AFMI’s Director of Film Programming, Yasmina Tawil, sat down with Hany Abu-Assad to discuss his newest film, Huda’s Salon, which opens in U.S. theaters and online on March 4th.
Born in Nazareth 1961, Hany Abu-Assad turned to filmmaking after working for several years as an airplane engineer in The Netherlands. Since then, Abu-Assad has directed several award-winning films which include Nazareth 2000, Rana’s Wedding, Ford Transit, Paradise Now, Omar, The Idol, and The Mountain Between Us. He has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, and is the winner of a Golden Globe, Felix Award, Berlin Blue Angel Award, Independent Spirit Award, Amnesty International Film Prize, Golden Calf, and the Cannes FilmFestival Special Jury Prize.
You can check out the conversation on YouTube or read an edited transcription below.
Yasmina Tawil: Hello and welcome, thank you so much, everyone, for joining us today. My name is Yasmina Tawil. I’m the Director of Film Programing at the Arab Film and Media Institute, and today I have the honor of speaking with Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian filmmaker with a prolific career that I know many of our audience is very familiar with but who has a brand new film opening in American theaters called Huda’s Salon. It will be in theaters and online on March 4th and is the reason we’ve been brought together to talk today. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with me today, Hany.
Hany Abu-Assad: Thank you, Yasmina, and pleasure to meet you. Through, through Zoom.
YT: Hopefully someday soon it will not be on Zoom. But, you know, so just to jump into it, could you start by telling us a little bit about the film, what it’s about?
HA: Like twenty years ago, I read an article about a salon, hair salon, in Palestine that been used or misused by the Secret Service, the Israeli Secret Service. To recruit girls in order to get them to spy on their family, neighbors, environment…and they did that by filming them naked after they drugged them and and then blackmail them. In our society some of our men, not all of them, bu many won’t support the woman in this case. So women are easy prey. For sure they will be an easy victim for blackmail.
I realized I want to do a story about this one day, and two years ago my wife asked me if I knew a strong story about Palestinian woman because they live in a difficult circumstances. I told her about this article and she said it’s not yet a story. She asked “What’s the story, you think?” And we slept on it. The next day I wrote the outline of Huda’s Salon. Then she said it’s actually your story because it’s it’s become a thriller! And I always try to make stories in the thriller genre. I believe because a thriller can intensify the experience, in a way that you can let the audience think about complex issue in a simple way. So this is more or less the history of the of the film and it’s about, yes, it’s about a vulnerable woman that been blackmailed and being put into the situation where she has to make a choice between betraying her country or betraying herself.
YT: Yeah, this sort of theme of the complicated nature of resisting, specifically occupation, is something I’ve seen a lot in your films. The stress between resisting and being able to gain benefits from Israel. The balance of a personal life and a political life. I see that a lot in your films. Surprisingly, though, I see a lot of outlets sort of saying that it’s not an “issue film”, though I find it very intertwined with the politics of everything that’s going on, just from such a personal point of view. I’m saying this without really much of a question at the end of it, just an observation about such an interesting way that you that you intertwine folks’ personal lives with the political situation that is going on and how complicated and nuanced it can be. I find this a very interesting, different take. I had no idea about this, this particular story and some of these particular struggles that Palestinian women went through.
HA: Listen, let’s say, I as a filmmaker, because I’m not a preacher or politician, I don’t need to make a movie in order to condemn the occupation because the occupation is condemned with or without my movie. By definition, occupation is condemned. It should end, and it will end. I believe it will end. There is no way this situation will continue forever. It doesn’t exist, especially with the Palestinians. They have proven that they are so resilient that whatever they [Israel] try, they are not succeeding to to eliminate us from from that, from the land. So as a filmmaker, your job is to make people think that it’s not an issue while actually it’s an issue. This is the power of the movie, I think not just me, any good movie is when it feels like it’s not an issue because most people want to be entertained, usually watching a movie, but they go out with an issue. And this is what I try to do in the movie, you know that it’s on the one side it’s entertaining. On the other side, it’s exploring complex themes in an accessible way.
