BEIRUT: Mai Masri is not a name synonymous with censorship, or cliches. The Palestinian-born Beirut-based filmmaker thrives on telling the truth and overcoming challenges, something she’s been doing now for the better part of three decades.
Her most-recent work, “3000 Nights,” had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September and has been included in the official competition selections of the London BFI and Dubai film festivals. “3000 Nights” has won audience awards at French and Spanish festivals (in Annonay and Valladolid, respectively) and will have its Beirut premiere next month.
Masri’s fiction film debut, “3000 Nights” is an unflinching denunciation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the injustices it has wrought, a subject that has dominated the documentaries that comprise the body of her work.
“3000 Nights” tells the story of Layal, a Palestinian woman who gave birth in an Israeli prison. A newlywed schoolteacher, Layal serves an eight-year sentence for allegedly helping a Palestinian boy carry out an attack on an Israeli checkpoint. She says she’d merely given him a ride, not knowing who he was or what he was doing.
Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is given few amenities, although she was given the choice of terminating the pregnancy several times. The plot, which Masri wrote, centers on Layal’s ordeal as a single mother raising her child in confinement, the grim living conditions facing Palestinian detainees and the interplay between Palestinian political prisoners and Israeli inmates.
There are heartwarming scenes between Layal, and her son, Noor, where they play with toys made out of worn-out cotton and draw pictures of pitched-roof houses with flying birds on her cell walls.
“It’s a human story set in a political context,” Masri said. Set in the 1980s, the tale remains relevant. For Masri the film “is symbolic ... a metaphor for the condition of the Palestinian people. ... The message of hope is very important.”
Layal’s character is based on a woman Masri met while filming in Nablus many years ago. A mother herself, she was touched by the strength required to create a bearable environment for her child while in detention.
Over the years, the filmmaker met more female prisoners in Palestinian and Jordanian jails who shared similar experiences. This helped develop Masri’s direction with the screenplay, as adapting several stories helped create a more collective account of the issue, a “universal film” as she puts it.
Masri’s career as a documentary filmmaker got started in Beirut in 1983, collaborating with Lebanese filmmaker Jean Chamoun. The team cofounded Nour Productions soon after they married. Chamoun and Masri’s passion for filmmaking is being handed on to their daughters Nour and Hana, who acted in “3000 Nights.”
Masri grew up in Beirut and Amman, and she studied in San Francisco – giving her household a multicultural and multilingual background that also expresses itself in her cinema.
“3000 Nights” has grown organically from her past documentary work. The fiction plot tells “real stories [about] real people, [and is based on] real research [undertaken] with the same approach” – which is tantamount to shining a spotlight on real sociopolitical issues and historical events.
For many people in this region, Palestine – with its continuous human rights violations and an expanding, decadeslong occupation – is the most central and sensitive sociopolitical issue. Masri found that fiction film gave her creative freedom in “recreating [a tragedy] cinematically to cut out the melodrama.”
Prisons and the toll politics takes on the family have been recurring themes in Masri and Chamoun’s projects over the years.
“3000 Nights” was filmed in a women’s prison in Jordan. The cast and crew were all invested in interviewing inmates in Palestine and Jordan. There are layers of latent and protracted conflict inherent throughout the story, so it is easy to forget that the entire film is set in one detention center.
It was crucial for her to maintain the depth and complexity of the issues raised, as “the film is not just a story on Palestine but also about justice, freedom and women.”
The writer-director said the movie’s been screening to full houses with diverse audiences and she’s proud and satisfied at the warm international reception.
When the movie was shown in Switzerland a few weeks ago, an African-American man approached her afterward and told her he’d been imprisoned for several years for a crime he did not commit. He found himself relating to the injustices perpetrated against Palestinians and that “3000 Nights” reminded him that he was not alone.
Humbled by this, Masri said this encounter demonstrated how transcendent injustice can be, with minorities oppressed every day across the globe. This is the premise driving her work and her need to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves.
“3000 Nights” will have its Beirut premiere at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil on May 12. The film is in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. For more information, see www.metropoliscinema.net.