While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has certainly done a lot to invite new members and create a diverse environment to help change the course of independent world cinema, more is definitely needed. And this year's shortlisted projects certainly prove that, with only three titles actually from or about the MENA, with Danish documentary Flee making it on the list by the skin of its teeth.
In fact, Asghar Farhadi's feature A Hero and Murad Abu Eisheh's narrative short Tala'vision are the only films from the Region to have made it thus far -- and they are still only shortlisted.
Tala'vision is the simple, yet complex story of a young girl, Tala, whose television is taken away. While many of us growing up before cell phones have a vivid memory of a time when parents would take away our TV rights as punishment, in Tala's case things are a bit different. Tala lives with her dad in Syria, during the times of Daesh and they've just issued a ban on all television sets, thus making it illegal to own one. So home after home, people are disposing of their TVs and Tala's dad Taher (played by indie star Ziad Bakri) throws theirs out the window.
But in Tala's world this means boredom and after she kicks a ball around a bit inside the house, threatens to destroy the chandelier in the process, she goes looking for a television. This is a world where women, even young girls, aren't allowed to run around in the streets, as their male/young boys counterparts do freely.
While the telling of this short, beautifully shot tale may seem simple, the way Abu Eisheh treats his subject and unfolds the story is anything but plain. Shot by Philip Henze, edited by Quirin Grimm, with Julian Knaack taking care of the art department -- the sets are simply perfect! -- the film revolves around its main actors. Bakri of course, but also Aesha Balasem who plays Tala with undeniable talent, and veteran theatre actor Khalid Al Tarifi.
I caught up with Murad Abu Eisheh via Zoom, as he's based in Germany where he attends film school. In fact, this film is one of his student projects, also produced by his fellow schoolmates. It turned out to be a very insightful conversation, one that betrays a man wise beyond his years.
How did you cast your film?
I had an amazing casting director and we worked together for several months on this. Especially with Tala's character, we were quite sure that we were not going to find a seven year-old actress in Jordan with the experience needed to be able to carry this role. Yet from the beginning, we were adamant on casting non actors and possibly Syrian little girls, so the authentic accent would work. I have even no idea how many children she went through. But I saw around 200 girls over the period of three months and with each I would spend 10/15 minutes doing some exercise, asking some questions, and most of them never had any experience. They never even saw a camera before and with Aesha it was quite phenomenal, I liked her answers and everything from the moment she walked into the room.
She was completely different than the rest of the girls. And the way she reacted to the exercise was quite impressive. And I remember we just all looked at one another and were like, okay, I think we found her. Ziad's casting was, I think, one of the easiest because I mean Ziad comes from an acting family and he's quite famous in the Arab world. And I saw a short film that he acted in, Mare Nostrum -- it was a story of him and his daughter and he wants to teach her how to swim. And I thought, I really loved his expressions and his acting. And from that moment I thought Ziad could be the father. And then we got in touch with him and he was on board but we kind of waited until we cast Aesha. So we could see how they interacted with each other.
The neighbor, well Khalid is quite a renowned actor in theater, in Jordan. We went over several options of who could fit into this role. And Khalid was one of the actors that I had in mind from before that I thought I would want to work with at some point. And we just met over a coffee and we just talked about it and then I brought Tala/Aesha and we sat in the garden and he's like so natural with children. Really, I just sat back and he took over and it was really magical, the chemistry between them. We sat in this garden, on chairs. And he just talked to her and he was like, "Hey, I'm your neighbor, I'm playing your neighbor" and said "how about we cook" and she said, "okay," so he just started holding rocks as if they're onions and told her "give me the knife" and she went and got a stick. And then they were fake cooking for about 15 minutes. And then he stood up and looked at me and he gave me the OK -- she's good."
Why did you choose to shoot in Jordan and where is the refugee camp where you shot?
So the refugee camp is a Palestinian refugee camp from the 40's and it's right outside Amman, directly next to Queen Alia International Airport actually. The planes were hovering on top of us all the time. The thing is, I mean, we wanted shoot in Jordan because originally I'm from Jordan. I know a lot of people there and with connections it's easier to set up there. The topography looks like Syria, the buildings' style. My school here [in Germany] was not very comfortable at the beginning with this decision, and they thought maybe shooting in Morocco would be better because my school has production companies and connections in Morocco. But then we put a good case in front of them and they were like, Okay, sure. They were quite nervous at the beginning because they never had a production shooting in the Middle East. And yeah, it went really well.
The camp itself -- I wanted some area that is more flat and Amman is more hilly. So I was like, Okay, we're not going to shoot anywhere, from Amman to the northwest because the topography of the area is a bit hilly, so we're going to try to find somewhere more flat. And then we found this refugee camp, which is quite easy to control as well because it's literally one square kilometre and it's literally a square in the middle of the desert. We had a local fixer and also there are these people who control the camp, big men and they were sort of on our side. And made it easier to control the crowds and close the streets when needed and this whole interaction with them was quite interesting actually.
They were really generous. And even if at the beginning, it was like a bit sketchy for us, later on you know, once you're peeling off the onion layers, layer by layer, they were really nice and helpful towards the production. I mean, they're used to big productions there as well. A lot of American films shoot their productions there. They shoot a lot of West Bank scenes there in general, because it looks somehow like the West Bank as well.
Basically for the A.D. department extension, we hired a lot of locals, they were responsible for blocking streets and dealing with locals. We tried to bring some jobs as well you know, like with the production design team, only the production designer and I think the set dresser and our director were from outside the camp. And the rest were local people because there's a lot of painters, a lot of people who work with wood. So we tried to hire a lot of people to help us and so we could help them.
What is amazing is this is a student film, right?
Yeah, it was my third year project at my university, my film school in Germany.
How does it feel to be the only Arab film shortlisted to this year's Oscar race?
A bit conflicting, I have to say. I mean, of course, we feel honoured and it's such a big thing and such a big responsibility I feel to represent Arab cinema.
But at the same time, I feel a bit sad, because I really feel a lot of other films deserved to be nominated as well. This year, there were a lot of good films coming out of the Region. And really, I was quite shocked that only our film made it. I mean, I think more or less with the Oscars as well, a lot of geopolitical things play into it, you know, how the political climate is. What is the interests of people in certain stories, and I feel for us, unfortunately, the story of Tala'vision is somehow at the moment, compatible to this political climate due to what's happening in Afghanistan and all this suppression on women and children.
It's so sad because when I made this film, I thought, okay, ISIS was there, it's history now, you know, they still exist, but this is not going to happen again. And with the Taliban in Afghanistan you're suddenly realizing that literally history is repeating itself during our lifetime.
While making the film, a lot of people came up to me and this question came up: "There are a lot of projects about Syria and ISIS, and this is all history, so why would you want to do this film, the market is saturated with such stories." And for me, I felt the opposite. I felt we have a lot of films made about ISIS in Syria, but not from a very local point of view. And especially I thought, children are really forgotten. Most films concentrate on war, and on the politics of war, and I just wanted to do a story of a little girl and her understanding of what's happening around her. So I just shoved away all these voices in my head and what people told me that fed my doubts and thought like -- this story mattered to me.
Tala'vision can be viewed on The Academy Screening Room in the US, and Omeleto worldwide (except in the MENA and Continental Europe).