Never one to rest on her laurels, Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass arrived at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival not only to accept one of its prestigious Black Pearl awards for career achievement, but also to give one out as part of the narrative competition journey, and to present her latest movie, Ghazi Albuliwi’s New York-set culture-clash comedy “Peace After Marriage.”
Wearing so many hats at once is nothing new for the Paris-based star perhaps most familiar to American audiences for Thomas McCarthy’s “The Visitor”: she recently made her feature debut as writer and director with “Inheritance,” and supplemented her supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” with dialect coaching.
Indiewire sat down with the multi-talented artist on the morning of her award to talk politics, passing up roles, and the challenge of marrying the actor’s personal conviction with the director’s creative vision.
So, you’re here to receive your career achievement award. What has been, for you, the achievement of your career? What, when people look at your body of work, would you like them to take away?
You ask two questions at the same time; for the first one I would say I don’t know what achievement, I don’t know really. I know it’s a journey, and I still have a long way to go. When I decide on going to a movie or not, I don’t think this really, whether people will like it or not. I really need to connect with it myself. What I try to do is I try to be at least honest about things and treat them in an honest way where I am satisfied with myself so that I don’t regret my own decisions. So I don’t know what I expect people to find in my career or in the parts that I’m doing as much as really just sharing with them some personal life, some personal human existence, you know?
It’s more important to satisfy what you feel is important to convey, rather than worrying what people will think of it.
Absolutely. I don’t think any artist, before they go on writing or painting or creating a music piece or whatever think “oh people would like it, people would not like it”. Of course it is in the back of your mind because you respect your audience and you want them to connect with what you’re doing. Liking or not liking, it’s just too superficial, you know? I try to do stuff where I share my connection, my personal connection, to the project with the people that I’d love to connect with. So that’s the most important thing, I would say. It’s more about sharing, really, than, you know, “here I’m doing another movie, I would love you to like it.”
You’ve always been very politically involved in the films you make, particularly in the Palestinian work that deals with the conflict there. Do you think it’s a responsibility, in some respect, of cinema to address these things?
God forbid. I mean it’s too pretentious to say that I am here responsible for whatsoever, you know. No, I think I am responsible for my own choices, because I have a responsibility toward the person who I am. Now the person who I am has been sculptured from a lot of traveling, a lot of history, a lot of anecdotes, a lot of daily life, a lot of things that made of me who I am. But one thing that I really like, and I feel very tested by, is movies that make me think, you know, that make me wonder, that make me question life and politics and social issues. So in that sense I guess my engagement to the different parts that I’ve been doing has to do with that as well, because it’s part of me, and an important part of me. Now I don’t do it really by responsibility in a way, but I feel the person who I am and my own responsibility to myself makes it maybe sound that I could be responsible. But I think an artist is a free person and an artist is a free vision to confront the visions of others, and this is what I find interesting about art.
And that confrontation is what you seek out when you’re looking for a part?
Yeah, I mean it’s a little more complicated than that really, because first it’s a story, second it’s a character, third it’s a director, so the three at the same time are very connected to each other, and if the three suit me I would go, if one of them does not it’s hard to say yes.
You’re on the jury here, of course, and you were on the Cannes jury in 2012: do you look for the same kind of thing in a film you’re judging as in a film you would be taking for yourself?
Obviously there is a part of me that makes me connect or not connect with the movie, but when I’m a judge in that sense, when I’m on a jury, I really try to keep myself apart from watching the movie as a movie and try to see how it’s made, how it’s edited, what the music has to do with it, what the structure of the story is, what the script is, and just then I can make my mind. But I could connect with the movies that are totally non-political or non-social. My tendency in life is to like movies that deal with heavy stuff, but it’s my nature.
You said something interesting at [ADFF’s Heroines of the Silver Screen panel]: “I at least have to not be ashamed by the part”. Is there a certain amount of shame that you find is common in roles you’re sent? You mentioned a certain Western stereotype of “Middle-Eastern” rather than Palestinian, etc.
