Ultimately, art is the reflecting pool with which we see our own disease as a society.
What is it about certain people that drive them to always want to progress and do more with their lives? The people bitten by this bug may consider it a curse because, likely, they will forever want to offer a clarion call for justice when our freedom is stolen, or otherwise abused.
An increasing number of films have unspooled in recent years that takes new and different tacks on the seemingly inexhaustible Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jessica Habie’s Mars at Sunrise does just that. Already a seasoned documentary filmmaker, she has chosen to depart from the binding structures of such an undertaking with her latest effort of fiction, which in actuality is inspired by artist Hani Zurob and his irrevocable clash with violence. A small, deliberate film with a kind of offbeat solemnity, Mars at Sunrise is the portrait of Khaled (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian artist—interrogated, beaten, confined, and capable of doing only one thing well—and Eyal (Guy El Hanan), an Israeli soldier waging a war of wills in his unsuccessful attempt at recruiting the captive as an informant. Told with loving attentiveness to memories, dreams, poems and vivid visual cues, this experimental feature illustrates the power of art to shore up the spirit.
Mars at Sunrise is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City.
Guy [El Hanan] was just telling me how Mars at Sunrise began four years ago and a lot has happened since then for all three of you. What does it feel like to now reunite and promote the film? What kind of feelings are coming back?
Jessica Habie: I want to stand up and point to my pregnant belly. [Laughs] For me, the feelings that are coming back have to do with the huge appreciation these actors had and continue to have for our project. There are a lot of heartwarming feelings there. This week in a sense launches the birth of the film, even though we’ve already been screening it here and there. But it didn’t feel real to me until we were reunited. The project is blooming.
Ali Suliman: I don’t have much to add. She really said everything.
Guy El Hanan: This marked my debut performance. I’ve been in several soldier roles since, but they weren’t as meaningful to me. Mars at Sunrise introduced me to a whole new world. I’m pretty much the only person in Israel to participate in productions that are generally foreign or Palestinian with foreign partners, filming in the Israeli-occupied territories. I think that’s the biggest thing that has happened, except for the fact that my son was born shortly after the production of Mars at Sunrise. But these two things seem related because I think my son Jai is learning to live in a more heterogeneous society whereas I grew up with one race, language and culture.
Guy, you come from radio and you’re also a playwright. Ali, you were already an established, well-known actor prior to this film. I’d love to know how you all met.
A.S.: I met with Jessica in Nazareth after she called me? I can’t really remember…
J.H.: I did. I remember when you first walked in the door. You had these sunglasses on.
A.S.: She invited me to her house in Nazareth and we talked about the project. When I first read the script, I was really confused as to how a young lady could come from a different culture overseas to tell the story about a Palestinian painter and an Israeli soldier. I couldn’t accept this at the beginning. But as soon as I saw her previous documentary work, I fell in love with them. Before that happened, I didn’t want anyone else to tell my story because I thought the best thing you can do is to tell your own story. After that, she told me about her journeys in Palestine and really opened my mind to doing something different. I believed in her vision then on.
J.H.: It’s so beautiful to hear that. Everyone I work with has a different story about how we came to meet. When I was making my documentaries, I was really impressed by this young screenwriter who was telling me stories about how, when he was out in the field as a tank mechanic, he would write poems in this little spiral notebook that fit into the pocket of his army uniform. He would scribble things down, observing the stars at night. I interviewed him for my film Mandatory Service and three years later, I was asking around for talented Israeli actors when my friend told me I had to meet this guy who just came back from Paris. In walks Guy, who was a screenwriter at the time with a spiral notebook that had inspired me to create the character of Eyal! Ultimately, many people that I spoke with inspired the character of Eyal, but the things that Guy, his father and his brother shared with me formed the bedrock desire to create this character. That was just about as synchronous and divinely inspired as it could get. Guy has been with me since the very beginning.
At what point did Ali enter the picture?
