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Mai Masri Palestinian Filmmaker

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.06.2006:

Breaking Boundaries

Born to a Palestinian father from Nablus and an American mother from Texas, Masri has carried this dual sense of identity and estrangement throughout her life. Being Palestinian, she was exposed to dispossession early in life. She lived near the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut and, as a child, she remembers her house shaking as Israeli jets bombed the camp. She grew up with a deep sense of injustice which forced her to ask questions like, who am I? Why don’t I live in my own country? The sense of belonging and estrangement are two contradictory feelings that are part of her identity.

Masri has made films in one country ravaged by occupation (Palestine) and another by civil war (Lebanon). The background in all her films has been war simply because that’s what she has experienced all her life. She thinks that war brings out the best and worst in people, a notion that has interested and fascinated her. She has witnessed the death of loved ones and the gradual erosion of her country but she is amazed at how people manage to laugh, love and survive despite all the death and destruction around them.

In each of the films she has made on her own or co-directed with her husband filmmaker Jean Khalil Chamoun, she has developed a very close relationship with the characters, a sort of trust or complicity that helps them open up and overcome their inhibitions in front of the camera. Masri does not conduct conventional interviews. She sets the mood and allows the story to develop naturally through conversations and narrative sequences. To her, documentary isn’t simply about “recording reality.” It is about unveiling a world that is composed of many magical layers. It is the art of seeing through other people’s eyes, discovering and bringing out the poetry in everyday life.

Her films are about ordinary people living in extraordinary times and how they manage to survive and hold onto their humanity despite the devastating situations in which they find themselves. The characters in her films bear a resemblance to her; they speak for her. She lives out her dreams and fears through them. They are not passive victims. Each of the women in her films is rebelling against some form or another of injustice in their lives. The main character in Suspended Dreams is a woman searching for her missing husband who was kidnapped during the civil war in Lebanon. Her real passion, however, has been for the children in her films. She is fascinated by their ability to transcend the overwhelming difficulties of their daily lives through fantasy, dream and play. She loves their originality and creativity, which speak to her own subconscious world and open new horizons in her cinematic journey.

Her trilogy Children of Fire (1990), Children of Shatila (1998) and Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001) is based on Palestinian children’s lives and dreams. In each of these films Masri has tried to see through the children’s eyes and to give them a chance to tell their own stories, focusing on their imaginary worlds. She tried to understand what these children – whose grandparents were dispossessed from their homes in Palestine in 1948 – consider ‘home’ and how they reconstruct their lack of a home. She explored what the relationship between memory, imagination and identity means to a generation of refugee children who have survived massacre, siege and deprivation.

Her films are the antitheses of the stereotypes that dehumanise, demonise and dismiss the Palestinians as a people without legitimate rights. In these films, the children hold the key to the contrasting and converging elements of dream and reality. Their little stories of life and love – in the midst of destruction and despair – cut through the frontiers separating them from their homeland and from the hearts and minds of people around the world. These children have taught her the meaning of friendship that transcends boundaries, both real and imagined.

Masri was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1959 and was brought up in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1976 she went to the USA to study film at San Francisco State University. “I’d always wanted to do something artistic with my life and I felt film would be perfect for me. Being Palestinian and living in such turmoil, I wanted to do something through which I could express artistically myself and my experiences,” she says. When Masri returned to Beirut in 1981 at the end of her film studies, the Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun invited her to work with him. This was the beginning of a fruitful partnership that would lead to marriage and to the making of a series of films, which have won many prizes and have been shown on numerous television stations around the world. The couple, who have two daughters, aged eleven and nine, set up Nour Productions as the vehicle for their films. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, “We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the siege of Beirut and we decided to make a documentary about what we were experiencing,” Masri says. That film, Under the Rubble, has been followed by seven others, some co-directed with Chamoun and some directed by Masri alone, of which Frontiers of Dreams and Fears is the latest.

Masri’s moving 56-minute film gives the viewer an intimate and complex portrait of Palestinian refugee teenagers – their experiences, dreams, humour and their vision of Palestine. The story is told primarily through the narration of the two central characters – 13-year-old Mona in Shatila camp in Lebanon and 14-year-old Manar in Dheisha camp in Palestine. The film shows the wretched circumstances in which the children are growing up. In Shatila there is a constant sense of insecurity; the camp is a squalid place of mud, decaying buildings, narrow alleys, and a lack of electricity and water supply. For the children of Dheisha, who were already living in difficult conditions, the attacks by the Israeli soldiers during the Intifada (uprising) have brought prolonged terror (Masri herself was injured by a rubber bullet during filming). And yet, the children of both camps show remarkable resilience and humour. In many ways they are like teenagers anywhere – joking with their friends, pursuing hobbies, daydreaming, singing and dancing, doing their homework, speculating about love and marriage, e-mailing their friends. At the same time there is much underlying sadness and tension. The children are prone to volatile moods and tears are not far from the surface. The film also shows that there is a new kind of Palestinian revolution under way – the revolution of the Internet, which is linking up the scattered youth in unprecedented ways and making them ever more aware of their situation.

Masri’s films go deep into their characters’ lives. “We build a very strong relationship with the people we are working with. Wherever we were making films we would move there and live.” She tries to find “the poetry in reality” and she allows the subjects of the films to express themselves in their own words. “Over time we developed this style that’s not purely documentary; our films have a very strong narrative and are stories of real people in real situations. I feel I am attracted to ordinary people who are living in really extraordinary situations.” Masri was particularly struck by how bright the children of the camps were and felt that she just could not make a film about them and then leave them in their difficult situation because she felt they had so much potential. She and husband Chamoun established a scholarship fund for the children, which is intended to fund them through university when the time comes.

Mai has also been the producer of two films directed by Chamoun, Hostage of Time and his first feature film In the Shadows of the City which won the Cannes Junior Award in 2001. Children of Fire, which Masri shot in her hometown, Nablus, during the first Intifada, won Best Prize at the Cairo Television Awards in 1995. She also directed a portrait of Dr. Hanan Ashrawi for BBC television titled Hanan Ashrawi: A Woman of Her Time, which won First Prize at the One-World Awards in London in 1996. For Children of Shatila Masri won the Best Director award at the Arab Screen Film Festival in London in 1999. Frontiers has won ten international awards including Best Documentary at the Arab World Institute’s Film Festival in Paris. Her award-winning films have been broadcast on more than 100 television stations around the world. Masri is currently working on her first fiction film, which she hopes will be screened world-wide.

With excerpts from an article by Susannah Tarbush that appeared in the Saudi Gazette, September 10, 2001.


This Week in Palestine, April 2003

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