There can be no better story this year at the Cannes Film Festival than the arrival of Inshallah A Boy.
Co-written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Amjad Al Rasheed, this powerful tale of familial in-fighting is the first film from Jordan to be selected for Cannes.
“It was amazing news,” says Al Rasheed, when we meet on a beachside terrace. “Cannes is huge and big. It’s the most important festival on the planet. It’s a great place to present my first feature film.”
Needless to say, the reaction in Jordan has been hugely positive.
“I had a lot of support, especially from the film community. Before coming to Cannes, I had this interview with a local channel and they made me feel like I was a national hero! It was a great feeling.”
Better yet, after having its debut in the Critics’ Week strand of the festival, the reviews have been impressive. Trade paper Screen International praised the film’s “refreshing take on complex family dynamics”.
Born in 1985, Al Rasheed graduated with an MFA from the now-defunct Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts 13 years ago. Since then, he’s made shorts and spent the last six years getting Inshallah A Boy off the ground.
“At first I felt it was frustrating,” he says, but it was clearly time well spent.
The film dives into the nuances of Jordanian family law with a resonant story that begins when mother-of-one Nawal (Mouna Hawa) is suddenly widowed. Under local inheritance rulings, she discovers that late husband's wider family are entitled to her property because she previously gave birth to a daughter, not a son. In dire straits, she pretends to be pregnant.
“I wanted to tell this story because it’s a personal story for me,” says Al Rasheed. “It’s a story that was inspired by a very close relative of mine, who was almost in the same situation as my main character.”
Al Rasheed hasn’t told his relative that she served as a loose model for the story.
“She does not know. I don’t know if its the right thing to do [but] I didn’t tell her that I was inspired by her.”
Will she guess?
“We’ll see! It’s not important because it’s inspired by different stories from women in society. She was the trigger.”
So how does he view the situation for women right now in Jordan?
“I think it’s the same in the Arab world. Women, they don’t have equality and rights. For some reason, it’s because of traditions and normalisation of behaviours for years," he says. "We need to question these behaviours. How you can build this society when half of that is suffering from inequality? These laws control their freedom and their lives. I think we need to rethink these behaviours, how we treat women, in order to build our society in a good way.”
Making the film, Al Rasheed has the backing of two resolute Jordanian female producers, Rula Nasser and Aseel Abu Ayyash, who both worked on the controversial Iranian movie Holy Spider, which played in Cannes last year. But as the director points out, the film is not just about female rights close to home.
“I think it’s also akin to other things around the world — salary and equality for women in Europe and the West. It’s not about only Jordan and the Arab world. The thing is, I wanted to raise questions, I wanted people to think.”
Al Rasheed is now bracing himself, waiting to see how the film will be received back in Jordan.
“Our industry is a young industry. And we don't have a lot of films yet. So now with this wave of cinema that is happening in Jordan, people, the audience … in Jordan, they’re finding it hard to watch them themselves in the mirror. They’re sensitive to all the topics. So this is where it’s hard.”
He cites two recent films, Bassel Ghandour’s Amman-set underworld thriller The Alleys and Zaid Abu Hamdan’s Daughters of Abdulrahman.
“The two films are good films,” says Al Rasheed. “They were very well received in festivals. But when they were out on platforms, they had some backlash because again, it’s something new for the audience. Some people thought, ‘Oh, this film does not represent Jordan.’”
In the case of The Alleys, more conservative members of Jordan’s parliament also criticised the film for its use of expletives and allegedly blasphemous themes.
Inshallah A Boy, especially on the back of its Cannes appearance, deserves to be wholly embraced, although of course there is no accounting for anonymous online criticism.
“I hope it will be well received,” Al Rasheed shrugs. “I didn’t have any expectations. I think we tackled some important topics in a smart way. The main purpose was not to tear down things. My main purpose was to raise questions and to push people to think.”
Perhaps the highest praise you can offer the film is that it bears comparison to Asghar Farhadi’s prize-winning film A Separation, which saw a couple navigate byzantine Iranian divorce laws. Al Rasheed is well-versed in Farhadi’s work.
“I’m definitely influenced by Iranian cinema,” he says, but he didn't set out to imitate the Iranian master. “In this film, it’s my voice. It’s a great compliment to have this comparison. He’s a director I really admire but again its my voice, my way of storytelling.”
On the back of Inshallah A Boy’s success, he’s already working on his next feature.
“I’m in early stages of development,” he says. “I feel so strong about it.”
Having been through a drawn-out development process on Inshallah A Boy — with support from the Red Sea Film Fund, Doha Institute, Cairo Film Festival and others — he’s now knows what to expect.
“This is part of doing an independent movie, this cycle. I hope my next one will not take that time,” he says.
Whatever happens, he’ll always have the distinction of being the first ever director to take a Jordanian movie to the Cannes Film Festival.
The Cannes Film Festival runs until Saturday.