Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad is careful not to be too smitten by his own works.
His eighth feature film, Huda’s Salon, was met with emphatic applause at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where it had its Arab premiere. Yet, if it was up to the Oscar-nominated director, he would take the film back to the cutting board.
“If it comes back to me, I will continue editing,” he tells The National. “But as I always say, the film isn’t finished yet, but the budget is finished.”
Part of what Abu Assad is struggling with is the balance of darkness and light within Huda's Salon.
The film is set in Bethlehem and tells the story of Reem, a young woman in a difficult marriage, who goes to Huda’s beauty parlour for a haircut as well as a sympathetic ear. However, her visit goes awry after Huda extorts Reem into working for the mukhabarat (secret service) of the Israeli occupiers, thus putting her in the crosshairs of the Palestinian resistance.
The film, which features Arab superstars Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad and Ali Suliman, is based on true events. It pivots around the moral dilemma of wanting to survive yet not betray one’s people. It also shines a spotlight on Palestinian women living under occupation as well as prejudice.
"Some men feel threatened by the notion of empowering women," Abu Assad says. "But to empower women is to empower society as a whole."
The dark subject matter of the film is often uplifted by several lighthearted quips, most notably during family get-togethers and even early on in Huda’s salon. For Abu Assad, these moments were a necessary addition to reflect upon the strained optimism that comes with living in Palestine, and the wider Middle East.
“The Middle East is filled with problems, and in a way you are forced to stay hopeful in spite of all the catastrophes,” he says. However, he adds that in retrospect, he would have added more such moments in the film.
“I feel it’s darker than I thought,” he says. “I was hoping for more light. But this is my honest opinion.”
The coronavirus was also an inhibiting force, he says. For one thing, the film faced a six-moth delay after shooting in Nazareth and Bethlehem was shut down twice due to the pandemic. However, it also impeded his choices as a director on set.
“I guess on one side, the delays helped me think more about the characters and the scenario,” he says. “But I also feel like I did some mistakes. It’s not easy to shoot a film while you are scared that somebody might get Covid. I realise now that I did some shots out of fear and not concept because I didn’t want to have the actors too close together.”
Huda’s Salon ends on a somewhat open note. The Paradise Now and Omar director says he wanted to deliver an ending that felt satisfying, yet stopped short of tying everything neatly together. A decision which aims to reflect the issues the film deals with, he says.
“Some open endings leaves you feeling betrayed,” he says. “I didn’t want an ending like that. Also, I wanted to close the film in a way that didn’t give false hope.”
Cinema can be a powerful tool of conveying to the world the daily struggles of Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, Abu Assad says.
“Art in general that touches your feelings can provoke your thoughts in a different way,” he says. “Not just film, books can make you experience a character in their deepest and darkest moments, so that you can live those moments with the characters and can learn from them as an observer.”
With Huda’s Salon, Abu Assad says he wants his audience to feel shocked, giving them a chance to think about what living in such a reality truly entails.
“You don’t want to have this experience in reality because it is really shocking,” he says.
Huda’s Salon made its global premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Its screening at the Red Sea International Film Festival marked the film’s premiere in the Arab world, but it was also the first Arabic work to show at the festival, which the filmmaker says is a significant decision on the part of the organisers.
“I think the organisers are very brave to do that,” he says. “I really think the impact is huge. It’s important that the first Arabic film to be shown in Saudi Arabia’s first film festival is a Palestinian film.”
Huda’s Salon also signals Abu Assad’s return to telling Middle Eastern stories. The film is his first release since the 2017 plane-crash thriller The Mountains Between Us, which is based on the Charles Martin novel and stars Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.
Abu Assad says he has become more keen on telling stories from around the Arab world. Having emigrated to the Netherlands four decades ago and then to Hollywood, the filmmaker says he has recently been spending more time in his home town of Nazareth, and has been travelling around Palestine, Egypt and now, Saudi Arabia.
While the pandemic disrupted and delayed several projects he has been working on, he says he has a number of projects in the pipeline, most of which are based in the region.
“When I’m here, I feel at home,” he says. “It’s really that simple. There’s no more than that. I feel passionate about this world, with all its difficulties and conflicts. I feel at home.”