3,000 Nights: Interview with Director Mai Masri

(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)

Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri has been touring the film festival circuit showcasing her highly acclaimed film 3,000 Nights. This is the 11th production for Masri and her first feature film. 3,000 Nights is an intimate portrait of Palestinian female prisoners held in an Israeli jail in the 1980’s. At the heart of the story is Layal, a pregnant school teacher who’s arrested for suspicion that she acted as an accomplice to a teenage boy accused of attacking a military checkpoint. Layal gave the boy a ride without knowing his intentions. Her husband urges her to lie and claim the boy ambushed and threatened her. Her refusal to do so leads to an eight year prison sentence. The all-female prison houses Palestinian political prisoners and Israeli criminal convicts, and Layal is quickly welcomed as a sister in her cell of fellow Palestinians. Over the dramatized eight years, we witness her give birth and raise her child; but the story takes a larger focus, as well: The resilience of Palestinian women and their commitment to remain steadfast and persevere – often creatively – in the face of Israeli subjugation. Palestine Square recently had the opportunity to interview Masri on 3,000 Nights (which recently won the Jury Award at the Women’s Film & Television Showcase, TheWifts, in Los Angeles) and the centrality of the prison experience for Palestinians.

Almost the entire film takes place inside an Israeli prison. Were you inspired by the genre of prison films? 

My main inspiration for 3000 Nights came from the true story of a young Palestinian mother who gave birth to her child in an Israeli prison. Having just become a mother myself, I wanted to understand what it meant to give birth in chains and to raise a child behind bars. I began interviewing other Palestinian prisoners and especially mothers who had given birth to their children in detention. I was fascinated by their stories and the choices they made.

I also began researching prison themes in literature and cinema. One of the films that inspired me was Hunger; which follows the story of Bobby Sands, who led the 1981 hunger strike of the Irish republican prisoners. I found very few feature films about women prisoners and none at all about Palestinian women prisoners. It is in this context that I decided to make 3000 Nights. It draws on some of the elements that constitute the prison genre, but it is mostly shaped by the specific story of motherhood behind bars and the actual prison in which it is set. I shot it in a real prison (an old military prison in Jordan) in a cinema verité style, mostly hand held camera, framing my characters through the bars. I wanted to give it a raw documentary edge that would resonate with the reality it was portraying and give it a distinctive visual and aesthetic look. Most of all, I wanted to explore the inner world of my characters and the way they use their imagination and creativity to transcend the prison bars.

The film presents a shared, albeit unequal, space between Palestinian women and their Israeli counterparts. The Palestinian women are from the center of their society, but the Israelis are from the periphery of Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated politics and culture. They are Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, who suffer their own form of marginalization in Israeli society. We witness animosity, but we also see one Israeli woman aid the Palestinians. How much hope is there for solidarity between these two communities?

(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)
(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)

I built 3000 Nights around several real characters and events that took place in the eighties in an actual Israeli women’s prison.  One of the reasons I was drawn to this particular prison is the fact that it contained both Palestinian and Israeli women prisoners as well as women from other nationalities (Arab and Western) who were incarcerated for various acts of solidarity with the Palestinian resistance. I found this a fascinating world to explore. The Palestinian political prisoners were of all ages and backgrounds, some of them schoolgirls as young as 15.

The Israeli women convicted of criminal charges were predominantly of Mizrahi origin who suffered from discrimination in their own society. In the early years of their incarceration, the Palestinian women had to fight for everything; including the right to books, pencils and paper. They organized themselves and utilized their time for education and political discussion. They gave each other English and Hebrew courses as well as literacy classes for the elderly women and math and physics lessons for the high school girls. They called themselves the “Free Republic of Women.”

The prison administration (mostly Ashkenazi) pitted the Israeli and Palestinian prisoners against each other and tried to keep them segregated and in a constant state of hostility. There were often fierce confrontations between both sides, but also rare moments of human interaction that cut through the conflict and animosity. This was particularly true in the eighties after the invasion of Lebanon and the massacres of Sabra and Shatila that shook world public opinion, including some sectors of Israeli society. The Palestinian women declared a major strike to demand better conditions and to be recognized as political prisoners. It is interesting to note that they were able to impact some Israeli inmates who secretly smuggled letters and newspapers to them. I found this little known fact intriguing and important to allude to on a symbolic level. Unfortunately, the facts on the ground today point to a very different reality. Without a major political transformation in the Israeli mindset and a recognition of Palestinian rights, it would be very difficult to envision meaningful solidarity between the two communities.

Solidarity with prisoners is one of the causes that unites nearly all Palestinians since everyone seems to know an imprisoned relative. For an uninitiated audience, what can you tell us about the role of prisoners in Palestinian society with regards to collective activism and imagery? Do you see your film as part of that discourse?

The prison experience strikes a deep chord within the Palestinian psyche because it is such a widespread collective experience. It is a powerful metaphor for the condition of the Palestinian people and Palestinian women in particular. Over 800,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been imprisoned since 1967 – approximately 20% percent of the population in the occupied territories. Hundreds of children – some as young as 12 –  have been arrested since the beginning of the current popular upheaval not to mention those who have been killed and wounded.

(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)
(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)

Several members of my crew and cast have been through the prison experience either directly or through a close member of their family. During the preparation for the film, I asked them to tap into their own experiences and to meet some of the former women prisoners. It was a painful and cathartic experience for many of them. One of my actresses, who plays the role of a tough gang leader, broke down during the rehearsals as it brought back painful memories of her childhood spent visiting her brother in Ramleh prison.

3000 Nights is about resilience and resistance. It is my way of giving a voice to these women and placing their ongoing experience with confinement and incarceration within the universal framework of the fight against injustice.

How many mothers have suffered a similar fate to the one you depict? How many children have been born in prison?

Prison is profoundly felt by Palestinians not only on a physical level, but also on a psychological level. Confinement, boundaries, and walls are part of their everyday lives. A flagrant example is Gaza, which is considered the largest open-air prison in the world.

Since the seventies many Palestinian mothers have delivered their children while handcuffed and shackled to their prison beds. I met some of these children, Falasteen, Tha’era, Nour…. Their birth constitutes a powerful testimony to hope.

Although it is set in the eighties, the film reflects an ongoing reality. I want to show not only the pain and suffering, but also the sense of community, resilience and creativity of the Palestinian women prisoners that empowers them to endure and maintain hope.

(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)
(Photo Credit: SCRATCH)

What has been the reception to your film and what audience do you hope to reach?

3000 Nights premiered at the Toronto international Film Festival and was screened in several major film festivals including Busan, London, Talinn, Stockholm, Goa and Dubai. It has been very well received by the press and public, and so far has won two international awards: The Audience Award in Valladolid in Spain and the Jury Award at the Women’s Film & Television Showcase (TheWIFTS) in Los Angeles. It is due to be released internationally at the beginning of 2016.

I hope to reach a worldwide audience. I know that films cannot change reality but they can inspire people and touch their hearts and hopefully open up some minds. Most importantly, I want to be true to the women whose stories this film is based on.

Interview conducted by Khelil Bouarrouj.

Further Reading: Israel: A Carceral State by Rashid Khalidi in the Journal of Palestine Studies.