Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad has finally completed his new film Huda's Salon, after filming in Nazareth and Bethlehem was shut down twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, at the Cairo International Film Festival, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker gave a masterclass via video, after which he spoke to The National from his home in Nazareth.
It's been a frustrating year for Abu-Assad, 59, who under normal circumstances would currently be travelling to festivals around the world presenting his eighth feature film. "The film should now be completed and ready in March; that's nine months later than planned," he says.
Starring Arab superstars Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad and Ali Suliman, Huda's Salon is based on the true story of two women fighting for their freedom. Reem, a young mother in a troubled marriage, goes to Huda's salon in Bethlehem, as much for an attentive ear as a haircut. But the visit turns sour when Huda blackmails Reem into working for the secret service of the occupiers, thus betraying her people.
The director is coy about giving away too many plot details, especially, he admits, because he's still not sure what the tone of the film will be. He's currently tinkering with the movie in the editing room, and one of the big questions is whether they make the ending as heart-rending as his Oscarnominated films Paradise Now and Omar.
"It's a dark movie," says Abu-Assad. "It's a dark feminist spy thriller. Let's see, we are still editing and we're still struggling with the end. Are we going to make it too dark? I don't know."
The word feminist is bandied around a lot by filmmakers in the post #MeToo era, so what does the Golden Globe winner mean by the term? “Feminism is when a man is equal to a woman, not a woman being equal to a man,” he says. “The struggle of feminism is usually pitted as women being equal to men, but no, men should be equal to women because the values of men [are worse]. For example, in general, men are making war, not women, so why would everyone adapt to the norms of men?”
Abu-Assad runs production company H&A Production with his wife, Amira Diab. They worked together on his recent films Omar and The Mountain Between Us, a $40 million plane disaster movie that stars Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. When Diab read the script that her husband had written for Huda's Salon, one of her big questions was: why are all your screenplays about betrayal?
“I was like, oh, my god, it’s true, what’s going on here,” says Abu-Assad. “This script is about loyalty and betrayal, and whether loyalty exists without betrayal. Then I dug deep into my life and I realised the biggest trauma I had in my life when I was young took place when a friend of mine betrayed me. It was six months of pain in my stomach; how could a friend betray me? I think, unconsciously, you go back to that moment.”
The event happened when Abu-Assad was 16 and still in high school. "There is always that friend whom you remember, who is so strong," he says. "I learnt from him; he was so knowledgable and knew everything about music, and I idolised him and became a friend to him. You don't think he would do anything bad to you. Then he betrayed me in a way that really endangered my life." The opaque way in which Abu-Assad talks about it suggests the trauma still reverberates inside him, stopping him from going into the specifics.
While Huda's Salon is still in post-production, Abu-Asad is willing to give away one more bit of rather cryptic information. "It's the struggle between the underground and above the ground. The underground is like a tunnel where you feel there is only one way you have to go. Above the ground, you have more of an opportunity to choose, but even there, you're living in a kind of tunnel, on a psychological level," he says.
We're on firmer ground when we talk about casting for this film, and how the process has changed for the director as he's become more famous. "For Paradise Now, it took me six months to cast. I was seeing actors after actors after actors, testing them, then screen test and screen test and another screen test, then testing combinations of actors together.
"With Huda's Salon, when I was writing, I already had the actors in my mind, so it's a different experience. What's better? I don't know, but I was really enjoying writing when I knew Ali was going to play Hasan, Manal is going to play Huda and Maisa is playing Reem, and as you put the words on the page, you hear them saying it."
Abu-Assad's high standing in the history of modern Arabic cinema cannot be understated. Marwan Hamed, the acclaimed Egyptian director of the Blue Elephant movies, interviewed Abu-Assad for the Cairo Film Festival masterclass.
As part of the event, he stated: "Hany is one of the most important directors in the world now, not just Arabic directors. His films are very effective. No one can ever forget what Paradise Now did at a very difficult time, coming a few years after September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. Paradise Now was a vital Palestinian and Arab voice. With it, Hany opened the door for the rest of the world to pay more attention to Arab cinema."
And for that, there is a great sense of anticipation for the film (and for Abu-Assad's return to the Arab world, after shooting the The Mountain Between Us in North America). The director is hoping Huda's Salon will open at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
"I always want to challenge myself," he says. "It was a big challenge to go from a $40m movie to a $1m movie. But I'm curious, always: how can I learn about life, first of all, about art, cinema language, and myself? With every experience, I feel I learn."