film: “I do not think there are many movies which combines both love and survival.” Especially not one shot on location, he suggests: “I wanted everything to be as real as what the characters went through.” Based on the book by Charles Martin, the film also brings together Kate Winslet and Idris Elba – a remarkable feat in itself. And, unlike any Hollywood feature, it benefits from “a pure Egyptian sense of  humour. I’ve been very influenced by Egyptian cinema since I was young, especially the movies of Hassan Al-Emam and his great Take Care of ZouZou”. 

For another, he does not agree that it is not a Hany Abu Assad film. “When you look at all my films,” he says, “they are about very simple people who are placed in very difficult circumstances. Normal people in abnormal circumstances. And this is the same subject: how human beings deal with their humanity if they are placed in unusual circumstances. The stage in The Mountain Between Us might be bigger than Palestine or Europe, with the huge worldwide distribution of 20th Century Fox.” But it was his previous films that led to him making this one: “Without my previous films it would be impossible for me to come to this position. I believe the studio selected me after they saw Omar because they saw I could put two difficult elements together. Omar was a combination of love and betrayal. The Mountain Between Us is a combination of love and survival. I believe this is my theme and my life, consciously or unconsciously.” 

Abu Assad seems excited by the experience in itself, which he takes to be a kind of reward for years of hard work. “It was an amazing experience in a word. This is the first time in my life I’ve felt that I am a director who is not busy with anything other than being a director. To work with professional actors was very enriching. And to work with a big crew that can respond to all your requests is amazing. You feel as if  the a long years of effort and fatigue are paying off. It is a very important experience. I understand the fears that Arab critics and maybe the Arab audience might have but I remain aware of my role as an Arab and Palestinian filmmaker who has a responsibility towards his society and his story. I just want to continue this experience for now. It is a new challenge and I’d like to know how far I can go. I am enriching my experience. That’s what I am doing right now.”

Abu Assad also believes that for an Arab filmmaker to be a part of Hollywood is a remarkable opportunity that he hopes many Arab filmmakers can have. The secret, he says, is “doing your best to tell your own story and make a prefect film in your own country”.

The Mountain Between is to be released commercially in Egyptian film theatres. 

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