by Mozzified Contributor Brett Murphy
Brett Murphy sat down with Arab-American filmmaker, Susan Youssef, to discuss her work and latest film, Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf.
BM: Habibi itself is a statement. Can you talk about why you chose Gaza as the setting for this love story?
SY: Love is a great humanizing force and is universally understandable. Gaza is under full closure by the occupation, and is accessible to a select group of human rights workers and diplomatic forces that have been approved by Israel. Making HABIBI as a modern re-telling of ‘Majnun Layla,’ one of the oldest love stories known to man, was my greatest act of resistance to the fear and isolation set up by the occupation.
BM: The film played at the Human Rights Watch Festival. And you’ve said it is, in part, a human rights story. Talk more about that. Was that your intention from the beginning? Or did the film grow into its depth?
SY: For me the process of filmmaking is itself empowering. I was never as concerned with the effect of the film, as I was with the process of how we made the film. Everything around me seemed to stop and halt the production. I began the journey in Gaza in 2002 and I did not return to Gaza to screen the film until 2013. At the beginning, I honestly wanted to show the “hopelessness” of Gaza, because I thought was the truth of the situation. I came to find that to be erroneous so in the editing process, the film and my intention changed. Because we finally were making the film, I knew the meaning was true hope in creativity.No one, no matter how evil, can take away our creativity. And that changed the edit of “Habibi.” I had to learn it first by getting past the occupation by completing the film. And then I could transmit that. But it took many years to get there. That is my highest mission: to encourage creativity in all. That is how I engage with my Creator.
BM: You’re an American, so I imagine it was no small challenge to tell this story about a place that, for many, seems worlds away. What were some of the challenges in putting this all together? How did you relate — or not relate — to the characters?
SY: The core of the human soul is the same no matter where one is. At the same time, my friends in Gaza say everyone knew that I was an American-born woman, and could recognize that in the telling of the story. So this is my touch as a “creator” of films. I can never truly create a film the way a woman from Gaza would. I must only inherit the truth of the soul of the character as much as life, and my friends can reveal it to me. I do my best to share the work, discuss it, and live it. And I write many, many, many drafts with dear mentors. My work is not really my work. It is a collaboration. That is why crowd-funding makes sense for me, too.
BM: What has been the reception from American audiences? Was it much different in Israeli and Palestinian communities?
SY: Shockingly, at a Human Rights Watch Film Festival screening at Lincoln Center, a few people were calling for me to make more radical work, that shows a much harsher reality for Palestinians. Then, after the Q&A at the same screening a man from Gaza came to me quietly and told me how much he loved the film. Then I went to Gaza to screen “Habibi” and the young women in the audience were so happy with how much they identified with the work. I must tell a moving story first and that opens door for inquiry and discussion. In a sense no film can truly show how heartbreakingly difficult life is in Gaza. It truly is not possible. I have done my best to revere an intensely sad situation with love and hope, because in the end, I want hope for a better life in Gaza. That is my highest intention. I don’t want to convey terror as the only way to understand Gaza. Gaza and its people are bigger than that. They are of the most loving, and even joyful, people I have ever met.
BM: Grants and crowdfunding supported Habibi and now Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf. Did you try going through major studios, or was the grassroots approach more purposeful? It must help to know you have support so early in the process — though I’m sure there are some funding headaches, as well.
SY: There is a new Fox Studios program I am a part of called, the Fox Global Directors Initiative and that has in fact initiated me into the “studio system” as a Directing Fellow. Years ago, I never thought that would happen to me, and the fact that I was invited in after “Habibi” is proof that there is a possibility for women like me to cross in. I’m happy to enter in and begin the change from within for inclusion for Arab and Muslim Americans.
BM: Let’s talk about your newest project. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t seen the short, how does Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf differ from Habibi? What are you setting out to do with this story?
SY: Totally different but all the same! I hope you get to watch them both and see for yourself! I think with “Marjoun,” I really wanted to make a film for my girls: all Arab and Muslim young women, but more than that, women everywhere. “Habibi” was my love letter to Gaza. “Marjoun” is my love letter to women.
BM: What lessons did you learn from making Habibi that you’ve brought with you to Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf?
SY: As I spent more time in the film domain, I found that almost every single filmmaker of color I met struggled to make films. White, male filmmakers had a higher chance of getting their work made fairly quickly, then white women, and then the rest of us. This has been what I have witnessed. This included filmmakers of color who have won of the most prestigious awards in the world. The good news is that it is not my fault and the more work I make, the easier it will be for the woman who is ten years younger than me and beginning her journey. I am of the first generation of Arab American filmmakers making these features which is exactly why it is so challenging.
BM: Young filmmakers sometimes shy from such heavy subject matter. You seem to charge towards it. As a writer and director, what themes most interest you? And how is film an appropriate vehicle for that exploration?
SY: Thematically, I am drawn to two Jungian archetypes. My major is the Explorer, which is a dangerous theme because wanderers can become outcasts. In all of my work, my characters are moving towards something, somewhere… The secondary archetype is the Creator, which can be risky because of strange decisions. All of my characters have a tendency to go larger than themselves to solve something…. but this does not always work! So when someone is looking for what is biographical about me in my work, no matter where my work is set, these are the two themes!
Click here to contribute to Marjoun’s kickstarter campaign.