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.