- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Hany Abu Assad — the two-time Oscar nominee behind Paradise Now and Omar — didn’t intend to make another Palestinian movie. But a query from his producer wife sparked an idea, an idea which would eventually become Huda’s Salon, making its world premiere in Toronto and the Nazareth-born director’s first feature since he took a break from the Middle East and ventured to Hollywood with 2016’s The Mountain Between Us (starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba).
Set in Bethlehem in the West Bank, the thriller centers on a young woman who finds her life turned upside down after a simple trip to a salon, where she is is blackmailed into working for the occupation. IFC recently picked up U.S. rights to the film, which stars Abu Assad’s Paradise Now lead Ali Suliman, plus Maisa Abd Elhadi (Baghdad Central) and Manal Awad (Gaza mon amour). Speaking to THR, the director describes the real-life scandal at the heart of the story, why he loved going from a crew of 200 to just 20 (and no comfortable chairs) and why it’s important to use anger as fuel for your creative engine.
What’s the backstory behind Huda’s Salon?
I wasn’t actually planning on doing another Palestinian film, but my wife Amira asked me if I knew any stories about women in Palestine that were worth writing about, and I told her about the salon. It’s a real story about this salon that, let’s say, misused women to get them to collaborate with the occupation. She said, ok, but what’s the story? So I slept on it and in the morning I had the story in my mind, so she said well now you have to do it. But it really struck me, the idea of going to the salon to fix your hair and coming out with this Shakespearean drama between yourself and your country.
What’s the actual blackmail that takes place?
It’s a very common trick from the secret service. It happens in different places but with the same principle. In this one, you would go to the salon, where they would drug you, strip off your clothes and take a picture of you with a naked man, and then when you wake up you have a Polaroid picture of this, and either you have to collaborate or you’ll be exposed. One of the girls committed suicide and wrote a letter, which is how the whole story came out.
How does Huda’s Salon deal with this story?
In a very cinematic way I wanted to see what happens to a woman in flashbacks, but without actually using flashbacks. I made the parallel between two women, one who is already trapped and the other who has to make a decision, as if the one making the decision is the flashback of one who is trapped. It’s just two locations and three characters.
You’ve been doing a lot of producing, and have just had Mohamed Diab’s Amira premiering in Venice. What’s your balance between producing and directing your own films?
I think producing it about 20 percent of my tine, but I want to produce it back to 10 or maybe 5. I feel like I’m a better director and writer than I am producer.
Huda’s Salon is your first feature since your ventured to Hollywood for Fox’s The Mountain Between Us. How was the change going from a big budget studio project to your independent feature?
I loved it so much, because it gives you enormous experience to have a new challenge every time, to reinvent yourself. I think this is why I’m still doing movies, because every time it’s a new adventure. If you just go on automatic pilot, it’s not as fun anymore. I really like it. It was lovely going from 200 crew members on The Mountain Between Us to now having just 20. I had to do a lot myself. There were no comfortable chairs to sit on. There is nothing. Sometimes there’s no time to eat. I thought, this is so good – if I’m still able to do it I’m still on the right path.
Would you go back again?
Oh yeah, no problem at all. Again, it’s a new challenge and every time you take that challenge you try to learn from it. Actually, adventure is my motivation of making things. And you know, I truly realized I never made a plan in my life about what to do next. I just let things happen and then throw myself in it without thinking about a strategy. From a career point of view, your strategy after The Mountain Between Us should be another Hollywood movie. But I never had that. One night my wife asked me if I had a story, and I came up with it. So I never plan and don’t know what’s coming.
Earlier this year, your lead actress from Huda’s Salon, Maisa Abd Elhadi, was shot and injured by Israeli police during a protest in the city of Haifa. Your features don’t take a black and white viewpoint of the Israel and Palestine conflict, but it is easy to keep a balanced approach and not take direct sides when such real world issues impact people you know?
I believe so. Even Maisa was very rational about it. But mostly what you do with your anger, as an artist, not just me but all the artists, the anger is their fuel for their engine. But at the end the engine doesn’t produce anger, it produces art. The anger just adds more fuel to your machine. Yes, I am angry, but I always use it to make art and art with meaning, art that surprises yourself and the audience because it has a different point of view. Because if you just throw your own point of view, there’s no discussion, no challenge. Who cares? I am bored and everybody will be bored. But if you challenge your point of view in your art, you will create something interesting.
After the violence this year, it seemed that attitudes towards the conflict may have been changing in Hollywood, with people who haven’t spoken out before now making statements on social media expressing solidarity with Palestine or calling on Israel to stop its attacks. Is this something you felt?
I actually felt that earlier. After I made Paradise Now, I started to feel that the aggressiveness of the, let’s say, Zionist propaganda, how they punish people if you say your opinion, was starting to have a backlash. And sometimes they didn’t realise that they were harming themselves by punishing people who were expressing their opinion about Palestinian rights. It’s not even controversial, but already you would be labelled anti-Semitic, which is so unfair.
After Paradise Now they fought the film in a very aggressive way, and a lot of people were angry, because they felt it was unfair. In the long term, they are losing. By punishing people unfairly they’re just giving more positive exposure to the Palestinian cause. I know they punished me very hard for many years, but so what, I’m still making movies.
I know of one case where someone very powerful didn’t let me direct a movie that I really wanted to direct. And he said it in the room, so all the other people there were really angry. Then all these people were the assistants, but now are now the powerful ones. So I think my punishment was, in the end, in my favour.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 11 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day