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Interview with the director / Kanesatake Resistance / SLA (Khiam)

Interview with the director

What initiated the idea of this film - or the need to make it?
Growing up in Egypt I always had a Palestinian refugee document, so, in 1994, I immigrated to Canada. When I arrived I began to hear about something called the Oka Crisis, or what Mohawks (Kanienkehaka people) call Kanesatake 90. A small city next to them decided to expand their land over and onto the reserve of Kanesatake and specifically their cemetery. For six months the indigenous people of Kanesatake tried to peacefully stop them. They went to the provincial and the federal councils but they could never got their attention, so they decided to protect their land (what had been granted to them by colonials long ago) through armed struggled. Only then did they get any attention. At the same time, there was a scandal about accepting war criminals as immigrants to Canada. They were coming from south Lebanon and had committed a list of war crimes during their collaboration with the Israelis in the nineties.
As a new immigrant having just arrived to Canada there was something in me that struggled with my sudden new status as a settler. So, I tried to contact the Indigenous community to obtain their permission to stay and acceptance of me on their land. The idea of the film developed from there. Knowing them made me profoundly understand their trauma, their resistance, the importance of their language and culture, and how far they are from the stereotype that has been created about them. I was very worried to talk about people which I have no deep knowledge of, or am not part of, especially as a Palestinian who is also suffering from constant stereotyping. It took me years to know them, not as one tribe but a deep and diverse community and I was incredibly proud to get their acceptance and participation in the film. The financing of the film took years as well because everybody and every institution was concerned or at least not interested in funding a film by a Palestinian about Indigenous people from turtle island.
At the time, I found solace meeting them in this land that was foreign to me, and this film reflects this kind of solace that people under the same injustice feel when they meet each other: because they don’t have to explain themselves.

You spoke of your new status and the kind of solace that people under the same injutices feel. In the film this is expressed through the relation between the two protagonists Arihote and Wedad and indirectly through your empathy as director with you characters. Though the South Lebanon Army (SLA) fighter is invisible on the screen, his presence is the catalyzer for the story - or the  encounter between Arihote and Wedad. Can you expand on the immigration of the SLA immigrants to Canada a bit? What role did this play in the public debate and what did it mean for you, as director with a Palestinian refugee document to settle in a new country where also SLA members seek refuge after the withdraw of the Israeli army from South Lebanon?
The SLA character could be any war criminal from anywhere, be it Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia, etc. For the woman, Wedad, she is associated to my identity as a Palestinian but she represents any person in her situation. This also applies to the SLA member and perhaps that's why he doesn’t have a face, because he represents other war criminals who have found refuge in countries which were accomplices to these criminals. There were a lot of debates in the media, but in the end nothing happens to those war criminals, and I believe Europe and the USA allow a lot of war criminals to find refuge on their lands.
The importance for me was to show the two protagonists seeking normalcy in life but destiny always being after them. It was not Wedad’s choice to kill the SLA member. She ran away and immigrated to Canada, but accidentally met the SLA member. Even when she complained to the government she found out that the government knew and then the SLA member threatened to kill her if she told anyone which resulted in a confrontation in which she became a killer. Her life changes and there is no escape. For Arihote, he had a family until Kanesatake 90 happened. In his case he is always surrounded by expectations from his wife and his son to play a specific role. His wife went to join the Zapatista because her own community is slowly falling apart, and his son looks at him as a conformist. At the end the political situation dictates the life that both of them are living. It isn't their free will that designed their lives. They are both in situations where they are standing still because their individual lives happened to be linked to political struggle against an incredibly strong power. And in that standstill of a life there is the expectation or pre-designed role that you have to play that is sometimes dictated onto you by the whole world. Being together is a way for them to create strength and a sense of activeness instead of living as reactive beings.

Standstill is a quiet empathic film without verbal explanations. Things happen and the protagonists react calmly as it appears at first glance. The viewer has to watch carefully and feel with the characters in order to understand. How did you develop and write the story?
I began developing the story by elaborating the characters. I wrote myself very detailed character descriptions and through their separate stories and paths it was a mix of coincidence and faith that they had to interact and meet. With each of their very heavy backstories, drawn in detail, the quiet leads them through time and the story simply felt like it unfolded naturally, following their personalities, histories, steps and overlaps. Also, if anyone is curious about it, there are histories and paths for each of the other characters that aren’t necessarily exposed on the screen: Karihiio, Arihote’s son, Arihote’s wife, his father and also the only Quebecer character, which we see at the end, who chose to understand them. The all have full stories that the audience can glimpse, interact and imagine in their own way.
Amongst all the complexity and ambiguity that they are surrounded with, a man looking for a forgotten song in front of a hospital, they all appear as humans, not specific stereotypes, but simply people interacting.

