How an Israeli Arab Director Became a Target for BDS

'Holy Air,' Shady Srour’s first feature, is innovative in its treatment of Palestinian society in Israel

Shady Srour at the Jerusalem Film Festival, 2017.
Daniel MIller

Last week, Nazareth had a screening of the film “Holy Air.” The 2017 film is the work of director Shady Srour, a native of Nazareth, who filmed most of it there. The theater was so crowded that, on the spot, the filmmakers decided on a second screening that same evening for those who couldn’t squeeze their way into the first.

Although it wasn’t easy for some city residents to watch the nude scenes and the movie’s frank discussion and portrayals of sex, not to mention its grotesque portrayals of Christian clerics, overall the audience responded with great enthusiasm to the movie, and additional screenings were scheduled in local movie theaters.

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Now, however, those additional showings in Nazareth are in doubt, due to pressure by BDS activists in the Galilee town, who claim that Srour’s planned participation in Seret, the London Israeli Film and TV Festival next May constitutes cooperation with Zionist groups, who are connected to official Israel. But can a Palestinian filmmaker, or for that matter any Palestinian living in Israel, really exist without cooperating with organizations connected to the local establishment?

Since the initial release of “Holy Air” about a year ago, it has opened the Tribeca Festival in New York and participated in festivals in Los Angeles, France, Sweden, Sydney and Rome. Earlier this month, it opened at theaters around Israel. Srour, for whom this is his first commercial feature, hopes that after so many years of work he will also gain recognition from the wider public.

Srour, who is all of 23, first had the idea for the film, a comedy, four years ago, when he returned to Israel from the United States in order to get married. A year later, his wife informed him that she was pregnant. “My first reaction was that I wasn’t ready,” he recalls. “In addition to the fact that I wasn’t ready to be a father, I wasn’t satisfied with my situation here in Israel. I was afraid that my son or daughter would ask me the questions that I asked my father when I was little. I didn’t know how I would answer those questions.”

Today Srour is a father of three, says that thinking about his place of residence became dependent only on his children. This approach, which basically puts people before politics, also characterizes the film. Although “Holy Air” deals with complex political questions that look inward at Palestinian society in Israel, just as they look outward at Jewish society and at the world in general, it does so by way of its characters: a young Palestinian couple about to bring a child into this a conflicted land.

Adam, the prospective father, realizing he needs to be able to support his family, cooks up an entrepreneurial plan to market “holy air” from the city where Jesus lived. For it to succeed, he needs to work together with the leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities who run Nazareth.

“I created a modern and realistic couple – Adam and Lamia,” says Srour. “They aren’t black or white and they are not stereotypes.” Srour notes that the choice of a likeable and educated couple was deliberate. “I put all the politics in the background,” he says. “I didn’t use symbols that I’m familiar with, like soldiers, bombs, flags. I’m sick of that. Rather, I started with the people, who are attractive, smart, nice, and anyone can identify with them.”

Anan Barakat, a Palestinian filmmaker and critic, who served as adviser on the film, describes “Holy Air” as part of a new wave of Palestinian cinema. “Shady represents a new cinematic and aesthetic language, one that hasn’t previously existed in Palestinian cinema,” he maintains.

“The main character doesn’t declaim the Palestinian cause – he speaks about violence, about what’s happening in the Arab sector, about Christians and Muslims, communism, sex. Shady takes the main character and says to him: Speak. And slowly but surely he becomes active. He also adds an active woman, a fighter for change, for a feminist revolution. He presents very daring things that haven’t been seen until now in Palestinian cinema.”

Srour acknowledges that his place on the artistic map in Israel is unclear to him. “I’ve always understood that when it comes to art, I’m not part of the hegemony, I’m the Other,” he says. “And I know that there are tools designed to leave me outside. I studied at university and I also teach at a university. I took my bachelor’s degree in the theater department at Tel Aviv [University]. Because I kept going to auditions and they didn’t think I was ‘Arab’ enough, for my master’s, I studied directing, and then I could give myself the leading roles.”

