Who is Basil Khalil? British-Palestinian director wins big at Toronto Film Festival

The filmmaker, whose 'A Gaza Weekend' has been awarded the prestigious Fipresci Prize, says it began by 'mistake'

Basil Khalil is an award-winning director with a string of documentaries under his belt, including several on Palestine. Photo: Festival de Cannes
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The British-Palestinian production, A Gaza Weekend, has won the Toronto International Film Festival's Fipresci Prize.

Announcing it as this year's winner, the Fipresci jury recognised the film for "its empathy and intelligence in capturing the zeitgeist" and "daring approach to contemporary satire and world cinema".

"Basil Khalil’s direction finds space for the more sorrowful, more tender moments of interpersonal crises even as he deftly escalates the bawdy humour on display, capturing the nature of survival as very serious and very funny business for these characters," read the statement.

However, in a recorded acceptance speech, Khalil said the project began as a fortunate "mistake", which began as a pitch he made up to impress a producer at a Cannes networking event.

"When they asked me, 'Do you have a script?' I lied and I said, 'Yes I do,' so I had to quickly go write one," Khalil said. "Little did we know that this idea would unleash itself alongside Covid, and premiere and win at such a prestigious festival."

After thanking writing partner Daniel Ka-Chun Chan, he acknowledged producers Amina Dasmal and Robin Fox, before expressing appreciation for the film's financial backers in fittingly satirical style. Presenting a bottle of bleach — standing in for his award — to the camera, Khalil said, "I dedicate this prize to you".

The acceptance speech was in keeping with the director's distinct sense of wit and humour, which critics praised A Gaza Weekend for. The film uses the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to explore the lives of Palestinians under occupation.

Its premise centres on an Englishman and his Israeli partner, a wealthy couple, who find themselves stranded in Israel when a virus known as ARS breaks out. Their only hope of escape is to smuggle themselves into the Gaza Strip, which, owing to the separation wall, is known as “the safest place in the world”.

Khalil is no stranger to accolades; his previous short film, Ave Maria — a comedy about a meeting between Catholic nuns in the West Bank and a group of Israeli settlers — was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2016. Having made its premiere at Cannes, it went on to screen at more than 200 film festivals across the world, scooping up more than 40 awards along the way.

In a previous interview with The National, Khalil, who was born and raised in Nazareth to a Palestinian father and British-Irish mother, discussed the power of satire: "Palestinians have a very good sense of humour — and anyone who suffers around the world has always developed a good sense of humour to alleviate the pain and suffering they go through."

The award-winning director also has a string of documentaries under his belt, including several about Palestine.

Palestinian film and television is enjoying a renaissance at the moment. Mo Amer recently became the first Palestinian lead on a US TV show, with his Netflix series Mo, and Toronto is also set to host the Toronto Palestine Film Festival on Thursday, with the Boston Palestine Film Festival following on October 14.

The third Palestinian Refugees Film Festival will also be launching in Bethlehem later this month, screening 23 short films from around the world.

Speaking about the impact of depicting the lives of Palestinians, Khalil said: “It’s definitely important to see another side of Palestine. When you put it in a film and it shows around the world, people notice."

Scroll through images of the other Toronto International Film Festival winners below

Updated: September 19, 2022, 8:17 AM