Rashid Masharawi – filmmaker
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 19.06.2006:
“I Don’t Like to Show Fights, Flags or Fire”
By Monique Roffey, Paul Prillevitz, and Khaled Hourani
A highlight in Rashid Masharawi’s career was his presence at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where his work ‘Haifa’ was screened.
“This was the first time Palestine was officially represented at the Festival,” says Masharawi in Gaza, recalling the proud moment when he stood beneath the Palestinian flag, side by side with filmmakers from across the globe.
“I used to be one of the 70,000 laborers from the Gaza Strip who headed for Israel every day to earn a living. But I set myself a challenge. I refused to stay a laborer, a construction site worker, a dishwasher. Now I have represented my people at one of the most important film festivals in the world. I have raised the flag for Palestine.”
When the young Rashid Masharawi headed to work in Tel Aviv, he had no inkling of what the future held in store for him. This was in 1976. He was 14 years old. Because he had proven himself a dedicated and excellent pupil, his father wanted him to go on to higher education, but Rashid realized that it would be difficult to fulfill the wishes of his father, a diabetic getting on in age.
His beginnings were in Shati Refugee Camp. Young Rashid drew pictures. There were many who wished to become doctors and lawyers, but all too few who saw themselves becoming artists. Young Rashid doggedly continued his drawing, trying to attract people’s interest in his work. “Be a good boy, Rashid, play elsewhere,” was the stock response.
Rashid was born in 1962 in one of the homes of the camp. The world of the camp continues to be a reference point for him as an artist, an image ever present in his films, its denizens ever in a state of alert. “It is an identity card and a passport,” he says.
Some of those moments go back to his childhood. Although the familial home is long gone, he still sees it in his mind’s eye. He recalls the night the Israelis knocked on the door of his house following the June War of 1967. Rashid was five years old. A flashlight in the hands of an Israeli soldier, and a gun – that is all young Rashid could see. The rest was hidden by shadows, so dominant was the light. He heard his mother’s voice: “Don’t be frightened children.”
It was a long way from Shati Refugee Camp to the Cannes Film Festival. He began as a busboy washing dishes, then he worked as a construction worker and did whitewashing. He aspired to work in design, and by persevering, painting and designing, he began to work in interior decoration. He then joined a team working for an Israeli designer involved in films as a production designer.
His first time on a set was during the filming of ‘Sahara’ starring Brooke Shields. He was an assistant set decorator. He went on to work in many films. There were many co-productions during those years, and Masharawi got hired as a set decorator.
Masharawi first worked as a production designer in his own right on Michel Khalifeh’s ‘Wedding in Galilee’ (1986). Although he prefers to remain behind the camera, he has appeared in various films. In ‘Wedding in Galilee’ he had to drive one of the army jeeps mainly because he was one of the few who knew how to operate it. Following that experience, he made his first film, ‘Partners’, in which he was his own writer-director-actor. He still insists he is not an actor. He shows the film to friends only.
The film that drew attention to Masharawi was ‘Shelter’ (1989), which described the trials and tribulations of the Palestinian laborer in Israel. The whole action was seen from a highly selective angle, that of the Palestinian laborers who work in the Israeli city during the day and are forced to hide at night lest the police arrest them. From their hideout, they observe life in the big city, and compare it to their own.
Making films in hardly propitious circumstances required no end of stamina, perseverance and courage. His first narrative film proper, ‘Passport’, was a case in point. While Masharawi could arrange for a camera in exchange for services as a set decorator, he had a harder time convincing people to take seriously a Gazan with ambitions to make movies. Besides, he was working on tricky territory.
“Many people I asked to work with me on the film ‘Passport’ looked at me in disbelief. They could not fathom how I, a Palestinian from Gaza, could be producing and directing a film inside Israel. I remember when we went to film a scene at the Banat Yacoub Bridge (at the Golan Heights foothills); we needed a license in order to close down the bridge for filming purposes and the good offices of an Israeli producer. Instead, we dressed up the actors in the uniforms of Israeli police, and we had them redirect traffic, including military vehicles. It could have led us into big trouble. But we made the film with the simplest means.”
Masharawi thinks that his perseverance comes from his experiences in the camp, both at home and on the street, and in the United Nations schools. “In all of those areas, I learnt the importance of what a challenge means, and how essential it is to venture out in order to conquer new worlds. The knowledge that I have something to say and to defend gave me strength.”
Masharawi’s last feature film ‘The Oil Press’ deals with the fact that not only war but also peace can harm people and disrupt society. The film is set in the present and is about a Palestinian village that produces olive oil and that tries to ‘survive’ peace. “After the Oslo Agreement a new historical phenomenon is emerging in my country. Everywhere you see people who suffer politically and economically because of the peace process. I call them peace victims. There is a lot of poverty, unemployment and violence in our society because of the so-called peace process. Few Palestinian people are happy with the situation that was created as a result of the Oslo Agreement.”
The film does not deal with the political situation in a straightforward way but rather through the life of human beings. “Many people outside Palestine like my films because they show another way of life here. They show Palestinians as human beings like everyone else: as people who love, like, and cry, and who are disappointed and so on. In Palestine people react differently to my films. Ordinary Palestinians like my films but they would like to see more direct messages in them. However, I don’t like to show fights, flags, fire, and the Intifada since I am an artist. I like to do it in a more subtle way. For me it is not interesting what [Palestinian president] Arafat or [former Israeli prime minister] Netanyahu say and what Europe wants or America does. I am dealing with the people in the street: real life. I don’t give answers. I am trying to catch different atmospheres and different parts of life. In Palestine and the Middle East, we are part of a specific culture and history. As Palestinians we have our own colors, rhythm, food and way of thinking. I pick up that culture and make a film.
“That does not mean that I am not involved with politics. You cannot touch Palestinian society without touching politics. Even if you create a love story, it’s there. I am involved in the same political process as everybody else. I cannot escape it. In fact, I think every film is political; society is influenced by politics.”
Masharawi has involved himself in ‘doing more’ about cinema or the lack of it in Palestine – and has found himself overstretched. He took it upon himself to set up a mobile film unit. “When your films are being seen all over the world by people in Europe, New York, even Brazil, but not in your own country, you have to do something,” says Masharawi. While he admits that his films are not quite to the average Palestinian taste, the film unit has been a huge success. Although the acquisition of films is expensive, and acquiring films with Arab subtitles difficult, the unit has managed to hold regular screenings at universities and community centers in the West Bank, which have all played to packed houses.
The Jerusalem Times 21 June 1996
TJT 6 June 1997
TJT 10 April 1998
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The Jerusalem Times