Can you tell a bit about the cooperation in the team and the work with the actors? How much did they contribute to shape the characters and the overall atmosphere? And also how it was to direct a film in which most of the dialogues are in the Kanienkeha (Mowhak) language?
After I wrote the final draft of the script, I sat down with one of the elders expert in Kanienkeha so he could translate the dialogue I was in need for. I’d noticed how they often switch between English and Kanienkeha and so in the film I used this way of switching between the two languages as a way to differentiate between sincere and insincere moments. I then asked another elder, also an expert, to review all of it and make sure it sounded natural. The main male character, Arihote, was not as I had imagined him, but I liked him a lot. He has a way of speaking that is very personal to him and that is the very same way he exists in in real life. I chose to follow him and his lead instead of asking him to play the way it was thought to be in my head. I felt it was important for me and for the film to have the character naturally sound like the actor instead of trying to make it suit my idea.
At the end of this whole process I was so happy and truly proud that the Kanienkehaka liked the film. I was so worried and scared that they would feel that the film came from and acted as an outsider’s eye seeing them. I will always remain an outsider but I want to be as honest as I can to them, their culture and their reality. I always hate when artists use anyone from any culture to serve their own vision or point of view. I fundamentally believe when one wants to make a film about a different culture, the most important thing is to commit to the serious research that must be completed and show their respect to the culture and its reality always making sure to avoid any stereotype. This film took years to complete and without the help of an entire community, it wouldn’t exist right now. I also wanted to mention something that was very important for me, although the role of the investigator is small I was so concerned that he is almost one of the only Quebecers in the film and he is playing the part of an authority figure. I didn’t want it to be misinterpreted. So, I approached a filmmakers who is on of the founders of Quebec cinema. I felt that even in the harshness of the dialogue his visage had a kindness that he can’t hide. Surprisingly for me he accepted to play the role and I am deeply thankful to him for such a collaboration.

In terms of the regular idea of what an Arab or a Palestinian film is, your work is unusual. When it comes to finance a film the non-standard is often difficult, while at the same time new gazes on the world are asked for. How did this process work for you?

The film was truly difficult to finance. Financial institution for film and art in general prefer not to take risks. It is always better to have a project which fits into a specific category or a previous pattern. My project touches on Palestinian and Indigenous identities and not in a predictable way. So, everybody was scared. This isn’t even speaking on my way of storytelling which is also not very straightforward. It took me years to find a reasonable fund for it. Each institution and funder participated with a very small amount and so it took me a long time to be able to amass the budget and pass to production. I would simply like to thank all the participants, the cast and the crew, who accepted my stubbornness and were always patient with me in order to help shape my vision. Without every single one of them, I wouldn’t have been able to make the film as it is today. I also want to thank all the financial participants, even with their small gesture they helped me make a film: Conseil des arts et des Lettres du Québec, Sodec - Société de Développement des Entreprises Culturelles, Dubai Film Connection, Doha Film Institute, Telefilm Canada, Crédit D'impôts du Québec, Canada Tax Credits for Film or Video, PRIM. And also a very special thank you to mec film who is trying to revive the film and make it available for the widest audience possible. Thank you.

Was the film shown in Palestine or in another Arab country?
The film was only screened by the Cinema Days in Ramallah and in Haifa. I was very happy with the reactions of the audience, however unfortunately I felt the language was a barrier which is why now I'm adding Arabic subtitles and I hope to screen it again in Palestine and screen it the Arab world.

(Questions by Irit Neidhardt, April 2023)

Kanesatake Resistance (Oka Crisis)

The Kanesatake Resistance
by Craig Baird, 22 Aug 2020 in Canadian History Ehx
Today, I am looking at the Kanesatake Resistance which began on July 11, 1990 and lasted for 78 days until Sept. 26. Over the course of those days, one person would die and the issues relating to the use of Indigenous land would be thrust to the forefront of the Canadian news cycle. While the collective name for this is often the Oka Crisis, I am going to be calling it the Kanesatake Resistance, as it was not a crisis  but a group of people standing up to protect their land.
I am not beginning there though. Instead, I am beginning centuries before those fateful days, when the Indigenous were first beginning to deal with Europeans encroaching on their lands. continue (text and podcast)    

South Lebanese Army (SLA) / Khiam

The Khiam detainees: torture and ill-treatment
Some 200 detainees are currently held in the Khiam detention centre situated in south Lebanon. Khiam was set up as a permanent detention centre in early 1985 by the South Lebanon Army (SLA) with Israel's assistance and supervision. Most of the detainees are Lebanese suspected of belonging to armed organizations hostile to Israel and the SLA, or of having been involved in attacks against the Israel Defence Force (IDF), Israel's armed forces, or the SLA in south Lebanon. Many of them have been tortured or ill-treated during interrogation. They appear to be held outside any legal framework and have no access to the outside world. continue to Amnesty International May 1992