Hany Abu Assad: Man of Many Firsts
By: Areeb Zuaiter/Arab America Contributing Writer
At the turn of the 21st century, Palestinian cinema began gradually departing from the political language of the cinema of the revolution. And at the beginning of our current century, a fresh Palestinian cinema matured and acquired its transnational status. One of the most significant names associated with this cinema is that of Hany Abu Assad.
Abu Assad had a unique role in reserving a spot for Palestine in The Academy. His film “Paradise Now” is the first Arab film to receive a Golden Globe. With that film, he also became the first Palestinian filmmaker to receive an Academy Award nomination.
Abu Assad was initially trained as an Aerospace Engineer. A distinct passion for the arts led him to favor navigating creativity as a space to explore his talent. His decision gave the international film industry numerous masterpieces.
As a kid, he was first exposed to music. It comes as no surprise that such exposure ultimately led him to the world of cinema. The analogy between music and cinema has long been addressed. There is no other art form closer to cinema than that of music. They both exist in time; they both are temporary and sensational.
How did Hany Abu Assad arrive at filmmaking?
Abu Assad: I am initially an Aviation Engineer. This was the degree with which I graduated from college. But I always wanted to do something with the arts. In fact, the first art form I was introduced to was music.
As a kid, I was practicing the piano, but my teacher insisted that I lacked the ear for it. “would you promise me not to take any more lessons in music, and I’ll give you back your money?” she asked, urging me to quit. Cinema was another form of art I got exposed to as a kid. I was 5 years old when my uncle took me to watch a film. This was before my exposure to the theater, literature, or even to painting – all of that came later. And so, music was the first thing I listened to, and film was the first thing I watched. Growing up, Cinema Diana in Nazareth was one of my favorite places. I used to regularly go there and watch films from all over the world.
Cinema became part of my system. I was very much looking forward to exploring that field after finishing with my college degree. Back in the day, filmmaker Rasheed Al Mashharawi was looking for an assistant director. I took the job. I eventually started doing my own films. My first films were in the narrative shorts form; ‘Paper House’ and ‘The 13th’. My debut feature film is a Dutch film called ‘The 14 Chick.’
‘Paradise Now’ has an interesting story with the Academy Awards. Can you walk us through how the film ended up receiving a nomination despite the lack of recognition of Palestine as a state?
Abu Assad: The credit here goes to Laura Kim and Paul Federbush, who worked in Warner Independent Pictures at the time. They purchased the film and were able to convince the academy members to accept entries from Palestine. It is true that Palestine is not a state, but there has been a lot of other countries under occupation and that the Academy acknowledged their existence as countries. Take Hong Kong as an example. It is considered a territory of China with distinct economic and governing systems. Hong Kong usually has its own submission for the Academy Awards; separate from that of China. We built our argument around cases that already existed.
We also provided documents indicating that the United Nations recognizes the existence of Palestine. So Palestine is there, but it’s under occupation. It is recognized as a state. As a matter of fact, When the United Nations was formed, the country was called Palestine. They changed the name to Israel. Under International Law, it’s still Palestine.
The media insists on the absence of the State.
Abu Assad: Of course – the media does not like to highlight the existence of Palestine for all the dilemmas this will cause. I do believe media is hypocritical. It is not biased; it is indeed double-faced. There is a huge difference here. The biased is clear about the side they support. The hypocrite claims that he doesn’t take sides while, under the table, they do take sides. I don’t have a problem with biased people. I myself am biased and have my own views. But I do not claim that I am neutral. Media usually, and this is not specific to Palestine, claims that it is not biased. It does not accept to acknowledge that it is a tool that the authorities use to promote and sell certain ideologies for their audience.
Is ‘Paradise Now’ considered controversial for the foreign viewer, especially that Hany Abu Assad gave a human face to those usually labeled as terrorists?
