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People in Film: A Conversation with Mais Darwazah

Mar 04, 2014

Mais Darwazah’s ‘My Love Awaits Me by the Sea’ is the director’s charming, very personal reflection on her relationship to Palestine, in which she explores themes of love, loss and longing, and nostalgia for the homeland she has never known. Along the way, she spends time with her own considerations of Palestine, with the art and poetry of the (tragically late) Hasan Hourani, and with various Palestinians and their personal forms of resistance to the occupation. The result is a quietly meditative consideration of how we, all of us, have the opportunity to construct our own lives on our own terms.

The film shows this evening in Beirut, launching the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC)’s inaugural Film Week, which features screenings of 11 films supported by AFAC over the past two years, all of which are having their first Beirut screenings during the celebration. Doha Film Institute is proud to have supported several of the films in the programme, including ‘My Love Awaits Me by the Sea’, as well as Sarah Francis’s ‘Birds of September’ and Ahmed Nour’s ‘Waves’.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mais Darwazah shortly after her film’s world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. This was some of our conversation:

Nicholas Davies: Your film is a document of your first-ever visit to Palestine. I’d like to back up from that a bit and ask you how it was it to make that decision to go there? How did that come about for you?

Mais Darwazah: I think going to Palestine is something that is on every Palestinian’s mind. It’s something that you are raised with, all the stories; it’s on your mind 24/7. It’s your country but you’ve never seen it. So to go there is not [an idea] that comes to you all of a sudden when you’re 18. The thing is the logistics of going. I don’t have Palestinian identity [papers]; my family was naturalised in Jordan. So it was always logistically difficult to go. But I think in a way that is all technical details. Inside, there was always a fear of going.

ND: A fear? What were you afraid of?

MD: I see this in a lot of Palestinians. I was scared to hate; to see something horrible and lose hope in humanity. The stories you hear from Palestine are horrendous. And it’s my history, so I was scared to discover this emotion in myself; [scared] that I would perhaps become someone who is angry. These are all selfish things. I was also scared to fall in love with the country and then have to leave. My mother used to say, ‘Now, don’t start thinking of moving to Palestine.’ She was scared, because it’s not easy there. But I think she knew I would go one day.

ND: And what was the trigger that made you say, ‘I’m going now’?

MD: I grew up [with] poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, which is very powerful, [but] he’s from a generation of people who have gone through so many things. When I opened Hasan [Hourani]’s book and saw his work, there was suddenly a new voice that spoke directly to me, to the thoughts and emotions that were on my mind. He spoke from a very fragile place, with very simple emotions, like being lonely, or being scared. [‘Hassan Everywhere’] is a children’s book, but like [Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s] ‘The Little Prince’, which is a book that is not directed just at children. So when I read his words and saw his face – very dreamy, very beautiful – and heard his tragic story, there was something in that combination of the voice I needed to hear, the eyes I wanted to see, the Palestinian guy I’ve dreamt of, who wasn’t scared to speak about the smallest emotions when usually there is no space for these things. I knew I was going to make work about him. I knew it wasn’t going to be a portrait of an artist, but I didn’t know what it was going to be or how it was going to be structured. Later on, with the writing, I got out a lot of what was inside me on paper; the questions I had about Palestine. It was scary for me. You live all your life with this nostalgia for the place and then when you go, you’re scared to lose all that. It’s going to change and you need to be really strong. You need to be ready to see all that, take it in and do something with it in your head. I think I got to a point about Palestine where I felt it was unfair that I could develop a memory about any country in the world, and I couldn’t do that with Palestine. And this is very personal, I needed to smell and taste and see and feel the actual space for myself, independently, because I needed to make that part of my reality, my real living reality. It was time.

ND: The watercolour sketches that outline your journey through the film. Did you do them?

MD: Yes.

ND: They’re very pleasing, in part because they’re so simple. Where did this idea come from?

MD: I knew I wanted to draw my own world. I knew I wanted to present that world visually, so the question was, how we were going to do that in the context of Hasan’s work, making [the difference between his work and mine] very clear? From the beginning I had this concept: there is a room and it is Mais’s world. In that room is a collection of drawings and photographs and things you collect, the world you build. So the idea of the drawing came from wanting to show the viewer that I am creating a lover right in front of their eyes, in real time. I’m telling you that I’m creating him. ‘This is the lover – look, I’m drawing him. And this is the line that shows that we’re going to Palestine.’ I felt that by doing that, in that simple form, would help the viewer tap into their own imagination. The lover is created in front of them; I wanted the viewer to find their own lover, just like I did. Once I was sitting in a room and I was looking at three photographs that I had in front of me, and I thought, it’s phenomenal how human beings choose their own story. We eliminate certain images and include others. I wanted to say, all right, my life is about this image, and that one, and this one. This is me, all right? This is who I am and this is who I desire to be, and it is really my personal freedom to say that. And the freedom of any person to say, I want to create this life; I have a right to this life.

ND: It’s interesting that it would be so conscious for you. It connects strongly to the longing for Palestine, which is a sentiment that most people just don’t have.

MD: Remember, the longing for Palestine is through images, for someone like myself; it’s never been something physical. All I’ve been doing is collecting images, collages of stories from people who’ve been there or were born there, like my father. In the film, there is a picture of the sea. It’s very plain; I start and end the film with it. I picked that picture up in Damascus three or four years before even thinking of the film, before I even saw Hasan’s book. On the back was written, ‘Jaffa, 1947’. I gave it to a friend and I wrote on the back, ‘This photograph made it from Jaffa to Damascus. I hope one day it will make its way back’.

ND: Wow.

MD: It’s amazing for me, because you can feel the presence of the photographer. You can feel their point of view. [For me,] the picture was that person, or his family, or his children’s children. So as I say, my life a collage of these things I was collecting all my life. And it came to a point where I just needed to make some logic from this collage.

ND: The weight of it becomes too much.

MD: You need to liberate yourself. My mind was getting filled up with a certain kind of image, and I needed to create new ones.

ND: I’m really interested in what I see as a counterpoint between two sequences. There’s the scene with the three young men in Jerusalem…

MD: I call them the Kings of Jerusalem.

ND: Yes. I love them, fighting against what’s around them. Then there’s the sequence with Leila, the woman who has moved from Canada to Palestine to live with Nael, her husband. She talks about being hopeful that when Palestinians do go home, they will manage to get beyond the trauma of occupation.

MD: What she’s concerned about is us. When you cut someone’s hand off, you can’t bring it back. And there’s a lot that’s been lost. She ends that conversation saying there are people trying to hang onto the pieces, trying to create a mosaic from this. I think Leila was my voice in the film. She has a similar story, the way she fell in love with Nael, got married, went back for the first time, created a home in Palestine. She was someone who had all the dreams that she is now living every day. So we really connected. I felt that we had very similar questions. I felt that it was crucial that she be in the film.

ND: She’s very engaging and quiet, and she says some really interesting things.

MD: Well, they all do. The guys in Jerusalem too.

ND: Yes, though they’re in a different mode. They’re resisting, though in a different way to Leila.

MD: Each person in the film has their own way of resisting. Nael refuses to accept that this occupation is normal and he creates this beautiful world for his daughter, and he wonders, What do you tell a child in this situation? There are more important things to speak about in your home than … the occupation. There are things you want to tell your child about life – about the birds, about the butterflies, about the wind. I was raised on beautiful stories of olive trees.

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