Shady Srour behind the scenes of the production of 'Holy Air,' Nazareth, Israel, April 18, 2016.
Gil Eliahu

And in fact, in “Holy Air,” Srour plays Adam, the lead character. “Adam is a symbolic example of every Palestinian Arab who lives in the State of Israel,” he explains. “He’s part of a generation that at a certain point had hopes for peace. After [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated, an entire generation grew up that doesn’t believe in peace and no longer has hope. That’s why it was very important to me, personally and as a director, to bring hope to the screen. I did it through the colors, through the relationships. With all the seriousness of the film and the harsh statements, there’s hope and we always have to offer it.”

Palestinian society in Israel is still quite conservative, and sex, violence and religion are not subjects that are openly discussed. for the most part. “I went to a grocery store in Nazareth for milk, and the owner was angry at me and wouldn’t sell me the milk,” says Srour. “When I asked what was wrong, he told me that the Holy Spirit is a very holy thing, how can you make fun of the Holy Spirit? We agreed that he would go to see the film, but it caused tension.

“All over the Middle East, religion is part of society, part of life, and I think that we have an obligation to examine how we relate to it and how it influences us. I grew up in a communist society, but communism was only a cover for unity among the religions. In fact Christians marry Christians, Muslims marry Muslims, and so on. The characters in the film are also quasi-religious, but in fact they commercialize religion.”

The processes that Srour describes in the film and in life as typical of Palestinian society in Israel, however, are processes that many people in Arab societies throughout the world can identify with. “Today, people want self-criticism,” he notes. “They want a film that shows them the truth. The films of the previous generation were more about politics and didn’t discuss society itself in depth.

“But this generation is tired of that. With its technology and the internet, it’s beginning to break out, to see other things. It wants to be free, but doesn’t know the meaning of freedom. In Arab society, the concepts of liberty are not sufficiently understood. They have to be redefined, and we have the job of placing a mirror in front of them and saying: Let’s look at ourselves.”

The internal criticism, which Srour was so afraid of, is quite low-key for now. His real problem at the moment is coming from an unexpected direction – the cultural boycott by local BDS activists. Srour says that they asked him to cancel his participation in the Seret festival because it’s supported by Zionist groups.

>> Read more: Israeli Arab Director Rejects BDS Movement’s 'Dangerous, Condescending' Request to Ax U.K. Film Screening

Speaking about the London festival, “We asked about the support they receive, and they said that they’re a nonprofit organization registered in London, which is not allowed to be supported by political organizations. The only thing that bothered me was that they wanted to mention that the festival is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. I told them that for me it’s the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, and they eliminated that description. I, as Shady, want my film to be shown everywhere, even to those who don’t support me. For me, a film is an excellent place to show that there are people here who should be seen as human beings.”

Barkat adds that “Srour didn’t take a French cinematographer to film the Palestinian, but someone from the other side, an Israeli [Jew]. BDS considers that normalization. This viewpoint contradicts all the ethical rules of cultural activity, I create culture in order to create a dialogue with the world. If I engage in a cultural boycott, I go back to being a tribe. That’s what BDS is doing.”

Srour is more ambivalent on the topic.

“The issue of BDS is complicated,” he says. “Today, with what’s happening in Israel and worldwide with the Palestinians, BDS is the only tool they have left for fighting it. I’m not opposed to this idea, I’m in favor. It’s a positive idea with an agenda of peace. But there’s a Palestinian branch in Israel that is making a mockery of the idea of BDS. They’re behaving in contradiction to the guidelines of the cultural and academic boycott, which create a distinction between general government funding, from the Culture Ministry, for example, and money earmarked for public relations for the State of Israel, from the Foreign Ministry, for example.

“And neither of them wants to conduct a dialogue with us. It took me 11 years to raise the budget and to make the film, and in the end we were able to get only 600,000 shekels [$165,000]. I don’t care where I bring money from, the main thing is to preserve my narrative. If I preserve my narrative as a person, then I’m also preserving my national narrative. The grants from the government are money I have coming to me. The government spends 70 million shekels a year on cinema, Arab [taxpayers] pay 20 percent of that, and how much of that do we get? I fought for my rights. Most of us directors in Israel can’t go abroad and meanwhile there are no Palestinian foundations.”