Abu Assad: To start with, I refuse to do a film that portrays a Palestinian as a human. Would I need to do a film that proves that the sun rises from the east and sets from the west? This should be common sense. In fact, it is shameful for me as a Palestinian to do a film to prove that I am a human. I’ll simply be insulting my own intelligence.
I did this film because there is a powerful drama in the life and psychology of suicide bombers. All renowned writers incorporate dramas that they feel strongly about in their written work. From a dramatic perspective, I realized that there was a drama and a powerful human dilemma when you become the killer and the victim all at the same time. I, therefore, built the whole controversy on this internal dilemma, on this theme, which is also more important than the external dilemma.
There is an internal controversy in Palestine in regards to this topic. How would it not be acceptable at my end to build that dramatic controversy around the Palestinian resistance? Even if the act was criminal, there is human work behind it. What matters here is the human controversy around this work. The West may not have such political predicaments. But you see films like ‘The God Father.’ It embraces the human dilemma that torments the criminal, and it’s considered one of the best films done by the West.
Do you think about how the Western viewer perceives your characters as human beings in your cinematic work?
Abu Assad: This gives the impression that the Western audience is the referee. This is not, and should not, be the case. Have you ever tried blowing a punctured balloon? For me, educating the Westerner is like blowing a punctured balloon. You will keep blowing, your head will almost explode, and the balloon will remain deflated.
The Western viewer is the same as anyone else. I always take into consideration the viewer, not a certain, specific viewer. My main target is the viewer who is ready to think. I do not expect my viewer to be waiting for me to give them a lesson. I am really not interested in impacting a person who does not think about or contemplates the issues around them. The intellectual is the person that I take into consideration. They do not necessarily have to be Westerners or Easterners.
What does Hani Abu Assad’s writing process look like?
Abu Assad: There isn’t a specific technique that I use. Some ideas come naturally. Further ideas come because of a certain experience. Others come as inspiration from a specific literary piece. Sometimes it takes me only one week to finalize and shape my idea into a story. In other cases, it takes 4 years. ‘Paradise Now,’ for instance, took around 4 years of writing. It wasn’t only me who was writing, of course. But we did write, rewrite, read, and read again; no, it doesn’t look good; rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. ‘Paradise Now’ literally cost me 4 years. ‘Omar,’ on the other hand, cost me 4 hours. There isn’t really a specific formula on how things work.
Didn’t the experience and the reputation you have built with your previous work make achieving ‘Omar’ easier?
Abu Assad: True. Generally speaking, when a filmmaker’s work gains attention, things become easier on one side. But on the other side, things become harder. It becomes easier in the sense that people are more looking forward and supportive of what you’re going to propose; this includes the audience, investors, and financiers. On the other hand, it becomes more difficult because everybody anticipates the same success you had achieved in your previous work.
If you come to me, I wish I can go back to the pre-success era. In my view, life had more passion back then. Work, specifically, had a different flavor. There are now tons of things to take into account. Now, you have to maintain the success, the name, and the expectations. Before, I didn’t have to worry about all of that. I really wish I can go back to that period of time.
In my upcoming film, I’m working on throwing all the expectations away. I am trying to work as a novice. Success does come with benefits, but it also comes with detriments. In most cases, the detriments outweigh the benefits.
It’s painful to learn how harmful success can be.
Unfortunately, we easily get deceived by the meaning and the value of success, especially in today’s world. Nowadays, the dominant culture is a capitalist one, competition and rivalry is the engine that feeds the economy on which that culture relies. Success is the product. Success became the instrument that drives the world forward.
Theorists of the socio-economic system claim that this is human nature. This might be the animal nature – true. But we have long elevated from being an animal to being a human. Without our humanity, we go back to our primitive instinct. If that happens, we no longer deserve nor have the chance to survive. We were able to get to where we are today because we let go of our predatory intuition. We let go of our selfishness.
