AFF is proud to present the Bay Area premiere of Mars at Sunrise on April 29th, as part of our Arab Film Series, in collaboration with Yalla Arabi: SF/East Bay Arabic Language Meetup and Berkeley City College. This event if FREE to attend, but please RSVP as space is limited.
Jessica Habie is a director, a graduate of NYU Tisch, as well as the founder of the production company Eyes Infinite Films. Her first feature film Mars at Sunrise, has already drawn recognition from a number of prominent film festivals around the world. Jessica recently sat down with us to talk about her career as a director, how she finds inspiration and, of course, her film Mars at Sunrise.
Arab Film Festival: What first drew you to film-making?
Jessica Habie: I always knew that it was what I wanted to do. My mom was a photographer and I was very inspired by her work. I grew up in a family of photographers, so film-making was a natural continuation of visual storytelling. One of my earliest memories was telling a director that I met that I wanted to be a director too. I think I was seven at the time. I really don’t remember a time when I wanted to do anything else.
AFF: So do you find that most of your inspiration comes from film or photography or other forms of art?
JH: I think my inspiration comes from people. People that I meet and stories that I hear, much more than from art. Of course I am influenced by all the art that I take in, but I think people’s stories of what they overcome is what really inspires me. I believe that if you can tell a good story of someone overcoming a great difficulty, then you’ve moved the world forward a little bit.
AFF: The story of Mars at Sunrise is a unique and interesting look into the conflict in Palestine and Israel. How did you come upon this story, and what inspired you to tell it?
JH: Well, there are many ways to answer that, but mainly I was doing documentary work for several years in occupied Palestine and I came across several stories that I thought were too creatively explosive for just a simple documentary format. For example, the story of the soldier asleep at the checkpoint, that was a real story someone told me. It was the story of my friend Hani Zurob, the life of whom inspired the character of Khaled. Hani was asked, as an artist, to collaborate [with the military] and say which other artists were working with different movements. That to me was such a huge concept, the fact that an artist could be used by a military and that creativity could be perverted by militarism in that way. That’s what really inspired me to make this work. Some of these images were so strong that I felt like I couldn’t just make a documentary about them, I had to create the whole world in order to try to do these stories justice. And that’s how the story of Mars at Sunrise formed.
AFF: What was it like switching from directing predominantly short documentaries to this long-form narrative film?
JH: It was a really organic change that came out of a need to find a different way to express something more particular to my eye and more specifically true to my experience there. It was very natural. The documentaries were a great method of research for Mars at Sunrise and they were where myself and my partner Nirah Shirazipour, who was working with me at the time, where we got our political foundation. I felt like if I switched to narrative I might be able to synthesize some things that I saw and felt that would be helpful in moving the conversation forward and that would be helpful in getting people to think about this situation in a different way. I thought that if I could position the artist as the hero of the story, maybe people would look past what they’re used to hearing and seeing about the conflict and see something else and maybe see some possibilities that they weren’t seeing before.
AFF: Both this film and your production company, Eye Infinite Films, focus on the relationship between art and social change. Can you tell us more about that concept?
JH: I’m interested in stories of artists as the hero because I feel like artists have a way of looking at stagnant political situations and breathing fresh air, bringing fresh blood and oxygen, to these situations in our collective consciousness,making us look at things in a different way. I felt like people could understand that the wall built around Palestine doesn’t just affect people’s ability to move and get to their land and see their family, it also affects the way a painter feels about the color gray. I thought that this might be something that people could relate to. I feel like artists have a way of pulling the humor and the poetry out of tragedy and I think that’s so useful to look at our situations that feel overwhelmingly tragic and find that poetry and humor, it makes us stronger. I also feel like if somebody is truly in their center creatively and expressively, like an artist is, it’s hard to occupy them. Just look at the story of Eyal, the Israeli officer, he has this very creative part of himself filled in by militarism and I wonder if he had been given the resources to pursue that creative path, if he would’ve been so easily brainwashed into militaristic society. I’m always interested in the artists as the ones who are pushing the edges of our stagnant conversation.
AFF: What’s one thing you wish you had known when you began your career? Any advice for new filmmakers trying to make their way into this industry?
JH: You know, there are a thousand things but I think if I said them it wouldn’t help anyway. As a filmmaker you’ve got to be persistent and even if I tell you “this”, “this” and “this” won’t work, you got to go out there and bang your head against the wall and figure it out for yourself. But I guess the one thing that I always tell people, that I really believe in, is to know deeply whatever it is you’re interested in. Make sure you find something that you can be obsessed about and that you can stay with because you really need to stay with something for quite a long time as a filmmaker. Films are not an overnight action. They’re not like a painting or a play that goes up and down and has a beginning and an end. It really feels more like dragging a corpse around sometimes. So when you’re choosing your subject you really want to make sure that it’s something that you can deepen into and that you can have a real relationship with and stay with long enough to have something valuable to say about the subject. A lot of the failed films I see are stories that just didn’t take the time to go deep enough, didn’t take the time to get to know the political realities in which they’re working. But even that is something you have to learn by making a couple of mediocre films and then being embarrassed by them. You have to build the muscles of your imagination in any way you can.
Want to watch the whole movie? Come to our FREE screening in Berkeley, CA, on April 29th, RSVP here to reserve your spot!