World premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Taste of Apples Is Red is Syrian filmmaker Ehab Tarabieh's touching narrative debut about two brothers. One is a Druze Sheikh, a religious man and upstanding figure in his community. The other is his runaway brother, a man Sheikh Kamel (played by the ever phenomenal Makram J. Khoury) had long thought dead and gone. But when Mustafa (played by the late actor Tarik Kopty) manages to cross from Syria into the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, things become challenging for Sheikh Kamel.
The Taste of Apples is Red is a fascinating watch, a film that has us questioning our own ideas of what is good and what is bad. But also it promises to send you running to Google to find out all you can about the mysterious Druze community, religious descendants of Islam who separated centuries ago and formed their own faith.
I caught up the Syrian, Druze filmmaker during TIFF and his answers were always direct and to the point, yet uttered with kindness and care. The resulting interview helped me to understand the film even more, connect to it as deeply as it deserves as a one-of-a-kind, quiet masterpiece.
The film deals with the Druze, a lesser known community living in Israel, Lebanon and Syria at the moment. I am assuming you are of that faith and would you talk about it a bit? I found it fascinating that the Druze believe in reincarnation for example, which we associate with Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. I never knew this before, even though a dear friend is a Druze.
Ehab Tarabieh: I was born and raised in a Druze family. Reincarnation is at the main core of the Druze belief. They do believe that the number of the Druze doesn’t change, so if someone dies, someone is going to be born in their place. The number then will remain the same and this is the balance they believe in. Because when they separated from Islam, each one of the Druze in that generation according to their point of view signed a contract, that they will be a Druze, and that means that each Druze is going to have, I think it's, nine generations.
The Druze believe in five elements, represented by the five colors of their flag: the past, the future, the word, the soul and the mind. The Druze also believe in the wisdom of the classical Greek philosophers such as Plotinus, Plato and Pythagoras, who have been given the same stature as the prophets. And they believe in Jesus too, believing that he’s a prophet.
So they share that with Muslims, who also believe Jesus is one of the prophets?
Tarabieh: We must not forget that they have been part of Islam before. They separated, and have their own book, a secret text called the Wisdom Book. As I’m not religious myself, I’m not allowed to read it, but my mother who is religious can read from it. I believe inside it’s a mix of the Quran and the Bible, with Judaism elements, as it is a mixture of all these religions.
As a filmmaker I find it fascinating, this element of reincarnation. so that’s why I decided to explore it and put it in a political and social context. This film isn’t about the reincarnation but I am using it for this community to tell the story of my main character.
What I find interesting is that although it starts from a place of religion, the film really is much more about the idea of good and bad, what makes a person a human being as opposed to a monster. Where does this tale begin for you, where does it come from?
Tarabieh: The war in Syria affects me personally, and I think it’s the case for a lot of people. I’m Syrian but I live beyond the border, under Israeli occupation. I can watch and hear the news about what is going on there. My main idea was to talk about the war in Syria, as a Syrian who cannot live in Syria.
I don’t have the right, I thought, to talk about a world I don’t live in. So I tried to do it from my point of view, I wanted to talk about this dictatorship regime, the absurdity of the control they have over people there, and the massacres. This is not just since the Syrian revolution began, this was when Assad’s father was president as well. I also wanted to talk about this insane control of people in the Middle East, because I believe Syria is not very different from other Arab countries like Egypt etc. In Syria perhaps you can see it more, you can see the violence and so I told myself let’s try to go for it, to tell this story.
Since I’m Druze, and I live in the Golan Heights and I think I have the right to talk about the Druze, I began to write the story that way. trying to fit it into a political context.
I also wanted to show religious men as good men, as my grandfather and my late father were. In cinema in the MENA religious men are always portrayed as primitive and bad and they don’t seem to have inside conflicts. But they are still human like us, and they have their own struggles. And a lot of people also don’t realize that religious men in the Middle East are usually led by political figures who use them to control people.
If you want to control people in the third world, you buy the religious men and then you can control them.
A lot of the funding for your film comes from Israeli film funds and the country's Ministry of Sports and Culture. How does it work for someone who clearly identifies as an Arab filmmaker to navigate that very touchy subject of having a lot of Israeli funding?
Tarabieh: I began working on this film 11 years ago. We spent about five years trying to raise other funds and we couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, as I wanted very much this film to be watched by Arab audiences — it is so important for me as a Syrian, as an Arab filmmaker. I wanted Arab audiences to see it. But this is such a complicated business, and I tried for five years, knocking at all the doors of the Arab film funds. So we tried the Israeli funds and they gave us the money.
I do think this does not affect my identity, as someone who is Syrian, someone who believes that Israel is an apartheid country -- it doesn’t change my political views.
I’m sick to have to remind people all the time that I’m Syrian, I’m Arab and no one can take it from me, even if I live under occupation and was born under occupation. And I think I have the right to make films as any other Arab filmmaker, but I have a special case, and this special case made it so that I had to take Israeli money.
The only thing this will block you from is participating in Arab events. But I find it very courageous on your part, and you have a right to that money as much as any Jewish Israeli filmmaker. It’s also very open-minded of the Israeli film funding community and I believe if there is any hope for a solution in the Region it will be the film making community that will bring about that change.
Tarabieh: You are so right. I made a documentary before, and I called it an Israeli Palestinian film. I think we need to be truthful with ourselves about the situation, and to talk about it in a very frank way. I think that’s the most important thing, and if I’ll get attacks on the way I funded the film — no one knows what it’s like to live under occupation all your life. So I’m inviting those who criticize me to live the way I live there, and then we can discuss it.
And about your brilliant casting, Makram J. Khoury, Tarik Kopty and Rula Blal. among others, in your leads. How did you approach, for example, Makram Khoury?
Tarabieh: He’s an amazing person, one of the most modest people I’ve met. I wanted him to be one of the characters from the beginning. When I sent him the script he loved it and said, let’s do it. And with my wonderful casting director we began to discuss in details all the characters. It was an amazing crew, altogether, as filmmaking is not a one man show. All the people there, my Israeli producer, my Palestinian line producers, everyone who helped me on this project were wonderful.
Do you have one specific message you wish audiences to take away from the film?
Tarabieh: I myself like to watch a movie that will make me ask a lot of questions, to know something new. I wish with this film to bring something new to people that they don’t know — about this place, and what is happening there.
The Taste of Apples Is Red is sold internationally by The Match Factory
Top image photography by © Yaniv Linton, used with permission.