Michel Khleifi, born in Nazareth in 1950, studied theater and cinema at INSAS in Belgium, where he currently resides. In 1980, Khleifi directed his first film, Fertile Memory (al-Dhakira al-Khasiba). Khleifi received international acclaim following Wedding in Galilee (‘Urs fi al-Jalil, 1987), which won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His other films include Maloul Fete sa Destruction (Malul Tahtafil fi Dimariha, 1984), Canticle of the Stones (Nashid al-Hajar, 1990) and L’Ordre du Jour (1993). Livia Alexander spoke with Khleifi in New York in June during the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which screened his two latest films Tale of the Three Jewels (Hikayat al-Jawahir al-Thalath, 1995) and Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land (al-Zawaj al-Mukhtalit fi al-Ard al-Muqaddasa, 1995). Tale of the Three Jewels is a story about the power of imagination and the innocence of childhood. Yusuf (Muhammad al-Nahhal), a 12-year old Palestinian boy, lives in Gaza with his mother and sister. Yusuf’s father is in prison and his brother is wanted by the Israeli army. Yusuf’s sense of imagination helps him escape the harsh realities of daily life in Gaza. One day, while hunting birds, Yusuf meets ‘Aida, a gypsy girl who tells him a story about three jewels that have disappeared from a necklace her grandfather brought her grandmother from South America. To win ‘Aida’s heart Yusuf decides to find the three jewels. Yusuf puts together a plan to travel to South America. Although the plan fails, Yusuf finds the three jewels, and learns much more about life.
Is Yousef a real character?
Like all characters, like all of us, he is real and unreal. When I did the casting I began to understand who the character was that I was looking for. We auditioned more than 200 youngsters to play the role. We finally found Muhammad al-Nahhal, completely by coincidence, when my assistant went into a garage in Rafah to fix a flat tire on his car. Muhammad was close to a state of autism. He had experienced two severe traumas that caused him to forget how to read and write. First, Israeli soldiers broke his arm, and, a few months later, a Palestinian teacher hit him very badly. When viewing the film, there are many things that reflect his reality, such as his love for birds. Muhammad, like Yusuf in the film, saw his father wounded. The image of the father being wounded, hurt and fragile, is not the image of a father that provides his children with confidence. I did not know Muhammad when I wrote the script. So the script is real and unreal at the same time since I wrote it from within my own experiences. The film was preceded by extensive research. I stayed in Gaza for a long time and spoke with many people, especially at Iyad Sarraj’s center for the treatment of psychological problems of children of the intifada. I wanted to help these children to have confidence in their childhood and to protect their right to dream, love and be free.
This is a film in which reality continuously serves as a backdrop to fantasy. What made you choose this approach?
‘Aida, the gypsy girl, is perhaps less real than Yusuf, since she is closer to my childhood. She is more from Galilee, from my Nazareth. In the film, she is a more of a fantasy figure. All of her family is imaginary. At this point, a number of key questions arise. What is a child? How does a child construct his identity? How does he make sense of his reality? A child makes different maps, geographical maps, sexuality maps, imaginary maps, maps of love, senses and fears. He draws many maps and by putting them all together his personality is constructed. This means that a child needs two principal lines, the first being that of reality and the second that of imagination. If these two lines remain parallel and never meet, the child will become schizophrenic. ‘Aida takes the elements of life and makes stories out of them and Yusuf believes her.
An element that frequently appears in your films is the unceasing shift between reality and imagination, between documentary and fiction.
That is the element I am looking for. I believe that there is no objectivity in life. Objectivity stems from a number of subjects and the subject needs the objective viewpoint. There is an idea in A Thousand and One Nights that truth can be found in a number of dreams. In Fertile Memory I bring the documentary, the real figures of daily life, into the fictional realm. The viewer never knows whether the characters are acting or whether that is how they actually live their lives. In Wedding in Galilee, I did exactly the opposite. It is, in fact, a dream, a fictional story that I wrote, but I pulled it into reality. I wanted to shoot the film in such a way as to blur the boundaries between the two. In Canticle of the Stones there is a clash between the two elements, between the very violent reality of the second year of the intifada and the fiction of the story itself. This is the spirit of the cinema.
The film ends on an ambivalent note. Yusuf is shot and it seems that he is dead, but yet he appears alive.
This is the tale. The logic of it is based on the idea of being between life and death. Yusuf is brought to the brink of death and then returns to life. It is an initiation into life, a journey toward the meaning of life. Now that Yusuf understands that human borders are the most dangerous ones of all. After he discovers love he begins to find himself. Yusuf finds the three jewels, although they had never really disappeared. As ‘Aida says, however, we would not have been able to see them had Yusuf not shown them to us. The message here is that we Israelis and Palestinians know that eventually we will make peace and coexist together. The question, however, is why don’t we do that now? Why do we have to go to the point of death in order to reach peace? I portray aspects in Palestinian society simply because I think we need to do that. It is possible, however, that in the next step we will try to understand the human relations between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
Khleifi’s most recent film, Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land, seems to reflect the first steps toward this change. For Khleifi, the beginning of the peace process marked the emergence of a project of a new kind: a documentary film about mixed marriages between Israelis and Palestinians from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The film, which includes interviews with eight such couples, concentrates primarily on mixed marriages between Jews and Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian. Despite the often harsh consequences of their decision to follow their hearts, the couples demonstrate throughout the film their determination and dedication to their love. According to Khleifi “it gave me the strength to say to myself that perhaps those people, who thus far have lived their lives in hiding, will now be seen as heroes.”
