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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Suha Arraf – ‘Villa Touma’

TIFF Women Directors: Meet Suha Arraf - 'Villa Touma'

Suha Arraf was born in the Palestinian village of Melyia, near Lebanon. She began her filmmaking career as a documentary producer. Her latest work, Women of Hamas (2010), received 13 awards at international film festivals. Arraf’s first two screenplays, The Syrian Bride (2004) and The Lemon Tree (2008), both co-written and directed by Eran Riklis, received international acclaim, with the latter winning Best Screenplay at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and a Best Screenplay nomination at the European Film Academy Awards. (Venice International Film Critics Week)

Villa Touma will play at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 8, and 14.

WaH: Please give us your description of the film playing.

SA: It is a story of three sisters from Ramallah [in the West Bank], from the somewhat extinct class of aristocratic Christians, who have chosen to shut themselves in their villa and cling desperately to their former glory days (pre-1967). They are unable to face the new reality of the occupation and the loss of their place in society.

WaH: What drew you to this script?

SA: I wanted to bring the human side of the Palestinian [situation] to the forefront, their strengths and weaknesses, their compassion and stubbornness. In modern Palestinian cinema, we are portrayed as either heroes or victims, and we have forgotten the person in between.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SA: So many. Firstly, I set out to make the film with a budget of $400K, [but] I used all [of it] for the shoot, not knowing where I would get the finances for post-production. This meant we had only 24 shooting days; the last two days the crew volunteered, unpaid. Another challenge was making a film in one claustrophobic location, yet trying to keep the actors focused and fresh everyday.

WaH: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

SA: To see another face of the Palestinians — not as martyrs, fighters, and suicide bombers the Western media so happily likes to portray us as. I’d like them to have seen the normal Palestinian person, and feel the pain these women felt. To leave the cinema thinking: had there not been an occupation, would their lives have been any different?

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SA: Be stubborn. If you have a good story, believe in your story, and push for it. For five years, I faced rejection and was told my story was flat and not dynamic. A first film is hard enough, let alone for a female director. Get used to the “no’s,” and develop a thick skin.

WaH: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

SA: As a female Palestinian filmmaker, I was expected to [feature] Israeli soldiers, checkpoints, the walls, the martyrs, honor killings, and impoverished refugee camps. I was expected to make your typical Palestinian narrative, carrying the Palestinian case on my shoulders.

WaH: How did you get your film funded? 

SA: I applied to countless film funds in Germany, France, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and was rejected by them all. At the time I had half of my budget, $400,000 from the Israel Film Fund confirmed. At some point in 2012 I decided that I should just make the film with what I’ve got, and the rest will come later. Once I completed the first rough cut, I got a grant from Post Republic in Berlin to do the picture post there and a small grant from the Other Israel Film Festival in NYC.

WaH:  Name your favorite women directed film and why

SA: I have great respect for Jane Campion’s cinema and storytelling, mainly The Piano. This is such a tough job for anyone making their first film, let alone women, where our society expects them to be homemakers, so I have huge respect to any female filmmaker.

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