Can a Film Be Too Human? Actor Salim Dau Talks About 'Avanti Popolo' at Berlinale

Suhel Haddad and Salim Dau
Suhel Haddad and Salim Dau

Why does extremism always win, even in cinema?

This I kept thinking as I watched the closing ceremony of Berlinale, disagreeing with a particular choice by the jury. My favorite films this year were the ones that while reminding the audience about the perils of extremism, also celebrated what makes us all the same: Our humanity.

One such film, top on my list of must-watch (again) is the restored and remastered in 2K new version of Rafi Bukaee’s ‘Avanti Popolo', showcased in this year’s Berlinale Classics.

It was a different time, and a different place, the Middle East, all of the Middle East, thirty years ago when ‘Avanti Popolo’ was first screened. A time that still allowed for a tiny shrapnel of hope, hope for a peaceful solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Perhaps it’s wrong to even label it as a conflict then, because at the time ‘Avanti Popolo’ released, in 1986, it was still a “situation”. A couple of years before that last moment of hope was silenced forever in the ‘90s. Before today’s politicians, more interested in their own gains than the welfare of their people, added insult to injury, on both sides. And lets not forget that the ‘80s were also a time when none of the current extremist groups had come into play yet and religion still seemed like a noble word.

The weary relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is one that cannot be described in simple terms. If you can, you’re probably looking at it from too far away to care. It is as complex as any one individual is, on either side of the conflict. We carry with us the deepest scars of generations of suffering, covered up by our daily lives, baggage that changes how we relate to one another and, as a filmmaker I admire deeply said recently during our interview, “we are all walking around missing s**t.” So it’s natural that the relationship between two sides that require the same land, the same rights and the same solution to find closure and a resolution will be strife with hatred and violence.

Yet cinema, filmmakers, can always offer the world a different viewpoint, their own brand of prophetic insight. What makes ‘Avanti Popolo’ so groundbreaking is the idea that a Jewish Israeli filmmaker could find the POV of two Egyptian soldiers and from that understanding place, let us peak into their undeniable humanity. Of course, it helps that one of those soldiers, is played by master Palestinian thespian Salim Dau. Oh boy does it help!

Straightforward hardly makes for interesting cinema. In fact, it’s when roles are turned upside down and I find my heroes within the character I least expected it to be that a movie holds my attention, long after the film has finished screening. ‘Avanti Popolo’ shows within the character of Haled the futility of war, the tragic uselessness of sending young men into battle, unequipped and misinformed. In the process the film redefines, thanks to Dau, the tragic romantic hero. While the Jewish soldiers have the upper hand, at the end of the Six-Day War in the Sinai Desert, it’s the two Egyptian soldiers, played by Dau and Suhel Haddad who show us true grit, even if their military stance isn’t your average version we usually witness in American movies. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” quotes Haled loftily from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ explaining to the Israelis that he’s an actor in times of peace and his latest role is that of a Jew in a play. Ah the irony. Does anyone in cinema from MENA possess that kind of humor anymore? Of course not. Most filmmakers win prizes nowadays for showcasing the pathos of our existence. Not highlighting our brilliance, under duress.

I caught up with the exceptional, charismatic and powerfully intelligent Salim Dau at Berlinale and interviewing him perfectly closed the festival for me. There was nowhere to go but down from such a special meeting and I’m all about quitting while I’m ahead. Here are a few highlights of our talk.

Salim Dau in <em>Avanti Popolo</em>
Salim Dau in Avanti Popolo

What was it like to watch the film with an audience after thirty years?

Salim Dau: I adore this movie, it’s my most important movie in my career. It’s amazing to see it again, with a new audience, thirty years after. I was really excited.

You are one of my favorite actors, I’ve watched you in many films like Eran Riklis’ Cup Final, also a personal favorite. I adore the wonderful poetic quality you bring to your characters.

Dau: OK, that’s enough, I can go home now!

It’s true! You are ever a tragic hero trying to survive. Your characters always break my heart.

Dau: I am working always with my heart that’s all. I can’t work from here (touches his head). I understand what I have to do, I understand the script and the character and I begin to work from here, (touches his heart) and here (points to his mouth). Always I’m working like that, in all my films, and I am now up to 45, I think.

So what do you think when this filmmaker Rafi Bukaee comes to you and says “we are making an Israeli film where the two protagonists are both Egyptians — Arabs”?

Dau: Rafi Bukaee was a friend of mine and losing him was both a big loss for Israeli cinema in general and for me personally. Rafi came to me with a script where two Egyptian soldiers are the protagonists, he was more on the left side of the spectrum, saw things grandly not with a narrow mind, and he had been through the war with Lebanon, which had made a big difference in his head. The experience of going to war made him aware of war, so he decided to write the script with two Egyptian soldiers but about the Six-Day War, where Israel did win the war.

And when I read the script I could see already everything, my character in the film walking in the desert, it was all really present in reading the script. I saw everything in my feelings and in front of my eyes. I was really living that character in some way.

After ‘Avanti Popolo’ I did play Jewish and Arab roles, but Israeli cinema has changed a lot and there are much less stories about Jewish and Arab relations and experiences. It’s gotten strongly divided.

In MENA cinema, lately the stories are becoming fewer and we are stuck in a period of wanting to talk about struggle without touching on the human aspect. No film comes close to this now, why?

Dau: I don’t know why! That’s why ‘Avanti Popolo’ is the greatest among the films in the Middle East. It’s what Rafi saw, it was his choice, his vision which made the film so strong — his choice to pick us, Suhel [Haddad] and me, it was a good choice because the film was well loved in Israel by all, the audience and the press loved it.

Yet there was one journalist who wrote about the film, she loved the film and then she wrote an unbelievable sentence about it: “I think that the Arabs are too human.”

But isn’t that the whole policy, to dehumanize “the Other”, make them appear inhuman?

Dau: I did a documentary ‘Keys’, it’s my film. It’s about Palestinians who were chased away from their village in 1948 and the Israeli TV channels never accepted to show the film. And a friend of mine told me, who works in television, “it’s never going to be played on Israeli television because it doesn’t insult Israel, it doesn’t insult Israelis — it’s too human.” And that’s what they don’t like, they prefer films that are controversial and insulting instead of seeing the human side.

Is the secret to resolving all our problems really being true to our humanity?

Dau: Yes. Yes, oh yes. Yes. Yes.

And is that the power of cinema?

Dau: That’s the power of cinema and the power of us — that’s my power. When I was young, I used to be a boxer, I was looking for trouble. I had a lot of strength. But not now, now I possess a lot of strength in my heart, in my head… These days I avoid problems, I avoid verbal fights, if someone threatens me, I say “my friend…” And I try to bring humanity and truth to these confrontations.

In the last years I’ve gotten more strong and I get more love. If I’m on the street or on stage, like yesterday I had the feeling that I loved the audience, because I love people. Because I’m not acting, if I’m on the street or on the stage, I’m the same.

All images courtesy of Berlinale, used with permission.

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