Filmmaker Ameen Nayfeh debuts at Venice: 'I don’t want people to look at Palestinians as victims'

We speak to the Palestinian director before the world premiere of his debut film '200 Metres' at the Venice Film Festival

Ali Suliman stars in the new film '200 Metres' by Ameen Nayfeh. Elin Kirschfink
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Sometimes, the journey is as important as the destination. For Ameen Nayfeh, who makes his feature debut with 200 Metres at this year's Venice International Film Festival, his presence on the Lido will itself be considered a personal triumph. The film, which stars Palestinian actor Ali Suliman (Paradise Now), will receive its world premiere this Tuesday, in the Venice Days strand of the festival. But whether Nayfeh, who lives in Tulkarm in the West Bank, will be able to attend is another matter entirely.

We wanted to say in 200 Metres that we deserve to live and be normal people

For weeks Nayfeh and his producer May Odeh have been consulting with the Palestinian and Jordanian foreign ministries, the  Royal Film Commission in Jordan, the Italian consulate in Jerusalem, the Palestinian embassy in Rome and even the German police, to grant his passage to Venice. When we speak, only days before the festival started, he still didn't know for sure if he would make it to his premiere. "I am hopeful now," he says. "But you can never predict the future in this crazy time."

"We never know because the procedures are changing every minute," his producer May Odeh says. "Unfortunately, we don't have control of the border or the rules. We are occupied. We don't have a say. So we don't know if the rules will change the minute Ameen is travelling."

Even if there are no problems, it's going to be an epic journey, with Nayfeh required to take plane trips from Palestine to Jordan, Jordan to Turkey, then to Germany and finally to Italy. As if to emphasise the painful nature of the situation, his cousin, who holds an Israeli passport, plans to attend the premiere in Venice. "He can travel from Tel Aviv," the director explains. "He can take one flight from Tel Aviv to Milan. And we live 20 minutes from each other."

Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh hopes to be in Venice for the world premiere of his debut film '200 Metres'. Venice Film Festival

Ironically, Nayfeh's film reflects something similar. In the story, Mustafa (Suliman) and his wife Salwa (Lana Zreik) live only 200 metres apart in villages separated by the West Bank wall. When he discovers that his son has been taken ill and into hospital, he rushes to cross the border, only to find that his permit has expired. And so 200 metres becomes 200 kilometres, as he takes up a dangerous and circuitous route to make it past the Israeli security detail and through the checkpoints.

In Nayfeh's eyes, the journey in the film is "representative" of what ordinary Palestinians face "every day, just to get small tasks done". It doesn't have to be an emergency dash, as seen in the film or his 2017 short, The Crossing. It could be as simple as visiting friends and family, attending a wedding or even merely travelling for work. "We wanted to say in 200 Metres that we deserve to live and be normal people," adds Odeh. "We don't need big statements, just freedom of movement and basic human rights."

Nayfeh experienced something similar to Mustafa's journey two years ago. His uncle fell ill and was taken into a hospital in Tel Aviv. Nayfeh, who earned a nursing degree before he moved into film, applied for a permit three times to visit him. The third time, he was granted an eight-hour visit. "I decided to stay [overnight], to be with him, because he was in a really bad condition," he reveals. The next day, a security official checked his expired permit. "I was interrogated by the police for being in hospital with my uncle," he says, sighing. "This is our daily life."

'200 Metres' is inspired by everyday struggles of living under occupation. Elin Kirschfink

Such restrictions also meant it was a trial getting the film finished. Like most, Nayfeh has been struggling to work during the coronavirus pandemic. But things have been made even more difficult by the fact that he was unable to travel from Palestine to Sweden, where post-production was being undertaken. Fortunately, his Belgian-born cinematographer, Elin Kirschfink, was able to attend in person, but with no authority granted to travel, Nayfeh was forced to work on the film remotely. "I mixed my first feature film on a Zoom call," he says. "It was very frustrating."

Anna Unterberger, left, plays the role of a German tourist, who Nayfeh says provides an outsider's perspective. Elin Kirschfink

Even so, Nayfeh is clear as to what he hopes viewers will feel after watching 200 Metres. "I don't want people to look at Palestinians as victims, and weak and complaining, but as survivors," he says. "The situation is really hard. We do our best to survive. Like Mustafa. You see him at the beginning, he is trying to communicate with his kids, and at the end of the film, in the last scene, he is telling them 'I will never give up on you.' This is what I really want the audience to take away from the film."

Although it begins in social realist territory, with a political edge, 200 Metres morphs into a tense and taut thriller as the story unfolds, with Mustafa joining several others willing to pay and take the risk to cross the border by hiding in the boot of a car. "I think what it is now is what I wanted to do – to have this mix of genres," he says. "The story itself is not one note or tone. It transfers from a social drama into this crazy journey – it was a true representation of the story itself."

One of the more intriguing characters is Anne (Anna Unterberger), a German tourist who joins Mustafa on the treacherous trip. An outsider who serves as a way for foreign audiences to tap into the complex Israel-Palestine situation, she goes further than that, says Nayfeh. "For me, she brings one of the most important questions at the end of the film. OK, we talked about the physical wall and the Apartheid, but what about the invisible wall between Palestinians and Israelis? How do we react to each other?" It's a debate that Nayfeh will hope to continue in person in Venice.

200 Metres premieres on Tuesday, September 8, at the Venice International Film Festival