British-Palestinian Filmmaker Up for First Oscar With Nuanced West Bank Comedy

'If I win the Oscar I will be winning for me, not for any country or people,' Basil Khalil, director of the Oscar-nominated short film ‘Ave Maria,’ tells Haaretz.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Basil Khalil poses at a reception for Oscar-nominated short films in California, February 23, 2016.
Basil Khalil poses at a reception for Oscar-nominated short films in California, February 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

When anyone asks the 34-year-old director Basil Khalil where he is from, he typically just says “London.” That is, after all, where he lives today, and thanks to his English mother, he is, in fact, a British citizen.

But Khalil is also the son of a Palestinian evangelist preacher father. He grew up in Nazareth, speaks Hebrew along with English and Arabic, has an Israeli passport to go with his British one, and just for good measure, studied filmmaking in Scotland and then lived in Italy and Spain.

So, actually, it's complicated.

The same could be said for Khalil’s 14-minute comic film “Ave Maria,” which is being tipped to win the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday.

“I wanted to make a comedy, and to say something about normal human beings and awkwardness, and about a culture clash –without political slogans being thrown around everywhere,” says Khalil, speaking over Skype from Los Angeles. “Politics and slogans one can get for free on the nightly news.”

A screenshot from Basil Khalil's Oscar-nominated 'Ave Maria' short film.Credit: Screenshot

Nonetheless, “Ave Maria,” like its maker, is probably more complex and political than it seems on the surface, if only by virtue of being about – or in Khalil’s case, from – a complicated place.

The humorous film tells the tale of an accidental meet-up, somewhere in the West Bank, between five Carmelite nuns who have taken a vow of silence and three bickering Jewish settlers – a cranky mother in a wheelchair, her son and daughter-in-law – who crash their car into the convent wall, moments before Shabbat comes in. For each group, stubborn in their own way, religious ritual becomes a barrier – something that must be compromised simply to fix the situation at hand.

Is there a hidden message about the absurdity of religious rules? Or a subtle warning against extremism of any kind? A statement about shared humanity? Or even – as some critics at a recent Egyptian film festival claimed – a hint of the possibility for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians?

“This is definitely not a pro-Israel film and I wish I had been at that festival in Egypt to make that clear,” charges Khalil. “I would have set them straight. This is not a movie about cooperation. One can’t have real cooperation between occupiers and occupied. There is no level ground there.”

The nuns and the Israelis do help each other in the film, concedes Khalil, but they do so not because they have become friends – but because they can’t stand each other.

Credit: Youtube

“The loud Israelis are ruining the nun’s silence but the Christians can’t kick the Jews out because of their rules of charity,” explains Khalil. “And the settlers are desperate to get out of there and get home for Shabbat – but they can’t walk down the road because they are afraid of Arabs along the way.”

Khalil started writing the story that would become “Ave Maria” in a London café in 2011. After a long battle to secure financing—almost all of which came from private money – he shot it over three days in 2014 on location in Haifa and in an abandoned convent in a military zone close to Jericho. The cast includes Shady Srour, Ruth Farhi, Maria Zreik, Huda al Imam and Maya Koren who, in the film, speak a mixture of Hebrew, English, and Arabic.

“I would say I am an [Israeli-Palestinian] insider, but also am looking at things with outsider eyes,” says Khalil. “If I win the Oscar I will be winning for me, not for any country or people.”

“Ave Maria,” which is Khalil’s first professional film, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has gone on to be seen at more than 50 festivals, including ones in Tunis, Qatar, Oman and Jordan. Unusual for a short film, it was also picked up by two distributors – Canada’s Ouat Media and MAD Solutions in the Middle East – and will also be broadcast on French TV. The one country where it has not gone over well is Lebanon, where it was banned.

“I have no idea why,” says Khalil, but he guesses that the film’s gentle poking at religion, lighthearted though it may be, seems to have rubbed the strict censors in that country the wrong way.

Meanwhile, the film has proved popular at a string of Jewish film festivals. “I was worried when I was writing the film that audiences, maybe Jewish ones in particular, would not get the comedic aspect of it. But many did. Not every Jew is a settler or believes in the settlements. I know the difference,” contends Khalil. “Being born Israeli or Palestinian is not what makes us enemies. But if you adopt extremist doctrines, that’s a decision I would question and urge audiences to, as well.”

Asked whether he thinks that a film making light of, or questioning, aspects of Islam would have been as well received by Muslim audiences as “Ave Maria,” Khalil defers.

“I am not a Muslim and don’t know much about Muslim religious rules, so I decided to stick to things I know more about: Christians, and to some extend Jews,” he says. “And anyway, everyone doing films in the Middle East is doing films about Islam. It’s nice to do something different.”

Many audiences outside of the Middle East, he adds, told him after watching the film that they had not even realized such a thing as Palestinian Arab nuns even existed.

Next week, “Ave Maria” will be released in East Jerusalem, Jenin, Nazareth and Haifa. It will be screened together with a full length Jordanian film – “Theeb” —which is also up for an Oscar, in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Win or not on Sunday, Khalil says he will be happy to put awards season behind him and begin working on new projects. Next up: a foodie comedy set in Nazareth, which will be in Arabic. Seems straightforward enough, perhaps, but just wait. No doubt there will be something more complicated stirred in with the hummus.

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