Hit actor Saleh Bakri tells all at the Paris Palestine Film Festival
The first Palestine Film Festival ever to be held in Paris is a fitting stage for Saleh Bakri
The first Palestine Film Festival ever to be held in Paris is a fitting stage for Saleh Bakri. A highly versatile actor who has appeared in numerous award-winning movies and in sell-out theater productions, the 38-year-old is typical of a hugely talented generation that is putting its would-be nation on the global map for all the right reasons.
The theme of Palestinian statehood runs throughout “When I Saw You,” the film that opened the festival and in which Bakri stars. The film is the haunting story of 11-year-old Tarek, who runs away from a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan in 1967 at the time of the six-day Arab-Israeli war.
Bakri, who was born and grew up in the Israeli city of Jaffa, described director Annemarie Jacir’s film as “an act of resistance,” an artistic expression of the over-riding wish of the Palestinian people to take control of their own lives, away from occupation.
“Palestinian films resemble life itself,” said Bakri. “There’s occupation, oppression, war, death, exile, but also hope, happiness, dreams of freedom. The festival is also a great opportunity to meet a new generation of artists, producers, and other Palestinian actors from all around the world.”
I first met the imposing, bushy-haired Bakri a few days earlier in Haifa, Israel, where he lives in between travelling the world on glamorous shoots, stage shows, and other engagements such as film festivals. Relaxing in (appropriately enough) The Meeting Café in the port town, he straight away stared at me with his sharp blue eyes and pointed to an enduring conundrum for all creative Palestinians.
“The problem with Palestinian art is that we don’t have a united country,” he said. “Simply moving from one territory to another can be hugely difficult. Occupation affects the arts through and through.”
Bakri was born in Israel to the actor and film director Mohammed Bakri and his wife Leila. There was one girl and five boys, including future actors Ziad and Adam. In 1997, aged 20, Bakri was one of just two Arabs who signed up to a drama course at Beit Zvi, the acting academy in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv.
From a very early age he suffered the usual problems of constant security checks, restrictions and discrimination in all walks of life, from finding accommodation to jobs. “The arrogance of Israeli occupiers and how they look down on Palestinians is very oppressive in itself too,” said Bakri. “I learned how to use satire to try and ridicule the situation.”
Bakri originally had other plans for his career. “I didn’t always want to be an actor, but certainly wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw, but I was influenced by actors and became more attracted to the profession. It’s not an ordinary job – there’s no boredom. On the contrary, there are novelties all the time. That’s one of the reasons I put so much effort into learning the job… I also used acting to fight my fears, because fear is like a little death.”
The actor said he never saw his art as an overtly political tool, but by his late 20s he “understood the importance of cinema and drama in changing people and society, and eventually achieving justice. It was a vehicle by which we could talk about the occupation and colonisation. A revolution without art has no soul.”
Examples of how Bakri interprets such idealistic thinking are his street protests against Israeli violence. Playing Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in Arabic rather than English on the streets of Haifa is an illustration of how great art is as much a part of Palestinian tradition as any other. Such performances are “an intifada [uprising], an act of defiance.” said Bakri.
“I take a moral position on all the work I do. I refuse to participate in a production with a viewpoint I don’t agree with. This would include any funded by the Israeli government. But if there are Israeli artists who accept my terms and declare that they’re not going to get any financial support from Israeli institutions, and don’t want their film to be presented by the Israeli apartheid regime, then I’d work with them.
“I not only support the cultural boycott of Israel, but also want people to end economic dealings with it. Criminalizing Israel and turning it into a pariah state on the world stage is the way forward for justice for the Palestinians. I also hope that Palestine joining the International Criminal Court will help in that.”
As for the United States, Bakri said: “I received a lot of offers from Hollywood, and I rejected them for the same reasons that I’ll reject some Israeli films. One proposition was to take part in one of the James Bond movies, but when I discovered that it was promoting Israeli weapons, I decided not to do it.”
A highlight of Bakri’s career to date is “Fireworks,” a play by Palestinian poet Dalia Taha performed in London earlier this year. Inspired by the slaughter of Gazans by the Israeli military last summer, it examined the impact of war on children, its youngest and most vulnerable victims. “Great art is designed to shock, and to remain with people when the play or film is over,” said Bakri.
He spent two and a half months living in London, an experience that he looks back on fondly despite Britain’s part in creating the conflict that has dominated the Middle East since Israel was founded in 1948, forcing Palestinians out of their own lands.
Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has been elected again as prime minister of Israel, Bakri sees little immediate hope of peace.“Netanyahu and his newly-formed government show what Israel is all about. But the truth is that massacres and illegal settlements take place whichever Israeli government is in power, even supposedly left-wing ones.”
Such deep issues are particularly important to Bakri as he will star in “Wajib”, the new dark comedy film by Annemarie Jacir, about a father and son trying to reconnect in Nazareth after time apart. Some 20 percent of Palestinians live within Israeli borders, and this is the first time Jacir has featured this community.
Because of his background as an Arab with Israeli citizenship, Bakri is especially keen to be involved: “Being Palestinian gives me strength to talk about and tell the story of an oppressed people. I’ll always be Palestinian and nothing else.”
Jacir-Bakri collaborations are hugely successful, with 2008’s “Salt of the Sea,” the first feature film by a female director from Palestine, nominated for the Golden Camera and Un Certain Regard awards at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“When I Saw You” was Palestine’s 2013 Oscar entry for best foreign-language film. It won a number of international awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Oran Festival of Arab cinema in Algeria that same year.
Bakri’s immediate project is “Zinzana,” a psychological thriller set in a prison, which was filmed in Jordan. It meant more travel for Bakri, but he always insists: “I belong here, in Palestine.”
Bakri’s father was sued for making the documentary “Jenin, Jenin,” which exposed Israeli war crimes during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when the Israeli army attacked and reoccupied six of the largest cities in the West Bank, including Jenin, and their surrounding towns, villages and refugee camps.
The film was censored by the Israeli Film Board, and five Israeli soldiers who served in Jenin filed libel suits against Bakri senior. After a long legal battle, he won the cases and got the ban overturned, but not before High Court judges had called the film a “propagandistic lie.” Such are the perils of mixing art with politics, but Saleh Bakri is more than up for the challenge.