Reveling in Her Roles

Actress Hiam Abbass turns director and scriptwriter in her new film, 'Hajar'.

Tuesday, 11 P.M., an events hall on the outskirts of Daliat al-Carmel. Imposing lighting poles stand on the dance floor and a camera moves along a track installed on the stage. Cheerful Arab music is playing loudly, a wedding singer in a black shirt and dazzling shoes is singing on the stage, and scores of festively dressed guests are sitting around decorated tables clapping their hands and smiling at the energetic group capering on the dance floor.

And only if you really try can you discern nearly invisible activity, including whispers and angry looks, familial tensions reaching the boiling point in the center of the jolly rejoicing on the dance floor.

Abbass on set of Hajar - Daniel Bar-On - August 2011
Abbass, foreground, on the set of Hajar, which is being filmed in Daliat al-Carmel. Daniel Bar-On

The moment someone calls "Cut!," the noise dies down a bit, and a woman in a black dress gets up from the main table. Her flip-flops, which had been hidden under the tablecloth, take her quickly to the monitor standing at the entrance to the events hall. Actress Hiam Abbass sits down in front of the monitor and watches the scene that has just been filmed. A hairdresser comes up to her and starts fixing her coiffure. Abbass objects, but the diligent worker insists on doing her job.

"There's no need. We'll fix it afterwards. They're filming me now from really far away," explains Abbass, pleasantly but assertively, and the hairdresser gives up and goes away.

Abbass again lifts the hem of her dress and starts running around the dance floor. Speaking in Arabic, she instructs the actors participating in the scene about the next take, and calls out instructions in fluent French to cinematographer Antoine Heberle ("Paradise Now," "Jellyfish" ). From time to time, she also segues naturally into Hebrew or English.

The crew for the film, "Hajar" (initially called "Inheritance" ) are Israeli and French, the actors are mostly Arab, and Abbass seems to be the only one fluent in all four languages on the set and able to communicate in all of them.

She moves around quickly and in a charismatic fashion. The cast of the film is particularly large and in the current scene there are scores of extras; and although this is the first time she is directing a full-length film, she seems to know exactly what she wants to get out of each and every one of them.

Abbass is apparently the most successful and the busiest Palestinian actress in the world today. She has appeared, inter alia, in Eran Riklis' films, "The Syrian Bride" and "Lemon Tree," in Amos Gitai's "Free Zone," Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," Raja Amari's "Red Satin," American independent filmmaker Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor," and Julian Schnabel's "Miral."

She served as an advisor to Steven Spielberg for his film "Munich," in which she also appeared; she has worked as an acting coach on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film, "Babel;" and over the years, she has directed a number of short films.

Abbass was born in the Galilee village of Dir Hanna in 1969, the fifth of 10 siblings, and since her childhood, she has had to fight for her personal freedom, both as a woman in a traditional Arab society and as an Arab in Israel.

A return home

Abbass refused to come to terms with the limitations these circumstances imposed on her, and left her parents' home at the age of 17 to study photography and acting, emigrating from Israel to Europe at the age of 28. For more than 20 years now, she has been living in Paris. Nevertheless, when she decided to direct her first feature film, based on a screenplay by Ala Hlehel, she returned to the place where she was born and grew up.

"Hajar" is an Israeli-French co-production with support from the Israel Film Fund and French organizations. Its Israeli producers are Metro Communication, Alma Productions and United King. The plot is set in an Israeli Arab village located near the border with Lebanon, in the shadow of a war raging between the two countries. The year in which the story takes place is not specified. The film follows a Muslim family forced to deal with the conflicting outlooks of the various members of the family and with their disputes and secrets.

Makram Khoury plays the father of the family, Abu Majd, a widower, while the French Cesar Award-winning actress Hafsia Hersi plays Hajar, the youngest daughter in the family. Hajar is an academic and artist in love with an Englishman, and her brothers are unable to accept her choices and way of life.

A large and impressive cast of actors, most of them local, populates the film, in which the main language is Arabic. One of the brothers in the family (Ali Suliman ) and his wife (Clara Khoury ) are having difficulty conceiving a child and are dealing with the family's harsh reactions. Another brother (Ashraf Barhom ) is an ambitious lawyer, particularly hot-tempered toward his wife (Ruba Balal ), and is running for mayor of the village. The eldest daughter (Oula Tabari ), the one who has taken care of all the children and raised them after their mother's death, is married (her husband is played by Yussuf Abu-Warda ) but has no children of her own, while the eldest son (Khalifa Natour ) is deep in debt and, together with his wife (Abbass ), is raising two daughters (played by Abbass' own daughters ).