YT: Yeah, I think it is really. It achieves exactly what you said, and I think it also explores themes that go beyond Palestine. I read you talk about the themes of loyalty that come up in the film. Could you talk about that a little bit?
HA: Yes, I think. one of our most important experience in life when we experience betrayed and I think nobody on Earth hasn’t experienced that, you know, betrayal…small betrayal, big betrayal, it’s the same. It’s like when you pass somebody and then you feel betrayed. So it’s a universal, timeless issue. Even in the bible, t’s about is the betrayal of Yusuf by his brothers. But alsoHamlet, it’s about betrayal. It’s a universal theme. So what you do is you take a universal theme and you put it in a specific situation and in a place called Palestine. So the texture is very authentic and Palestinian. But the theme is very universal.
And why does betrayal always come back in my stories? After I did Huda’s Salon, my wife said to me, “You realize you are you. Do you realize that all your movies is about betrayal?” Oh, wow…how? She pointed out, “Paradise Now it’s about betrayal and blackmail. Omar is about betrayal and blackmail. Huda’s Salon is about betrayal and blackmail. Why does this theme come back into your stories and films?”
And I realized I have to say that, what’s the problem here? Why, indeed, is this theme coming back? And I realized that there was two stories in my life when I was young that almost shaped who I am and both are about betrayal. One where I was betrayed by a good friend and I was almost put in danger. He betrayed me in a way that could endanger my life. And after that, like almost half year, I was in a huge depression. Because I love them so much, and I felt that he was my idol and then to be betrayed by somebody you love so much…and the first time in life. Because later you know you, you betrayal become like changing socks like, “Oh yeah, when somebody betrayed me. OK, OK.” It’s part of life. But when it’s the first time it hits you hard and it’s probably it’s a big trauma.
The second trauma was when I was younger, a little bit, I was eleven and I betrayed a friend, I accused him of doing something he did not do. I falsely accused him and then he was punished by the teacher, by the school, and I felt so guilty. Actually, I feel guilty till now when I saw him like a while ago, he did not recognize me almost, but I wanted to apologize. I did not do that because because I felt like maybe he doesn’t remember. But still, we were eleven, and now I’m 60, and still I struggle with that event that I accuse him falsely of doing something that he did not do. And I felt later so, so guilty about it.
YT: So your films have been a space for you to explore these feelings.
HA: Without even realizing. I plan to redeem myself.
YT: I also really wanted to talk about the the style of the film and the process you use to make it, because I was reading a little about that and found it very, very interesting that it’s all one takes. Every every scene is one shot.
HA: Yeah. And cinematically means that you, the audience, are stuck with a character in the time and place and because the situation is is intense, so even the dead time, we call it in drama “dead time”, for example, and waiting, it’s dead time. That time will be experienced as double because you feel you are like in that situation, sitting there waiting for the doctor, for example, at the waiting room, hearing these thoughts and stories and it still feels intense. Because it’s you are stuck there with the character sitting there waiting. So this was the concept, of making the audience be stuck in time and place. This is why I shot all the scenes in one shot.
I also explored the concept of contradiction between subjective point of view, and objective point of view. Because the movie is about contradiction between betrayal and loyalty, between enemy and friendship, all these things also cinematically. I want to explore the contradiction between the subjective and objective point of view. So in that sense, when you shoot one scene in one shot, every scene in one shot. Its objective point of view, but you try inside that concept to make it subjective. Where do you become the mirror of the character. So you as a filmmaker must always try to challenge yourself. Otherwise it’s going to become very boring.
YT: Yeah, and you can definitely feel that this the whole film is so tense and it feels like it takes 1,000,000 years in a good sense, I’m not saying then it’s boring, but you can feel that tension building and it’s uncomfortable as it is for the characters as well.
