A pearl among performers

The Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass will be a busy woman during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival: while in the capital she will pick up a Black Pearl Career Achievement Award, serve on the festival jury and see the world premiere of her latest film, Peace After Marriage.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbas. Courtesy Overture Films
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It’s impossible to quibble with the decision to honour the actress Hiam Abbass with the sole Black Pearl Career Achievement Award during the upcoming Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), which begins on Thursday.

Her nuanced performances in a variety of roles have made Abbass the most recognisable actress from the Middle East. During her stellar career, the Palestinian has moved seamlessly between Arabic, French and English performances.

The Paris resident also seems to have an eye for great characters and scripts. It’s remarkable how many noteworthy films she’s appeared in over the past decade. Her portfolio includes playing a mother of a would-be suicide bomber in Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now; the wife of a suspected Black September collaborator in Steven Spielberg’s Munich; an illegal Syrian immigrant helping her son fight extradition from the US in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor; the owner of a lemon grove under threat from the Israeli secret service in Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree; a Palestinian-American hosting her sister in Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka; and the founder of a school for orphaned Palestinian girls in Julian Schnabel’s Miral.

As if that were not impressive enough, Abbass is a filmmaker, too. She directed and starred in The Inheritance, a family drama, last year. The recent Venice Film Festival saw the unveiling of a short film she made for the fashion label Miu Miu. ADFF has also asked her to double up – she’ll be on the jury in addition to receiving the career award.

“I was really surprised to win,” she says. “I like to think that I’ve done nothing that deserves whatever. I’m not doing this job for any prizes. But I was really touched, it’s recognition for what you have been doing and so I can only be honoured and happy to receive the award.”

The 52-year-old also harbours just the slightest worry that she is too young to be endowed with a career award: “It makes me feel old in a way. I would like to live longer and be able to do a lot more, whether acting or directing,” she says.

Despite having had numerous films screened in Abu Dhabi, the festival marks the first time that the actress has visited the city and she has no idea what is in store. “I don’t know. I like to be surprised. I cannot expect things from places that I have not been to. I’m really thrilled to discover new movies and spend 10 days there, meeting interesting people.”

She’s no stranger to juries, having once served at the Cannes International Film Festival. Abbass has no idea how the experience will stack up to Abu Dhabi.

“I hope it will be simpler, and I can go to watch the films in jeans and flip-flops and not have to dress up all the time. The idea of a jury for me is to be able to see movies and discuss them with your colleagues and give the awards, even if sometimes it’s heartbreaking to compare and judge movies against each other.”

Looking back at her career, Abbass believes two factors, outside of her acting ability, have contributed to her success: “When you speak four languages it helps and because I have this really Mediterranean face that is, as we say in French, passe-partout – it passes everywhere, so I can work on characters that don’t necessarily have an Arab identity.”

Born in Nazareth in 1960, Abbass grew up in a village in Galilee. She moved to Jerusalem and Haifa, where she worked as a photographer before joining the theatre group El-Hakawati. She left her native land in the 1980s, moving first to London and then Paris. She made her film debut in 1987 in Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee and has since appeared in more than 60 films.

There doesn’t seem much time ahead for a breather either. While in Abu Dhabi, she will see the world premiere of another project in which she stars – Ghazi Albuliwi’s comedy of errors Peace After Marriage.

After that, her schedule is full right through to the middle of next year with a mix of theatre and high- profile film work.

“In November, I have the theatre play, Phaedra the Birds, in Palestine in a refugee camp. It’s really important for me to do that. I’ve been involved in it for a year and a half, performing around the globe. Then in December I’m back working on the new Ridley Scott film, Exodus, the story of Moses in Egypt, then I have another movie in January and one in spring. In principal, I’m also trying to take time to concentrate on the second story that I would like to direct, which I’m working on with a screenwriter based in France.

• Peace After Marriage screens on October 29 at 9.15pm in Marina Mall Vox 1 and on October 31 in Vox 2.