The elder daughter's wedding brings the family together, but also gives rise to the revelation of secrets and the outbreak of quarrels.

"When I received the script written by Ala Hlehel, I wasn't thinking ahead and I didn't take anxieties and fears into consideration," Abbass says when asked about her choice of a story involving work with such a large cast. "I felt I was looking at a story I connect to on a personal level, and then I sat down with Ala and we continued to work on the screenplay.

"I sat and made a thorough study of all the characters until I reached a stage at which I felt I knew each and every one of them very well. Gradually, I chose a face for each of the characters, faces of actors who are mostly friends of mine and seemed to me to be suitable. Thus, when we were working on the screenplay I already had their faces in mind.

"I spoke to each and every one of them; I told them what I thought they could bring to these characters; and from that moment, I simply dived into the water and I had to begin to swim. At that state, stopping was not an option," she laughs.

During one of the breaks in the filming, Makram Khoury, who has already acted alongside Abbass in a number of films ("The Syrian Bride," "Lemon Tree" and "Munich" ) expresses his admiration for his colleague's transition from the position of actress to the role of director.

'Positive energies

"I am thrilled," he says. "I am full of enthusiasm from her positive energies. She works with actors in an amazing way, and she creates camera movements and compositions that are a pleasure to see. She brings good energies to the set, focus and a connection to the whole thing. You can see on her that she knows exactly what she wants to achieve. We are now only on the eighth day of filming and I can say she has already found a certain style for herself in the film's cinematic language."

The transition to the perspective of director is not new for Abbass, she notes. She has already directed two short films, in 2001 and in 2004, but admits that the feeling is different with her first full-length feature film.

"When it comes to a feature, the pressure on the director is much greater because there is a lot more money involved in this, and the people around you have many more expectations," she says. "Everyone is waiting to see how it turns out.

"But I have to say that for me, standing behind the camera is a wonderful feeling. In the eight years that have gone by since I directed my second short film, I have grown and developed and I can definitely say today that I have a passion for cinema I want my name to be associated with.

"I very much want to do things my way and I want to control the result. Beyond that, a new experience is always a wonderful thing and the feeling of experiencing and learning is something I love."

In addition to this being a film with a large cast, the first feature she has directed and the fact that she has a triple role in it - scriptwriter, director and actress - Abbass has also shouldered another challenge here: She has chosen to integrate her two daughters into the cast to play the roles of the daughters of the character she herself plays in the film.

"My younger daughter, Mona, is already an actress in her own right," Abbass notes. "At the start of the work on the film, I wasn't thinking about integrating my daughters into it, but that's what happened in the end. I got my inspiration from the relationship between them in real life, and I realized they were very suited to the characters in the film.

"I think that a lot of what I was looking for in the character of Lena (her younger daughter in the film ) is in the new generation, among young people who are trying to achieve a life of their own. Independence. My daughter is a teenager now and it seems to me she will suit the role. And maybe it could be said I just plain love difficulties," she laughs.

"Simple things don't interest me. I love to take risks and see how I cope with the situation. After all, it isn't easy to be both a director and an actress and at the same time to direct actors with whom you have a personal relationship.

But it's also funny. On the set yesterday, for example, my elder daughter, who never calls me by my first name, came up to me and called me 'Hiam.' I looked at her in surprise and asked her why she was calling me that all of a sudden, and she replied: 'Otherwise you don't listen to me.' So I think this is an interesting experience for all of us, mixing our personal life with our professional."

And does you think the film makes a political statement?

"In a country where political issues are so very present, I don't think it's possible to deny that," she says. "I have tried in this film to connect for a moment to the life of Palestinian society in Israel. I chose to set the plot during wartime because from my perspective this a metaphor of life in this place. This is a war that lives alongside the people in this country.

"We, the Palestinians, live here as though we are living in a sandwich. At least that's the way I have always felt - stuck between two peoples, between two societies.

"I have felt that our life here is a constant battle between the country we live in and the people to which we belong. Therefore, the war that is raging in the background of the film is symbolic, metaphorical and not specific. I prefer it like this because it better represents my life here ever since I was a child."