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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Toronto International Film Festival: 3,000 Nights is a metaphor for the Palestinian occupation

The prison drama from Mai Masri centres on Layal, a woman who gives birth in prison.
Maisa Abd Elhadi as Layal in prison drama 3,000 Nights. Courtesy Nour Productions
Maisa Abd Elhadi as Layal in prison drama 3,000 Nights. Courtesy Nour Productions

It’s tempting to label 3,000 Nights as the new Orange Is the New Black.

Like the hit US Netflix TV show, Mai Masri’s feature film is set in a women’s prison, with plenty of violence and all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Instead of the small-screen’s Crazy Eyes, the film has Sanaa, the one-armed leader of a faction of Palestinian prisoners. Where OITNB has former drug addicts such as Pennsatucky, 3,000 Nights, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, has Shulamit, an Israeli detainee who has kicked a heroin habit. But that is where the similarities end.

The TV show was nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, but 3,000 Nights, about a woman who finds out she is pregnant after she is wrongly jailed for helping a terrorist, is anything but funny. The Israeli guards in the movie have none of the humanity of OITNB’s Sam Healey and show no interest in rehabilitating or even talking to the prisoners, unless they are willing to inform on their fellow inmates.

Also, the jumpsuits are blue.

Then there is this production detail: Masri shot the film in an actual military prison just outside of Amman. “There were real walls and real bars and real scorpions,” she says. “So there’s a terror there. It’s traumatic. It’s oppressive as a place and really inspires the acting.”

The writer/director wanted the film, which is set in an Israeli prison during the tumultuous early 1980s, to look as real and truthful as possible. She interviewed many former detainees before writing the script, which is based on the true story of a woman who gave birth to a son and raised him behind bars for two years.

Masri also cast actors from Palestinian backgrounds. UAE audiences might recognise Maisa Abd Elhadi, who won the Muhr Arab best actress prize at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival for her role in the film Habibi Rasak Kharban. In 3,000 Nights, she plays the main character, Layal, a West Bank wife who is arrested after stopping to give a lift to the wrong ­hitchhiker.

“You can barely find a family in Palestine without at least one person who has been a prisoner,” says the Palestinian actress. “Being [on set] for a whole day put pressure on me. I couldn’t just run away from it. The smell of the dirt, even the sound of the doors, it all makes you think you are really in a prison.” The film, already picked up for distribution in the Arab world by Egypt’s Mad Solutions, is Masri’s first feature film. The Beirut-based director made a name for herself making documentaries shot on location in war-torn areas. She began as a co-director with Jean Khalil Chamoun on Under the Rubble (1983) and Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon (1987). For her 1991 effort Children of Fire, she returned to her hometown of Nablus for the first time in 14 years and documented a new generation of kids raised under the ­intifada.

She did not choose an easy project for her fiction debut. 3,000 Nights features a large cast and required working 14 or 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week on a small budget (Diff’s Enjaaz fund co-produced the film, which will screen at this year’s festival) in the desert climate. Not to mention those scorpions.

“It was tiring,” Masri says. “But I was inspired. The cast really dug deep into their souls to bring out their feelings. When you get all these women together, it’s like a power that comes out. A lot of the crew were women, too, so it felt like we were creating something together.”

artslife@thenational.ae

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