Muayad Alayan is sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Africa in Tunis. It’s late November and he, like everyone else in Tunis and at the Carthage Film Festival, is under government-imposed curfew.
Evening and networking events have been cancelled, a 30-day state of emergency has been declared, and the festival organisers have been forced to re-write the screening schedule for the remaining four days. Twenty-four hours earlier – and just 500 metres from the hotel – 12 members of the Tunisian Presidential Guard died at the hands of a suicide bomber.
Outside, parts of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba have been sealed off and people are stuffed like malfouf into the hotel foyer. Everyone is here. Nabil Ayouch, the director of controversial Moroccan film Much Loved; Tarzan and Arab Nasser, the Gazan brothers behind Cannes debutante Dégradé; the actress Hiam Abbass; and Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who is to host the festival’s final night awards show. There are a sprinkling of Europeans too, although they are conspicuous by their absence.
Amidst all this is Alayan, the Jerusalem-based director of Love, Theft and Other Entanglements, a dark comedy part-funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and soon to be given a limited theatrical release across the Middle East.
Originally premiered at last year’s Berlinale, it has been doing the festival circuit for the best part of a year and is set for cinematic release in the UAE, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait during the first quarter of the year. Theatrical runs in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain are also planned, having already been released in France.
In the lobby bar Alayan and a handful of others sit and talk every night, partly of plans to shoot a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a group of filmmakers stuck in a hotel lobby in Tunis. But they also discuss their respective films, the industry at large and the challenges they face.
His was shot in a minimalist visual style and has at its core the story of a petty Palestinian car thief called Mousa. A flawed antihero, Alayan asserts that Mousa in many ways represents the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians – those wishing to survive and to lead a decent life but who are unwilling to compromise on issues of national dignity.
“When writing the script we ran with the idea of somebody who wants nothing to do with any of the crap that’s happening in our world – who’s trying everything to avoid both his personal troubles and the wider political troubles – but ends up getting deeper and deeper into both personal and political trouble,” says Alayan. “We also didn’t want to create another character like the ones you already see in Palestinian cinema. We didn’t want the perfect idol – the patriot, the national hero – because although there are people like that, that’s not the representation of more than a minority of the people. But we also didn’t want the opposite representation – the poor, the victim, the weak – which is also not 100 per cent true.
“You don’t have to be a hero to be clean, or to be nationally pure and honest and truthful to your cause. Even the car thief. Even this antihero. When it comes to the big issues, there are political lines [in the film] that show who he is and what his position is on the conflict or the Palestinian struggle for freedom. It’s very easy in drama to make him a collaborator – and many Palestinians and Israeli films did that – and it’s very easy to make him a superhero. But it’s really hard to cover the 80 per cent of the real people – the average people – those who are weak and impoverished but are not willing to make compromises on national ethics or towards themselves and their own people.”
The two central themes of the film are, understandably, love and theft, with the entanglement arriving via a kidnapped Israeli soldier whom Mousa finds tied up in the trunk of a car he has stolen. In possession of the one thing that everyone is searching for, he is soon hounded by both Palestinian militias and Israeli intelligence, with his life rapidly slipping out of control.
Shot in black and white on a very limited budget and co-written and co-produced by Alayan’s brother Rami, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements is ‘part drama, part thriller and part fairytale’, with irony and sarcasm taking centre stage. The influences of both Jean-Luc Goddard and Jim Jarmusch are evident – both of whom Alayan admires – even if the film struggles to find a coherent overall identity as it weaves its way through a twisting narrative.
It is, however, the end result of a collective effort spearheaded by the Alayan brothers and Palcine Productions, a co-operative of directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, designers and artists based in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem area. Eschewing co-production with Europe, the shoot was self-financed with the help of loans from friends, while the $20,000 raised through Indiegogo paid for post-production. The cast also received minimal pay, while the assistant director and the production assistant played the militia, Rami doubled up as a falafel seller, and the stolen car was Alayan’s own vehicle. One of the main houses featured in the film was also the home of an extra.
“It’s this very organic Palestinian way, if you wish, of making things,” says Alayan. “I always say it takes a village to make a film, just as it takes a village to raise a child. We are poor in money but we are rich in generosity. People would come and help you build your house just because you’re part of the village. Or if you’re getting married they would come and run the whole show and build the stage and dress the groom. Even if I had the money, I would still want the atmosphere around the making of the film to stay that way. Because it shows at the end. There is a soul to the product.”
Filmed in various locations, including Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, many of the scenarios in the movie are inspired by the experiences of Alayan and the people he knows, or are taken from true stories that Alayan has heard and been affected by. All, however, are utilised in such a way as to provide a succession of challenges for the lead character’s journey towards redemption.
“I’m attracted to the stories of normal people – average people who find themselves in situations bigger than themselves and [are] so unreal,” he says. “I want to tell these stories. Before I die, I want to leave behind 10 films. That’s the way I wake up in the morning. That’s the way I think. I say: ‘That story, I better do it before I die’. It has to be made.”
Making them, however, is not easy.
“There is a whole generation of Palestinian filmmakers who are frustrated with the status quo,” admits Alayan a few weeks later. Two successful screenings at the Dubai International Film Festival have come and gone. “This co-production route with Europe – which is great and should go on – is at the same time so limiting. Films are taking five to seven years to get financed or developed and things change along the line. People influence your script according to their own agenda – what they see is marketable versus what is not – and you are weak in this relationship because you’re only a partner on the creative, you’re not coming in with any financing from your country.
“So we decided that we had to make the film our own way and it had to be a model that we could prove could be successful. But we’re not inventing the wheel by the way. Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and independent film in America have all gone down this do-it-yourself route and it has proven to be successful. But for some reason we’ve been shown this path of co-production and people have been stuck with it.
“For Love, Theft, at least we can say the choices we made were ours. We wanted to tell the story and we wanted to tell it in our own way. I consider myself part of the post-Oslo generation. We have different experiences to my grandfather and my grandmother who were refugees; different experience to my father who was with the PLO in Kuwait. We are a depressed, frustrated generation who are not only struggling with Israel but also struggling inside with so many things that the political game has done to us. It has complicated our lives in a certain way. Mousa is in a way that generation.”