I also like this duality between Reem and Huda and the way they are reflections of each other in the film. I found that very interesting. Huda continuing a cycle that she was once she was once in Reem’s shoes, and now she is subjecting others to that. I keep saying things without a question at the end. I’m so sorry. Just observation, haha. I just like having a discussion with you about this. I also I saw you mentioned somewhere that that Reem and Huda reflecting each other is very purposeful, as well as the physical positions you put them in, above and below, correct?
HA: Yes. So the same, it’s a contradiction in above and under. Also in flashback and flash forward, so I want to make it so that you take the experience of one character as a flashback of the other. You start with Huda and then you see her in her past that she was once a victim. Now she’s a perpetuator. But in that concept of of what in stuck in time and place, there is no place for a flashback. So I said, if I do two characters where the one is actually reflecting the other as if it’s its own flashback or flash forward. How this will work with also the concept of under the ground, above the ground and how you can connect them, you know, like by cinematic transmission of the Polaroid. It goes down to up where it navigates as a ticking bomb. The picture also navigates as the child that Reem is trying to protect, you know, all the time Reem is hiding her child [holding her to her chest] and also Huda hides the picture inside her [breast] as if protecting the child too. So all these metaphors and concepts are all complex issues, but working as the wheels of a clock. They’re all very complicated but they are all working in the same direction. Boom, boom. A very simple act. Boom, boom, boom. But in itself, they are very complex and this is what what I try to do.
YT: How do you go about putting all of those, all those clock gears, so to speak together? And do you have like a process that you build up all of these details and all of these metaphors? Or does it kind of just come out this way?
HA: Oh, it’s an experience and sometimes I come up with it unconsciously. But at the end, you don’t believe how your our mind is is working all the time. Yes, it’s processing. So even when you are resting, and the best way to become creative is to rest a lot. Not to do anything just to to look, to meditate, to relax and listen to music. Because then you will allow your unconscious to process all that information you have. So all these things I read once about, I studied it but they have to, in my mind, make their own way to come up with new ideas. So it comes sometimes unconsciously but in fact it’s a process. It’s a natural process of of an artist creating by observing their own environment.
YT: I’ve heard that before that you can’t create art, you can’t write unless you are also living and experiencing the world around you. And it’s a good reminder for all of us to rest.
HA: And not to feel guilty! Because in our time, our society now, our system truly makes you feel guilty if you do nothing. Because you think the world is like in a marathon. And if you sit and you think, “Oh my God, ball’s moving and I’m not moving” and you are anxious all the time. But a true artist will allow himself to do nothing and not to feel guilty about it, because the nothing is crucial for creation.
YT: I love that. And that’s definitely a fantastic piece of advice to pass down to our younger up and coming filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers. At the end of this, I was going to ask for your advice and there it is since we’re always trying to engage the next the next generation of filmmakers. So good reminder to all of those watching to rest.
HA: Yeah. And believe me, I was taught also by an older generation. Once I met a writer that was accomplished and I was a beginner and he told me that sometimes he will take, like, two weeks to just lie on the couch and read…reading nothing important. And he said, the moment you don’t feel guilty about it, that’s the true moment that you are an artist. So I realize that I had to give myself the luxury to do nothing for a long time. Sometimes I do nothing. And then ideas come. You have no idea how they just come up. Wow.
YT: Yes. Well, and your entire filmography, your entire career is clearly testament to that working. So we’re running out of time. So I’m going to wrap it up here. Thank you so much for taking the time to to speak with me today. I hope that we can meet in person sometime soon. So, everyone watching make sure to go see Huda’s Salon in theaters around the country on March 4th, as well as online. If you can’t make it to the theater. All right. Bye, Hany!
HA: Bye bye.
Huda’s Salon opens in theaters across the U.S. and On Demand on March 4th. Learn more at hudassalon.movie.
Want to explore Hany Abu-Assad’s other films? Check out Omar as part of the Celebrating Arab Cinema Collection on Netflix!