Today’s system took us back to ancient times when you no longer can move forward, and you no longer have recognition without success. That’s why success becomes a distress. You find out that you are part of a system that takes advantage of success. Success is no longer a goal. It became a tool for you to sell a book or a product. You end up feeling you’re a victim to that system.
There is always the success that is fulfilling. But when success becomes a tool, when it becomes exploited, that’s when it becomes mentally agonizing. But who can escape this? In my opinion, no one. I try to marginalize the success. That’s why I have limited to no social media, and I do not do that many interviews.
How did Hany Abu Assad become involved with ‘The Mountain between Us’?
Abu Assad: Incorporating two genres that normally do not match is something I do well. This ended up contributing to my involvement in that film. The producers of ‘The Mountain Between Us’ saw my cross-genre competence in ‘Omar,’ my second academy nominated film, and decided that I should be suitable for the role. They liked the way I integrated the uncommonly combined genres of the love story and the thriller. ‘The Mountain Between Us’ is, similarly, a hybrid that combines two genres that usually do not get along; the love story and the survival story.
Can we talk about Hany Abu Assad’s overall experience working with Hollywood?
Abu Assad: Directing ‘The Mountain Between Us’ was a whole new rewarding experience. I like facing new challenges. And this film was a challenge that I sincerely enjoyed. Working on a high-budget film, with celebrity actors, and with a vast film-industry was both a demanding and rewarding journey.
The conditions under which we were filming were another place to learn from. I did gain a lot as a person and as a professional from dealing with harsh and difficult conditions. After all, we were filming at minus-forty degrees Celsius.
How difficult was it to deal with world-famous actors?
Abu Assad: Thanks to the films I previously directed, I came to this opportunity with the substantial experience of dealing with actors. My experience in Hollywood led me to realize that star-actors have their own special way of treatment. There are certain things you’d need to take into consideration before communicating with a world-famous actor. They no longer become actors; but more of a selling point to a certain product. Therefore, they have their unique concerns, fears, and their own vision that are different from those of local actors. Their fears and concerns mainly entail the relationship their name has with the market.
Well known or not, every actor is different. Every actor has their own keys that will help you reach their top performance. That’s why you’ll need to take your time understanding the actor. The same strategy applies to well-known actors. You start by being cautious; you try to listen more than talk. Bit by bit, you start realizing their fears and concerns and work around them. This happens with every actor.
How much time did ‘The Mountain Between Us’ take in terms of prep?
Abu Assad: I was not involved in the writing process the way I normally am when I work on my independent films. Still, I would give my notes to the screenplay writers. The notes of the Studio were essential to how the final screenplay looked. This process took around two years. In the meantime, I was finalizing other work, including ‘Arab Idol.’
In September first, the Studio said, “let’s go into preproduction. I handed in the film by the end of August; On August thirty first. So ‘The Mountain Between Us’ took one full year to accomplish.
Why were you so loyal to filming on location?
Abu Assad: True. I insisted on filming in on location and not reverting to special effects or filming in a studio. My argument was that, for you to get out honest feelings from the actor, this specific film has to be shot on location. This will get them to feel the extreme conditions of that specific location. It would have been, actually, much easier for the actors to film in a studio. But they still agreed with me. They understood that this is for the ultimate benefit of their performance. And, indeed, the acting came out extremely honest.
Like all of us, Hany Abu Assad is waiting for the pandemic to end. The current bizarre times have specifically disrupted cinematic productions. He explained that finalizing his most recent film, ‘Huda’s Salon,’ had been a conundrum. The unclear distribution plans and the lack of cinemas these days do not help. “The film is made for cinema and not for streaming,” he emphasized.
Visit Arab America’s blog here!
Areeb Zuaiter is an Arab American filmmaker whose work focuses on art, identity, and social issues. She was nominated for Sony’s Outstanding Thesis Award. Her debut short won the Jury Prize at the European Film Festival. And her latest documentary won multiple international awards. Alongside working on her debut feature documentary and her upcoming short narrative, Zuaiter works as an adjunct professor at American University.