Hiam Abbass is best known for her work acting in films such as Babel, Miral, Paradise Now, Munich and The Visitor. Often cited as the best Palestinian actor working in film today, Abbass has now made the move into directing. Her debut feature film, Inheritance, about a Palestinian family from Galilee who gather to celebrate the wedding of one of their daughters and all the problems that result from this, was recently screened at the Venice International Film Festival. Abbass both directs the film and stars in it.
Why have you chosen to step behind the camera?
I made two short films previously and ever since I've wanted to direct a feature. But I was writing and acting at the same time and nothing was right until this project came along, written by Ala Hlehel, a Syrian writer from Israel. Although, the script was more a comedy and before I agreed to direct it, I felt like I needed to personalise it in a way that would mean it was a story I could connect with.
It's a family drama revolving around a wedding. What was it about the family dynamic that drew you in?
I grew up in a very big family in an environment where I think my life didn't really belong to just me, it belonged to everybody. Growing up, I was seeing their problems, their conflicts and their whatever. So when the script arrived, it had this family dynamic and that was really the very charming point for me … because it felt really very much part of what I know and what I lived growing up.
There is an unspecified war happening in the background, and in the narrative, every character seems to be in the midst of their own personal war. Is that correct?
Absolutely. That is really the story, this is how I personalised the writing of the script; I wanted everybody to have their own war inside this bigger war.
Why do you think there are so many female stories coming from the Middle East?
I'm a woman, what can I do? I don't like to split the sexes when it comes to artistic work. I think everyone contributes what they have to contribute. In any case, I don't have the distance to look at my work as part of a greater whole. I just have to do what I can do as an artist and express what I want to talk about.
The film is set in a region that you grew up in, on the border of Israel and Lebanon. What is it about this region that fascinates you?
I don't know. I think as a first feature, it's something that I really connected with. I wanted to start there because, although I've not been living there for the past 25 years, I always go back there for work and my parents and all my family are living there, so it's my way of staying connected to them. Today I live in an Occidental society … I'm just like the protagonist in the film, with two identities.
Why did you include an English character in the film? He seems to be the outsider who doesn't understand the dynamic of the Palestinian family.
He is, but I think how you best see your own traditions and how they affect you is when you go to the opposite side. I had a story myself with an English man when I was living in my parents' house and in a way I thought that this was the biggest fight in my life, bringing in someone who is so different, who had a different language, culture and religion. It was the biggest thing I could do to prove that no matter how different someone is from you, if you can still connect with them, then it means there is something in the spirit that connects human beings together.