J.H.: I’ve worked with so many talented Palestinian actors, but right away, I felt that Ali had such a strong, physical presence. You don’t have to say a lot to feel the power of his character in a room, whereas a lot of the other Palestinian actors would sort of mesh up against Eyal in a way that seemed mushy. Ali’s was threatening and aggressive because of its potency. Guy and Ali together made sense to me in that moment. We didn’t have to scream or feel self-indulgent, something that a lot of struggling artists tend to do. When Ali touched the material, I knew this was the kind of quiet tiger we need to throw into the interrogation room. Working with him just felt really different and you could really feel the presence of an actor.
A.S.: I just want to add that it was really hard for me to work with Guy. He’s just so nice and I’m supposed to hate him. It was very difficult. [Laughs]
This film was, at least to a large degree, inspired by artist Hani Zurob who was interrogated himself. Did you feel much pressure in doing justice to his story?
J.H.: Absolutely. It’s inspired by the creative journey that Hani goes on. There are several scenes in the interrogation room that were taken directly from his testimony. But overall, the film is a synthesis of hundreds of stories. It’s really about how Hani inspired me as an artist, much more than a direct portrayal of his life. Hani and I were very clear about taking it in that direction.
A.S.: This was our own interpretation and my goal was to play the character. An artist should speak about art on his own terms. I didn’t feel it necessary to replicate Hani’s life in order to recreate the person. We wanted to do something different.
J.H.: I definitely wrote about it in my director’s statement that there was quite a bit of pressure. Internally, I wanted to make something respectful, complex and appreciative of the fact that Hani was a source of inspiration. It was a process that involved a lot of communication. When I traveled to Paris to screen the movie for him, I was trembling. His wife was stuck in Palestine at the time dealing with bureaucratic nightmares, while four months pregnant. It was like stepping into the gut of the occupation. Hani eventually came to really appreciate the art of it. It’s always difficult for victims of torture to look at torturers as humans, so we worked within this reality that Eyal’s character has nothing to do with the officer that interrogated Hani. I think what Hani found really beautiful about what we did was how Eyal is able to look into the body of Khaled’s work, through the eyes of an artist, and see himself better. Eyal begins to see what he’s fighting and where he’s losing. Ultimately, art is the reflecting pool with which we see our own disease as a society.
Let’s discuss the visual language of Mars at Sunrise. I initially thought the film would be linear until the unexpected editing, compositions and visual cues came along. Were these creative choices very heavily scripted beforehand?
J.H.: The visual language had much to do with, on a very practical level, our limited budget. We wanted to make powerful and quite complex statements. The art direction is very much its own character. Our art director Nael Kanji did such an incredible job. If you go back and watch the film a second or a third time, new details will emerge. So the visual language was very strategic in that respect. Now, if you want to talk about the editing, it’s a totally different story. As Guy and Ali would tell you, the script read like a journey into a crazy labyrinth. The finished film doesn’t resemble the script at all, even though some scenes didn’t change much. People would sometimes ask me how all of this fits together and I would tell them to just trust me. [Laughs] To be concise, the visual language was strategically planned out.
How did you temper the line between going too far or not going far enough to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that serves as the backdrop for an entirely different kind of story you’re trying to tell?
G.E.: I really wanted to pull the most important, human questions out of playing Eyal, an interrogator. Eyal used to be an artist before becoming a soldier. The question becomes, did he choose this new path or was it thrust upon him? What happens to him when he meets Khaled? He has a job to do and maybe he’s jealous of Khaled. You might even say that he becomes infatuated with this accomplished artist and weakened by the strength of his endurance under torture. Maybe Eyal even knows that he’s heading towards self-destruction, which will eventually liberate him. This is the way I wanted to see it.
Being artists yourselves, this must resonate that much more.
G.E.: And I have many artist friends who put their passion away because they were convinced to pursue something else in their personal journey. That’s why we pulled back from talking about the conflict, which is obviously a blinding subject. It has been depicted in films so much already. Some filmmakers deal directly with the realities of injustice, but we wanted to imagine a better world. We wanted to imagine a place for Eyal and Khaled where your feelings aren’t so black-and-white, good versus evil. I was very interested to see how people would react to the humanization of a dehumanized aggressor. My father used to tell me that terrorists aren’t born, but made. This is also true about Eyal in Mars at Sunrise.
