This Sunday’s Oscars telecast will feature the charming 14-min Palestinian film Ave Maria, which is nominated for Best Live Action short film. Directed and co-written by Basil Khalil, born and raised in Nazareth to a Palestinian father and British mother, Ave Maria tells the story of a convent on the West Bank whose silent world is disrupted after Jewish settlers crash their vehicle into a statue of the Virgin Mary on the convent’s grounds.
The settlers – a kippah-wearing Orthodox Jew along with his spouse and mother (the latter a humorous subplot of feuding wife and mother-in-law) – request the nuns’ permission to use the phone and are motioned inside, but not before the head nun ably neutralizes the settler’s holstered handgun by snapping out its magazine. The Sabbath has set in and the observant settler asks one of the nuns to place the call on his behalf. Not surprisingly, his plea is met with silence. He relents and breaks the rules that prohibit the use of any machinery after sunset on Friday. After’s he’s unable to enlist the help of a friend or find an affordable taxi, anger and frustration break out as wife and mother shout blame and insults at each other. Finally, the head nun raises her own voice and offers the settlers a solution: they can use an old car that’s been in storage for years and borrow it to drive home. Turns out the junior nun is an erstwhile mechanic and, at closing, the settlers drive off in the “far too Arab” car, adorned with a figurine of Mary while blasting Catholic hymns to avoid appearing “too Arab.” (“If we drive back to the settlement in this, the guards will shoot us.”)
Ave Maria avoids the easy trap of “co-existence” films and documentaries on Palestinians and Israelis: overly sentimental; banal righteous do-gooders; and presenting a false reality of an equal space, as if the only thing separating both peoples is the failure to “just get along.”
Khalil, frankly, is too much of a skilled director for that. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he made the point succinctly, “They are not equal these people so it’s hard to say if they can cooperate. There is no cooperation when you’re under occupation and one is the occupier.” Moreover, by casting the Israelis as settlers rather than, say, secular liberals from Tel Aviv, the film reminds the audience that the occupation is a tangible presence in Palestinians lives – as evidenced by the destruction the settlers wreak on the convent grounds, trampling and vandalizing Palestinian property in the opening scene. The film also pokes fun at religious dogmatism as the nuns suspend their vow of silence and the settler flouts religious law. And there’s no mawkish ending, either. In the end the nuns and the settlers part ways and are no more friends than they were at the outset.
With the moribund so-called “peace process” and an Israeli government openly hostile to a Palestinian state, Ave Maria captures the prevailing mood better than all the conferences and pundits devoted to advancing negotiations. Gone are the days of optimism and peace concerts, holding hands, and singing along together. Ave Maria might not lift the spirits in terms of political hope, and if there is a grand message it is the spirit of generosity conveyed by the nuns and ridicule of the settlers’ insistence on deference, as when the settler asks the nun to oblige his religious proscriptions and operate the phone. Despite all their bluster, religious righteousness and armaments, when the settlers are in a bind they still depend on the kindness of their Arab neighbors.
Ave Maria is incredibly joyful to watch. It has received widespread praise from film critics and is the odds-on favorite to win Sunday night. According to “experts’ predictions” at the Gold Derby, a website that tracks Hollywood award shows, 16 of the 27 featured film critics (incl. those of Vanity Fair and trade publication Variety) have chosen Ave Maria. The stars may shine on this plucky little Palestinian film, which would be the first ever directed by a Palestinian to win an Academy Award.
Palestine Square recently spoke to director/writer Basil Khalil, who currently resides in London.
What has the inspiration?
I was born and brought up in Nazareth, and near our house was a Carmelite convent of nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence. This strict life of dedication sparked my interest and I thought, what if I put in a noisy family with their own strict rules that also get in the way of communication and they need the nuns’ help?
In Palestine/Israel, you are born into a religion and instantly assigned friends and enemies and then have to live by these certain rules of conduct without even choosing them. Sometimes people choose some more extreme rules, which are man-made, yet they believe that they’re a matter of life and death, when in fact they just get in the way of human interaction.
How has the reception been, especially in America?
The reception was very good, Americans get the comedy, just as much as, say, the French, Taiwanese and Germans. It was really nice and gratifying to see this happen, because for my first screening I was very nervous that it would go flat on the audience. People realize that it isn’t a comedy about religion, but a comedy about man-made rules, and how they get in the way of communication.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope people would question the extreme rules they’ve taken upon themselves no matter where they’re from. I also want them to have learned something about Palestinian society, that it’s very different from what they see on the news.
Any plans for a full-length feature?
Yes, I have two features in development and a TV series. My next project will be a foodie comedy set in Nazareth. I am currently writing it and meeting potential producers and financiers in Europe and the Arab world.
Introduction and interview by Khelil Bouarrouj.
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