"Guilty until proven innocent": Saleh Bakri talks acting, living and traveling under occupation at Ajyal 2022

The acclaimed actor from Palestine highlighted the challenges creative artists face living under occupation and inspired the Ajyal jurors, in an online talk during the ongoing festival in Doha, Qatar.
"Guilty until proven innocent": Saleh Bakri talks acting, living and traveling under occupation at Ajyal 2022

"We are deprived of the opportunity to work with our Arab brethren," said actor Saleh Bakri, during an emotionally charged interaction with Ajyal Jurors and later with the media at this year's Special Edition of the Ajyal Film Festival. The yearly event in Doha turns 10 this year and because of the upcoming FIFA World Cup, had to be reinvented as a special program of films, talks and activities built around those who live and work in Qatar. But especially for the young juries, 613 jurors from 50 countries in total, ranging in ages from 8 to 25 years old.

Bakri mentioned during the talk that the young Ajyal Jurors inspire him with their genuine concern and care for the Palestinian people and he shared the tremendous challenges he and fellow artists face while living under occupation.

“I live in Palestine, and I cannot move freely because am a Palestinian living under occupation, which imposes on me their passport. I have to carry a passport that I have not chosen, and I have to be a citizen of a state I didn’t choose.”

Bakri said this has led to travel restrictions within the Arab world. “It is very hard, if not impossible, for me or my peers to travel to Lebanon and some other Arab states. I had to request a passport from the Palestinian Authority to travel to Lebanon, and immediately upon my return, it was seized by the Israeli authorities.” Famously, Bakri worked on Costa Brava, Lebanon by Mounia Akl, which filmed in Lebanon, an experience the actor called “amazing and enriching.” The film has gone on to garner awards around the world, but also conquer the collective heart of audiences everywhere, from the MENA region to the US and beyond.

“It saddens me that I cannot work with my Arab brethren – the Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Iraqis… I do not see any difference between us. I do not acknowledge the borders between us. We have one culture, of course with diversity; but we are deprived of this diversity, of being able to work together,” said Bakri, who gained global fame through several films such as Wajib by Annemarie Jacir and The Present by Farah Nabulsi. The latter was nominated for a Live Action Short Academy Award and won the BAFTA for Best Short Film in 2021.

Bakri said artists in Palestine are caught between “a hammer and an anvil; we are always considered guilty until proven innocent. This is a very disturbing situation, to live constantly under suspicion. We have proven ourselves in cinema, poetry, literature, art and music. Those who refuse to work with us are the losers, just as we lose the opportunity to communicate with our brothers and sisters.”

He also mentioned that the relentless struggles have made him tired and weary, but he will not let go of his dreams, “it is a long road filled with hardship to have freedom. We live in the nostalgia of our past, and a craving to communicate with the Arab world freely.”

Bakri added that he is confident of the future of Arab cinema, “I believe that things are moving forward; the work by our young filmmakers are inspiring. Arab cinema will develop and grow, and we are seeing proof of that. We are making great films that make an imprint globally. I hope we will also expand our wings and deliver even more powerful work in theatre, television and web series as well.”

One of the actor's most recent project is Maryam Touzani's The Blue Caftan, which premiered in Cannes and has now been named the official Moroccan submission to the Best International Feature Film Oscar race. Bakri has never been afraid to play unconventional characters, portraying all kinds of men from a doomed mafia soldier in the Italian film Salvo, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, to a kind of Palestinian hustler of sorts in Annemarie Jacir's beautiful debut feature Salt of This Sea. With loads of other roles in between, Bakri has become a favorite of world cinema filmmakers looking for a man to fill their characters with poignancy and a deep sense of self.

Bakri was particularly touched by the genuine care and understanding of the Ajyal Jurors, saying, “the Ajyal Film Festival is a rare platform that gives young people the opportunity to express themselves. It gives voice to the young generation, and this initiative must be lauded. I was touched by the fact that our younger generations are open to our work, especially independent cinema, and to the efforts of Arab filmmakers.”

He also lauded the work of the Doha Film Institute, saying that “it does a brave job of supporting independent cinema. They are in fact the first supporters of independent cinema throughout the Arab world – from Mauritania to Kuwait and Iraq, and they are doing a great job. I have worked in many films supported by the Institute and see many DFI-supported films feted at global film festivals. DFI is indeed a source of pride for Arab filmmakers.”

The Special Edition of the 10th Ajyal Film Festival has been screening a specially curated program of important stories from around the world to over 613 jurors from 50 countries. They have also been taking part in the Ajyal Talks (like the one with Saleh Bakri) and Spotlight sessions in addition to taking part in lively discussions on cinema and critiquing the movies they watched.

For more information, check out the DFI website.

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