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Interview ‘If you want me to write poetry about the birds you need to turn off the fighter jets’

BRETT GREGORY speaks to Palestinian director Muayad Alayan about his new film

I’M in Manchester and Muayad Alayan, a Palestinian film director, is in Jerusalem. His new film, A House in Jerusalem, is a story about a grieving Jewish girl haunted by a Palestinian past.

I tell him that a general election has just been announced here, and voters are being reminded that Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, recently stated that Israel has a right to defend itself by “cutting off electricity and water” for Palestinian refugees.

Muayad replies that he’s not surprised. “The West has always been against the Palestinians,” he says.

I ask him about the semi-autobiographical origins behind A House in Jerusalem, and he reflects upon the military conflict in 1948.

“It’s the most personal film I’ve made so far. It’s about the trauma and survival of my parents, and my grandmother. They remained within historic Palestine, and didn’t flee to Jordan, Libya or Syria.

“My father used to deliver meat from the butcher’s in West Jerusalem, and he knew the neighbourhoods so well. He would tell us stories about the ancient houses, institutions and football clubs but, as children, all we saw was McDonald’s and Starbucks: a Westernised reality.

“But, you know, the past is so powerful, you can touch it.”

So how did he attempt to recreate the spirit of this in the film?

“I hope the innocence of children gives us the room which we don’t dare confront in the adult world. Children have not been corrupted yet.”

Handmade dolls feature heavily in the story, along with the idea of female creativity and community. What was the creative decision-making behind this?

“These dolls are what mothers and daughters would make, and the daughters of daughters would make. There are so many pre-1948 photographs of Palestinian girls holding on to these dolls. It’s our history.”

He also cast the UK actor, Johnny Harris, as the father in the film who, as we know from London to Brighton (2006), is excellent at communicating the vulnerability of masculinity. What did you learn from working with him?

“Johnny can play the broken man so well, it’s scary. He really brought amazing things to the screen, and he’s so aware of what child actors need to perform. He was very sensitive and supportive, and it was a blessing.”

And what was it like filming on location, and the occupied West Bank?

“It was a nightmare, seriously. We filmed in the refugee camp, but we had so much help from friends and other film-makers. It’s a ghetto, but they gave so much.”

What about the context surrounding this film’s release? It feels like the world has exploded in the last eight months and, at last, university students, for example, have remembered their political heritage, their free thinking, and their backbone.

“Sadly, the film is more relevant than ever. What’s happening in Gaza now surpasses what happened in 1948. It’s unbelievable. Seventy per cent of the population in Gaza now are refugees.”

As a Palestinian film-maker, communicating with the wider world, does he feel that he is personally at risk?

“Since the beginning of the war there have been a lot of arrests among artists, intellectuals, creatives. Not just Palestinians living in Israel, but also left-wing, progressives Israelis who have denounced the killings that have been happening.

Of course, we don’t dare complain because of the massacres we’re witnessing.... A Palestinian writer once wrote, ‘If you want me to write poetry about the birds you need to turn off the fighter jets and the tanks so I can hear them.’”

A House in Jerusalem is on general release from Friday May 31

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