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Meet the 2011 ND/NF Filmmakers: "Man Without a Cell Phone" Director Sameh Zoabi

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 28, 2011 at 2:37AM

When he’s not working in his cousin’s concrete business, college dropout Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), who lives in a quiet Palestinian town inside Israel, usually spends his free time looking for new women to chat up on his cell phone. But when his wireless flirting starts to extend into the West Bank, it catches the attention of the Israeli authorities.
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When he’s not working in his cousin’s concrete business, college dropout Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), who lives in a quiet Palestinian town inside Israel, usually spends his free time looking for new women to chat up on his cell phone. But when his wireless flirting starts to extend into the West Bank, it catches the attention of the Israeli authorities.

Sameh Zoabi’s perceptive feature debut offers a window into a section of Palestinian society rarely seen on screen: Israeli citizens whose daily lives appear removed from the ongoing struggle, yet who often feel they are second-class citizens. [Synopsis courtesy of ND/NF].

"Man Without a Cell Phone"
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Writers: Fred Rice, Sameh Zoabi
Producers: Marie Gutmann, Amir Harel, Ayelet Kait
Line Producer: Baher Agbariya
Cinematographer: Hichame Alaouie
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Music by: Krishna Levy
Cast: Razi Shawahdeh, Bassem Loulou, Louay Noufy

Responses courtesy of "Man Without a Cell Phone" director Sameh Zoabi.

Gaining access to film...

The youngest of nine children to parents who were farmers, I did not grow up going to the movies. In my small village of Iksal, near Nazareth, theaters had closed long before my childhood. Instead, there was a lot of Bruce Lee and "Rambo" on video, and Westerns on television, as well as the movie fan books my sisters owned. It was not until 1995, when I went to college, that my film education began. After graduating from Tel Aviv University, I knew I needed to get out of the Middle East to gain a larger perspective. The following year, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a Master’s Degree and chose Columbia University's Graduate Program.

Growing up Palestinian-Israeli...

My inspiration for the story is based upon personal experiences growing up as a Palestinian-Israeli. 20 percent of Israel's citizens are Palestinians who live in segregated villages and towns throughout the country. We grow up having our own communities and schools that are not integrated with the larger Israeli society. Following high school, many young people flock to universities and the work place where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self discovery for young adults across cultures, but it is particularly unique for Palestinian-Israelis, who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region, and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people. As a filmmaker, I feel the urge to tell stories about my own community and share this collection of narratives with the world.

An international approach...

My approach to filmmaking is undoubtedly influenced by my international life experience, where I was able to explore the different cinematic schools of the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Although my work thus far has been specific in terms of setting and topic, as it deals with my background as a Palestinian who lives in Israel, my films have been perceived with universal appeal. "Man without a Cell Phone" is an evident example. The script was inspired by my upbringing, written in New York, financed in Europe and shot in the Middle East.

That said, there are two major approaches that I can point out specifically. First, inspired by the Italian neorealism, I see the characters of my movies to be the main force of the drama. It is not necessarily the plot. Second, I always struggle to find the balance between making a movie that deals with important social political issues, and at the same time is able to entertain the audience. The movie is ultimately more powerful if it tells something substantial, and as a filmmaker, you must have an opinion in your work.

Making the case for comedy...

My biggest challenge was that the film is a comedy dealing with the Palestinian and Israeli reality. People take the region and conflict too seriously, and any attempt to make a comedy can easily be misunderstood as "not strong or serious." Of course, I believe that comedy can allow you the freedom to discuss very serious issues in a more subtle manner. It was hard to convince people that comedy is the way. It took me five years and five countries to finance what is less than a million dollar movie.

Fear of cell phones...

This was the first ever film shoot in my hometown, Iksal. People had not seen a movie crew this close before. In real life, like in the movie, people do believe that the radiation from cell phone towers causes cancer. So when we built a cell phone tower close to the village as part of the film set, it was destroyed the next morning. People left signs saying “No more radiation and cancer.” It turned out that some people thought it was a real cell phone tower, so we had to announce through the Mosque’s speakers in the village, during Friday’s prayer, that the tower was part of the film set and not real.

Any projects in the future?

I am attached to direct a feature and a short documentary this year, while working on developing two feature films, one set in the Middle East and the other in the United States.

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