Is there a common denominator among the couples in the film?
What I wanted to show is the diversity of the phenomenon. Chaya Toma, for example, as Israeli Communist woman, argues initially that all Jewish women who married Arab men belonged to the Communist party. But, in the following scene, I interview another woman, close to Toma’s generation, who had nothing to do with the Communist party and had married an Arab with whom she lived in Nablus. This variable helped me to reveal the shifts that have occurred in the past 50 years. At first, it was perhaps mainly Israeli Communist women who married Arabs. Today, it is Arab Communist women who marry Jews. It is a paradox, but a meaningful paradox. In the past, Israeli society tended to be more leftist and open. Now, this trend is changing and Arab society, in my opinion, is becoming more tolerant. If you are not Jewish, you are out. If you are Jewish, you must be more Jewish than ever.
Does Arab society accept mixed marriages between Arabs and Jews more easily than Israeli society?
Yes. Even all the Jewish women I have met said so. For example, the Arab woman from Haifa who married the Kurdish Communist Jew took her husband to live with her family, and there is no problem. Arab society leaves you the space to live between two societies, to be an Arab and a Jew at the same time. There is something less rigid about Arab society, perhaps, as Chaya Toma points out, because it is a society that has been defeated. I think it is a society in which the feminine sense is more prominently noticed, even among men, while in Israeli society, even though women enjoy more liberties, the society itself is more masculine and chauvinist.
Are mixed marriages an answer to the conflict?
Perhaps not an answer, but they prod us to change and that is wonderful. It is like a big river in which we start finding ways to create new rivers. Those who choose such marriages and try to find new ways in or problematic region are wonderful people. They are people who, although deep down inside may be fearful, have something that drives them to the other. We should learn from that.
In Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land “everyone mixes with the other.” In Wedding in Galilee you challenge the role of tradition.
All of my films are characterized by the dialectic between modernity and tradition. All of us, not only Palestinians, live in this paradox of which to choose: tradition or modernity? Tradition is yesterday’s modernity and today’s modernity will be the tradition of the future. For example, the wedding dress in Wedding in Galilee is a traditional Palestinian dress. But when I researched its origins, I found that, in fact, the dress was a nineteenth-century Italian dress. Tradition is not a dead thing, but rather something continuously changing. As in Fertile Memory, the problem is how to look at the past in the eyes of the present toward a beautiful future for all of us. I don’t believe in the past, it has vanished.
Do your films bear a message to Palestinians living in the diaspora, for example Yusuf’s dream in Tale of the Three Jewels, or the figure of the old man who waits in vain for a letter to arrive from his sons living in Canada?
Diaspora is a central element in our modernity. There is a continuous reflection about issues of space, geography and time. In the past, history was based on the dialectic between the settled and nomads. History essentially revolved around the tension between movement and the desire to be settled. The problem in Gaza is that Israel does not permit the local people to live according to this natural dynamic. In the film, I try to understand the desire to travel as well as the desire to return.
Yet you choose to remain in exile.
When I was a boy my father used to work in a kibbutz near Tel Aviv. He would come home one day a week. That is also a kind of exile. I don’t cut myself off from my homeland because I love the world. The fact that I live internationally does not make me forget that I’m from a small street in Nazareth. Although, let’s be realistic, yes I live in Europe so I’m part of Europe as well.
Are your films well-received in the Arab world?
No. They are afraid of me because I have a worldview that differs from theirs. In cinema, the problem is not how the filmmaker says things but how he sees and presents them. Most Arabs do not even have the opportunity to see my films, since they are not distributed in the Arab world. For the last 15 years, I have been trying to tell them “there is no need for fear, I’m part of Arab culture.” And they know that, but that is not the part that they want. For them, Palestine is a question of politics, propaganda and ideology. They don’t want people to examine what happened. Sentimentally, they support the Palestinian struggle. So what? They might support a few Palestinian films which treat the world delicately, but certainly not films that challenge society and call for change.
Do you envision the development of a local Palestinian cinema?
I do not think so. Recently Israel’s film lab in Herzliya was shut down. Even in larger countries which have long cinematic traditions the situation is not any better. Our destiny is that we will all be local filmmakers, while the industry itself will be in Europe or the United States. The increasing popularity of television and video has a decisive influence on the decline in the number of films produced in Egypt and Israel. In the past, the Egyptian film industry produced between 160 to 180 films annually; now this number is around 30. Furthermore, cinema is an art of large and open cities. If we have such cities in the Middle East, we will have a cinema. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing is a deterioration in the state of our societies.