Absolutely, yeah. This I really cannot do. I know myself, I cannot just play a cliché. It has to be a character, it has to be written with the complexity of the human being behind. Could be bad, could be good, could be someone we would hate, but still I need a reason for that influence, and I need to understand why. So I need all this complexity of the structure of the human being in order to take a part.
Was the lack of that kind of role, to any extent, what led you into writing and directing your own material?
No, not really. I did photography, I went to a school of photography and I worked as a photographer at a young age. It felt like it was almost the right moment in my life to meet together on one hand the acting that is very important for me and the visual vision of the photography, basically, which is a movie really. So I thought it was almost necessary that I wanted to write a story and go into directing, so this is how it all started.
How has the photography and your own background combined with the influence of the directors you’ve worked with?
I mean directors are like most human beings, they’re very different, very diverse one from another: a woman from a man; a woman from a woman; a man from a man; different identities; different nationalities, because I’ve worked almost all over the world. What is really interesting, when I get to know a director, is to be able to understand the vision he has behind his movie, the way he wants to tell his story, which comes back to the photography. Then how would he film it, and just what I’m interested in most is how his vision and mine would meet to create the story that he wants to tell.
You’ve said that you want to work with [“The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” director] Eran Riklis again, do you have a project in mind?
We have, we’re thinking about it, but we do have, yes.
I’ve read that for your next feature project as director, which you’re working on at the moment, you’re not yet sure if you’re going to take on an acting role. Are you more drawn towards direction now?
No, I think both work at the same time. I mean I do have a lot of jobs as an actress which really gives me little time to be able to concentrate on the writing, but I do have a project that is just started being written, and I would love to direct it, but you know as an actress I can do three/four movies a year, but as a director I need always go through the classical process of the writing, the fundraising, putting the dates together, the cast, everything that as a director takes much more time than with an actor.
Has fundraising been easy for you in the past?
To be honest with you yes: it has been, really it has been. For the two shorts it was very easy, and for the feature I didn’t even wait long, so that’s the truth of it.
[Ghazi Albuliwi, writer-director-star of “Peace After Marriage,” joined the conversation at this point]
Ghazi: Which short film are you talking about, the bread one [Le Pain]? You have to see her shorts, they’re amazingly shot, they’ve very great stories, they’re very interesting.
How did you come to cast Hiam in “Peace After Marriage”?
Ghazi: The first time I saw her was in “Lemon Tree”… no I saw you in “The Visitor” first and then I saw you in “Lemon Tree,” because I was trying to figure out who could play my mom.
So you had the script already written when you met Hiam?
Ghazi: Yeah, I wrote the script first, and it’s a really interesting role for her, cos she doesn’t usually get comedies, so it’s good for people to be able to see her in a different light. She’s very funny in real life. I think people see this serious person, they kind of think she’s always the face of Palestinian acting. But it was an underwritten role, so then me and Hiam kind of developed it together so what we see on the screen is really kind of… a great thing. And I learned a lot from that process, how a great actor can really change the dynamics of what we did. When it’s not on the page, it’s a very rare thing.
Hiam: Especially a man director…
Ghazi: What does that mean?
Hiam: Oh, nothing…
Ghazi: You should write that she’s very difficult to work with on set. It’s subtle with her, it’s very subtle. She’s a classy diva, I call her, very classy: she’s not Judy Garland, where she’s drinking her head off and throwing shit, she’s… no, she’s great, she’s actually such a professional. Now I compare all the actors, so I tend not to be able to work with a lot of actors, because she’s so easy, she’s incredible. You would expect her to have something, because she’s done so many movies and she’s well-known and she’s very good but she really… she’s like a soldier, and I kind of like that. It’s why we keep working together I guess.
Hiam: Well he’d love to, but I’m thinking about it…