As the American public slowly wakes up to the nightmarish realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it becomes increasingly apparent that an honest conversation on the perversities of war is necessary. Despite being a work of fiction, Jessica Habie’s latest film does just that. Inspired by the real life of Palestinian artist Hani Zurob, Mars at Sunrise tells the story of two artists, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Eyal (Guy El Hanan) on opposite sides of the cell door. Azzadeh, a young Iranian-American poet, meets Khaled, a Palestinian artist, at a checkpoint in Jenin. There, she learns the story of his art as a victim of occupation, and that of his captor, the Israeli soldier Eyal—an artist in uniform who is trapped in a prison of his own.
Mars at Sunrise is Habie’s first feature film. The Arab Film Festival’s Summer Screening of Mars at Sunrise will take place on August 13, 2014 at 7pm at the Roxie Theater, followed by a Q&A with Jessica Habie herself.
Mars at Sunrise was inspired by the real-life of Palestinian artist Hani Zurob. What inspired you to take on his story? Why art?
I’ve always been interested in the things that artists can say that politicians can’t in a conflict, and I’ve always been interested in the power of the artist to breathe life in stagnant situations. I have a big belief in the relation between art and social change.
I made a documentary called Meet Me Out of the Siege (available online at eyesinfinite.com) about this artist, Hani, who’s originally from Gaza and was exiled to Paris. He told me this story about how the intelligence force of the Israeli occupation had tried to pressure him to become a collaborator. Whatever our political opinions are, we should all be able to get behind artists and say that they have the right to create the art that will move us forward without being touched or polluted by any government or military. Israeli youth can be ridiculously creative, and I find it horrific that they’re asked to give those really subtle, creative years to the military. I focused on art because I think that it’s something the Israeli people really relate to with their incredible creativity.
The film is not word-for-word Hani’s story—that’s really important to make clear. All the scenes in the interrogation room come word-for-word from his experiences, but I was simply inspired by his story. I would encourage people to go to his website (hanizurob.com) to get to know his work and to know that, as we’re talking about this film, his family is under the attack as they live in Gaza.
Why did you decide to venture into fiction? What was the transition like for you?
The transition was super sloppy and creative. I was going to make a documentary, and I had an hour and a half of documentary footage. I watched this material and I thought to myself, “This is going nowhere, this is just the same thing again. Why?” I decided to take this footage and play it for a great music producer named Tamir Muskat. I asked him to rally around some musicians who would be brave, respond to the footage and dive into the material–we built a recording studio and we brought people from Iran via Sweden, from Ramallah, and some friends from Tel Aviv. I wrote the narrative of the film from that musical soundtrack. The transition to fiction through music is why I think the soundtrack is such a heavy part of the film. Now I’m in love with fiction! Documentary is a very strong tool, but now I find myself more called to experimental fiction that is rooted in the real world.
(The sound track will soon be available for purchase on marsatsunrise.com.)
What was the most challenging part of creating this film?
Now, getting it to be seen. It is hard to draw people in because it’s very genre-defiant and about a politically touchy subject matter. It’s very unique, like a poem—not everyone likes the same poem. It’s a very niche project, but people love it when they get into it. It’s also very hard to draw an audience with limited resources. That led me to create the Fajr Filestine Film Collective as a platform to unite like-minded experimental Middle-Eastern filmmakers and draw attention to all of our work. You can find out about that at fajrfilestinefilms.com
What do you hope that the audience takes away from Mars at Sunrise?
It’s a different answer every time I’m asked that. Today, I want people to really question the role of militarism is solving any conflict between two human beings, as shown by Eyal and Khaled, who could have so much in common. For example, Eyal really has a mastery of the Arabic language. To his credit, I don’t think we’ve ever seen an Israeli actor act in Arabic like [Guy El Hanan], that’s quite a feat. Eyal’s character uses his beautiful understanding of the Arabic language to torture and oppress Khaled, but it’s very clear that what he’d really rather be doing is sitting down to talk about poetry and color choice. That’s what I want people to take away: the understanding that militarism divides unconditionally.
Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Find something you can get obsessed with. You have to be obsessed because it takes that kind of passion. Don’t expect the world to speak your language, invent your own. You will find rejection and you will find people that won’t understand what you want to do. You will find that it’s hard to get your point across. If you’re trying to make something original and innovative, those are good things. If you’re trying to make something mainstream and for primetime TV maybe don’t listen to me.
For more information about the Arab Film Festival’s Summer Screening on August 13, click here.