Director Scandar Copti opens up about his new film ‘Happy Holidays’, the Oscars and funding

The Palestinian filmmaker adopts cinema verite style and casts non-actors to capture the realities of occupation

Scandar Copti, the Palestinian director of the 2010 Oscar-nominated film Ajami, is working on his second feature film Happy Holidays. The docu-fiction film is inspired by real-life events in Palestine, and Copti will work with non-professional actors, similar to the style he followed in Ajami.

The story is set  in Galilee and Jerusalem and the action will blend fiction with reality amid everyday events, following the story of three main characters. 

“My film is a social story that again talks about reality construction and how education, the media and all the forces that regulate the way we are supposed to think affect our life, and then our realities become the consequence basically of what we do and not who we really are,” said Copti, who is based in Abu Dhabi and works as an Assistant Arts Professor of Film at New York University Abu Dhabi.

“It is again a sophisticated structure of three different characters that is very realistic, that talks about how even the Israeli holidays shape our understanding of our reality.”

Copti hopes to start shooting in spring of next year, and is looking to work with non-professional actors for three to four months, without a script, relying heavily on improvisation and allowing the events on the ground to shape the story and give it weight. 

“I like telling stories, but I also like listening to stories, so when I go to Nazareth and Jaffa, we [Copti and his wife] have two little kids and we meet people we don’t know and you start hearing stories,” he says. “Our role, as artists and filmmakers, is to collect what we see, give it our own interpretation, add an intention to it and release it.”

When Copti and his co-director Yaron Shani released Ajami, he didn't expect it to be a runaway success. The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2010. 

"When we did Ajami nobody wanted to buy it, not in Europe, not in the States, not anywhere," he says. "Then suddenly we got the special mention in Cannes, then everybody started calling us, but still we were not able to distribute the film in a lot of countries.

“And only when we made it to the Oscars, we started getting tonnes of phone calls and I thought it is a little bit hypocritical...because the same people that told us, ‘OK listen, I don’t think it is a good film,’ suddenly believe in this film, and this is a global problem.”

The trailer for Ajami:

It’s a post-colonial mentality problem, he says, where artists in this part of the world think they’re not good enough.

Copti adds that artists in the region face a number of challenges, from a lack of sufficient funding for Arab films to few distribution companies espousing Arab films, that often don't make it to local, let alone international commercial screens.

Filmmakers such as Copti often have to turn to Europe – as he is doing today – in order to get funding for their work.

“I am writing my next feature film... but in my head I am thinking about the reader in the film fund in Germany that will read it,” he says.

“What I am doing is adjusting myself to meet the expectations of a non-Arab reader because we don’t have enough Arab film funds that could fully support a film.”

And also, fewer funds are coming out of Europe. "Europe is giving less money to non-European films because they have better things to fund, like refugees, and Brexit is on the way, so priorities have changed a little bit," he says.

"The same funds that gave me money for Ajami are now giving half to everybody."

So, more often  than not, filmmakers such as Copti have to rely on something outside their control – such as luck.

“I don’t believe in this capitalist equation that if you work hard, you will make it,” he says. “Are we saying that the Arab world is not working hard? I think it is a ridiculous capitalist claim. There is a lot of luck and other forces that are involved. There are a lot of forces that are causing us to either become who we are or to remain what we are in order to sustain the situation. The most immediate thing is the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

While the occupation stares filmmakers such as Copti straight in the face, it doesn't overtake his films, which instead show subtly how it works to eat away at the everyday existence of so many people.

"I think occupation affects us on all the levels and I want to show those levels," he says. "You see how people who are suffering in Ajami, how they became violent because of oppression and because of the segregation and the racist law and racism that the occupation is bringing on us."

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Although some in the Arab world frowned upon the collaboration with Israel in the film, to give an accurate portrayal of events, Copti enlisted Israelis in Ajami, which was a joint Palestinian-Israeli production. It featured real Israeli police, paramedics and citizens. This time, he's seeking Arab-European funding but looking to work with Israelis to portray Israeli characters.

Despite all the challenges facing Arab cinema, Copti is optimistic, especially about the work the Arab diaspora is doing to boost the appeal of Arab cinema internationally.

“You see more Arab film festivals popping out in the States and in Europe,” he says. “Those diaspora communities are organising those Arab film festivals. Arab cinema can’t be done without a European co-producer and those co-producers. They push those films into European festivals and people watch them.”