It’s about circumstance. There are two sides to every story.
Jessica, what was it like crossing over into fictional territory for the first time after working in documentaries for so long?
J.H.: The documentaries that I’ve made previously definitely put me on the path to becoming the filmmaker I am today. It was a period of research in many ways. In documentaries, I learned to look at situations and understand the essence of what needs to be communicated in order to create more awareness about a given subject. What interests me most as an artist is to understand that, put it aside, and focus on the creativity in the art itself. How can I share the specificity of my experiences and all that I’m witness to? As humans, we’re sharing information all the time. We’re trusting each other with shared stories, emotions and circumstances. Fiction is more interesting to me because I don’t know how to talk logically about the Middle East anymore. I can’t talk logically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To me, that entire phrase is absurd. What conflict? There’s no conflict when there’s a solution. It’s a crisis of insanity! Fiction allows me to connect to a political situation through creativity in a way that documentary doesn’t necessarily.
G.E.: It’s also about creating a world for yourself that you can’t see, but hope to see.
Are you often surprised by the kind of interpretations people make upon watching the film?
J.H.: Every time. I’m always blown away when someone reads into something. For example, when you see that Khaled has written all over the walls of his house, everyone interprets that behavior differently. Is he trying to mark his existence? Is he lashing out? With the angel character, some people thinks it’s Eyal or Khaled’s soul. Other people think it’s my soul. It’s always fascinating to hear feedback from viewers. People take different things away in terms of where we leave Eyal as well. They all feel differently about this war criminal in the end. Then someone will ask, “The plate of fruit in the television… are you trying to talk about what happened in Ancient Greece?” Absolutely… not! What happened in Ancient Greece? This is why I like the openness of the nonlinear narrative where you can make free associations. I’ve seen the film a million times and still manage to find small choices we made in the corner of a frame. It’s fascinating.
G.E.: I still remember the old TV that we used and I actually grew up on it during the 80s. It has this fake wood paneling around it.
J.H.: I love that TV!
G.E.: It’s the scene where I’m watching Khaled on the screen, sort of interviewing him. It’s one of several “dream nightmare” sequences. For me, it really spoke about trends in fashion. When you go to Tel Aviv, you feel like you’re in this 21st Century, ultra-Western place with clubbing and music. Then you go to Ramallaah and get something similar since they’re both linked to the West. Once you go one city over like to Baytunya, you’re transported to the 80s, 70s, 60s…
A.S.: [Laughs] Yes!
G.E.: The fashion begins to change drastically. That scene evokes a kind of memory of a young Khaled or Eyal sitting close to the TV and watching a children’s program. Another topic that comes up a lot is this question of balance. In every movie that relates to the Israelis or Palestinians, the balance between the occupied and occupier comes into play.
I feel like this is a very potent topic. Could you go into more detail about that?
G.E.: Let’s use the scene where Khaled is released and he’s running towards Ramallah as an example. He’s looking for anyone who will cut the zip tie from his wrists. This is an accurate portrayal because being a prisoner in Palestinian society is nothing like being a prisoner in the Western world. It’s not like you’re running down the street with an orange jumpsuit on and everyone’s scared. To the contrary, going to prison in Palestinian society is like going to college. The thinking is that a man goes to prison in order to become an adult.
Almost like a rite of passage?
G.E.: Sure. Then Khaled meets with his comic book artist friend Mahmoud, played by Amer Hlehel. Mahmoud was in a safe zone this whole time, living a life with no real worries. He shows Khaled his comic book about a super hero, soon to be published. His is a completely different life within Palestinian society than the one Khaled is living and has been living long before prison. It’s a refuge that promises a different kind of destiny. I thought the complexity of these two guys meeting was so important to highlight. Also, I’m pleased that we took out scenes involving Eyal’s own family and personal life. I was afraid that people would see that as Palestine being a part of Jewish history, and not Zionism being a part of Palestinian history. Again, it’s a question of perspective. With this film, it’s really important for us to see, worldwide, the perspective of the oppressed when we’re talking about art.