Coming out in the wash

Ahmad Alyaseer and Rana Alyaseer on Our Males And Females

by Jennie Kermode

Our Males And Females
Our Males And Females

When I met director Ahmad Alyaseer and his co-writer Rana Alyaseer at a press conference to discuss their Oscar-qualifying short, Our Males And Females, it had just won its hundredth award. Screened at over 120 different festivals around the world, it has been banned in several countries but has nevertheless acquired quite a following, especially within the Muslim populations whose traditions it addresses. Now it’s a real contender for the biggest award of all.

The film focuses on a Jordanian father (Kamel El Basha) and mother (Shafeqa Al-Tal) who preparing for the funeral of their child, whose body has been returned to them from overseas. The difficulty is that the body must first be washed, and whilst this is traditionally a strictly gendered ritual, it’s clear that the person they had thought of as their son cannot now be fitted into either a male or female category. As they struggle to find a washer to carry out the job within the proper time, each of them struggles with this discovery in a different way, even as they are bound by their shared grief.

“When we first wrote the script, we knew that it might be very controversial and not perceived well from the Arab region,” says Ahmad. “That's why, despite all the selections we got, out of the 123 festivals so far, none of them is from the Arab region. It wasn't honestly disappointing because we expected that the film wouldn't get the response we want from the Arab region, but beautifully, Arab people who watched the film in the festivals, they were in love with the film, and regardless of their background, regardless of how conservative they were, regardless of their nationality, whatever, we really got a beautiful response from the audience.”

It was Rana who initially came up with the story. She’s not confident speaking in English so Ahmad translates for her, explaining that she was inspired to write it after she met a transgender woman from the Middle East. This woman had obtained all the legal approvals to transition, struggled to be accepted and believed that after her transition there would be an end to her troubles, only to discover that the discrimination remained. Despite the official approval of her transition, she wasn’t even able to get her ID amended. She told Rana that what really affected her was wondering why she couldn't live her life to its fullest potential, when she did nothing wrong.

They unfortunately lost touch with the woman, they explain, but they’re confident that she will have had the chance to see the film, given how much attention it has received. They have had a very positive response from the LGBTQ+ community.

With Ahmad’s assistance, Rana recalls the person whose response affected her most – a trans woman who said that she wished she could be honest with her mother and be accepted as her true self.

“Basically, Rana says, the core of the film is that everyone, every human deserves to live their human rights without any limitations, without any bias, without any labels,” Ahad explains. “Everyone deserves to do that.”

They struggled to find the right ending for the film, he recalls.

“We were writing the film. We had this four months of just the idea and doing research and meeting people and hearing their stories. And we know what is the story, but we don't know the ending. And there was this moment when were both writing on the laptop, and then Rana turned her face to me. She was like, ‘I got the ending, but it's very harsh. Do you think it's going to work?’ And then she said the ending, and the moment she said it, and it felt like, this is the right or the ending that the film deserves.”

Rana laughs because, she says, she can’t forget his reaction to her suggestion.

“I think I was like one of the audience when they see the ending. That was my shock when she said it,” he confesses. “We felt this is the ending that the film deserves. When we filmed the ending, we played music in the background. That was the influence for the score that was created by Philip [Hashweh].

“I have to thank the producer, Mais Salman, because she's the one who came up with the idea of making a short film. I was never into making short films. I always felt it's really challenging to tell a story in few minutes. But she told me that you have to make a short film so that you can start getting funds and grants for features. And that's when she started pushing to make the film. When she read the script, she was really into it, but every head of the department worked for free.

“Samer Nimri [the cinematographer] was always telling me ‘I want to reflect the complication of the characters within the frame.’ That's why you would see many things that are not proportional in the right way. The production designer, Yasmine Nassar, wanted to make the location very raw. You wouldn't see colors. It's very earthy, it's very dead. This final result that people are talking about is really the result of a compassionate crew who worked on the film because they really believed in us.

“We wanted the camera to move in harmony with the music because the ending is the only part where there is camera movement. Everything before it is static. The music is very smooth, the camera movement is very emotional, but the imagery is very harsh and crucial. And I wanted to create this contradiction so that it would reflect the emotional phase of both the two characters, because the mother is going in a different direction than the father, and I wanted all of that to come together in the end.”

I ask about the way that certain parts of the imagery – the small, darkened room, the covering over the body, the bandages – come together to add to the atmosphere of secrecy and shame.

“I wanted the audience to feel the struggle of the parent,” Ahmad says. “I remember vividly when Kamel El Basha came to me, the actor who was playing the father. He asked me ‘What are the emotions of the father?’ And I said ‘I want you to feel shame from yourself and from your daughter. It's a struggle because you're ashamed of yourself for not accepting your daughter. But at the same time, there's this tiny struggle in you that kind of pulls the story toward the end, that you're ashamed of the decision that your daughter took.’ So definitely all the elements, the secrecy, everything – at the opening of the film, they're really secretive about the washing. They don't want anyone to see them. So, definitely, this was intended.”

He and Rana have worked together for years on novels, TV shows and all sorts of things, he says, so to suddenly have a piece of work break through like this is a dream come true. “We were just crying because this is the conclusion of number of projects that we've done, and finally, this seems like the first step.

“If there's anything that I want, I just want people to realise that acceptance is the key. For all the traumas, all the hard things that are happening in our world, whether it's crimes, wars, displacement, it all comes down to acceptance and for the human beings to just...

“To feel the love,” says Rana.

He nods. “Regardless of all the circumstances around you, just live your life.”

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