There have been many filmmaking sibling duos – The Coens, the Safdies and the Duffer Brothers. But Arab and Tarzan Nasser, 31, are unique. Identical twins, these strapping Palestinian filmmakers arrive for our encounter at the Venice International Film Festival looking like rock stars. Arab is dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt, and with a fork bent around his wrist. Tarzan is sporting leather trousers. Both have thick, wiry beards and intense brown eyes.
We meet in the courtyard of the Splendid Venice hotel, with the brothers fresh from the screening of their second feature film, Gaza Mon Amour, a deadpan love story set in the Palestinian city that plays in the festival's Horizons strand.
The enthusiastic reception and post-screening Q&A has left both men buzzing with excitement, particularly given that the Covid-19 pandemic could have denied them such a reception.
"The moment when the audience were clapping for the film, I got my pleasure," says Arab. "You spend five years [working on something] … and for me, that moment was enough." Sitting with them is Hiam Abbas, 59, the Palestinian actress whose international credits include Munich, Blade Runner 2049 and the award-winning HBO drama Succession.
"All Palestinians are proud of her," Tarzan says, smiling, unconcerned that he is making her blush. Five years ago, Abbas starred in the Nasser brothers' first feature film, Degrade, which tells the story of a dozen people trapped in a beauty salon as Hamas police clash with a gang outside on the street. Now she is back for Gaza Mon Amour, a story she says is "beyond the conflict, beyond the war, beyond anything".
The film follows Issa (Salim Daw), a 60-year-old fisherman who dredges up a bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo in his nets. "It was inspired by a real event that happened in Gaza in 2013, about a fisherman who finds a real statue of Apollo," says Arab. "The government knew about the statue and they went and took it. There are many questions about the event." Nonetheless, it inspired him and his brother to write a love story around this absurdist adventure.
The romance comes with Issa – whose sister has been trying to marry him off – falling for widowed Siham (played by Abbas), who runs a local dress shop alongside her daughter Leila (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who can think of nothing else but leaving Gaza.
"A woman of that age, once she has lost her husband, there is no hope of any other relationship that could happen to her," says Abbas. "It's rare. And I think what makes my character different from certain traditional women there is the fact that she opens up to this relationship somehow."
Early reviews have compared the work of the Nassers on Gaza Mon Amour to that of veteran Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, as well as US director Jim Jarmusch, though perhaps the difference is, every now and then, real life interrupts. In the backdrop, far in the distance, you can glimpse bombs fired by the Israeli military. There is even a rally with a rocket being proudly displayed by the protesters.
But the brothers were never about making grand polemical statements. “We decided to do something with no link to politics,” says Tarzan, with his typical bluntness.
The way Abbas sees it, the film depicts daily life in Gaza. "Everything in Gaza is political," she says. "But at the same time, for them doing these movies and telling these stories is escaping the politics. Escaping the politics does not mean you don't show the reality as it is. They are not interested in telling you what the politics is, but they show you there is politics."
As the title suggests, as much as anything, it's a love letter to the city where they grew up. "It's Gaza Mon Amour," says Arab. "[To show] how much we love Gaza."
The film is also a tribute to their father, with the end credits featuring a dedication to him.
So, was he a major inspiration to them? "He loves cinema, he loves music," says Tarzan. "He is full of this character [Issa]. I can see some parts of my father, in this character, but there is my mum, too. I have my father in Issa and I have my mum in Hiam's character. I go often to the film to see the parts of Siham. It really reminds me of my mum."
As touching as this is, Gaza Mon Amour also represents the brothers' attempt to overcome the difficult second film – an issue that troubles many filmmakers who have a bright start. "They got so much more mature, cinema-wise," says Abbas. "From the first to the second, they succeeded in taking a big step – of maturity and designing what their cinema is going to be like. I'm not saying they should stop here. They have a long way to go, but it's a very important step because it's a step that defines both of them as filmmakers and this is good – this is rare, to know what a kind of director you're going to be."
Abbas compares movies to toiling away in a garden. "If we lose that hope of the tree that we planted, we're dead," she says. "That's why festivals are very important and why holding Venice this year is very important."
Gaza Mon Amour will also play at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday, September 20.