Ave Maria director Basil Khalil on the Oscars: ‘I already feel like a winner’

Ave Maria, the independent comedy short set in Palestine, is tipped in industry circles as the Oscar favourite in the Short Film (Live Action) category – but Khalil is happy just to be invited to the party.

Basil Khalil, the British-Palestinian director of Ave Maria. Festival de Cannes
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When The National last caught up with director Basil Khalil, at the Cannes Film Festival in May, his short film Ave Maria was yet to screen but had been picked up for distribution in Canada and the Middle East.

It was an impressive achievement for an independent comedy short set in Palestine.

Fast forward nine months and the film is in the running for an Oscar in the Short Film (Live Action) category, and has been screened in cinemas and on TV worldwide.

Even Khalil seems amazed by the film’s success.

"Ave Maria will screen on Canal+ France on Oscar night," he says. "So far, it has sold to broadcasters in Spain and Japan, as well as some airlines. It has been doing a theatrical tour with the other nominated shorts around the world, screening on more than 400 screens, which broke box-office records for short films, taking in US$500,000 (Dh1.83 million) in its opening three-day weekend.

“Our Arab distributor [Cairo’s MAD Solutions] is also making history by selling it to TV, VOD and airlines, as well as a theatrical run – something never done before for a short film.

“The reaction was amazing, It was great to see how people from different cultures and countries reacted. Before my Cannes screening I was nervous if the comedy would work. So far we have screened at 67 festivals in 30 countries and won 14 awards. I guess this is a pretty good validation and I am very humbled by it all.”

The film tells the story of a Jewish family stranded by a car accident at a remote Palestinian convent as the Sabbath begins. Their strict orthodoxy, meaning they cannot work or operate machinery such as telephones to help themselves on the Sabbath, combined with the nuns’ vow of silence, make for an interesting challenge as they attempt to overcome their differences.

“Never in my life did I even think we would get this far,” the British-Palestinian filmmaker says. “The Oscars wasn’t even on the agenda. This time last year we were being rejected by every festival we applied to, until Cannes gave us the first push.”

Ave Maria is tipped in industry circles as the Oscar favourite – but Khalil is happy just to be invited to the party.

“I am over the moon,” he says. “I already feel like a winner as a nominee – that’s a title for life, I can’t ask for anything else.

"For me, Ave Maria's chances are still 20 per cent – and I'll take that any day over zero per cent. It is just starting to sink in that I am 'Oscar nominated' for life, that's good enough for me.

“A win will be a fairy-tale bonus but I am going to enjoy the ride for now.”

Win or lose tonight, it is unlikely to be the last we see of Khalil.

"I have two features and a TV series in development," he says. "It was hard work marketing Ave Maria, and that took over my last eight months. However, I am really looking forward to March where I will be able to relax and write write write."