The weight of the past

Muayad Alayan and Sheherazade Farrell on Palestinian experiences and A House In Jerusalem

by Jennie Kermode

A House In Jerusalem
A House In Jerusalem Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

A ghost story exploring a troubled past, and a story about friendship between two girls from different times and places, A House In Jerusalem, which screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, is about to hit screens across the UK. I spoke to young star Sheherazade Farrell about her role as Rasha, a Palestinian ghost who befriends Rebecca, a Jewish English immigrant in Jerusalem. As we were waiting to be joined by the director, Muayad Alayan, she told me about how she became involved with the film.

“My mother found a Facebook ad for an English-speaking Palestinian girl needed for a film, and I wanted to be an actress since I was six years old. So I started to audition, never expecting that I would ever get in because it's my first time ever acting professionally. So when I found out that I got in, I was so excited, so happy, and I was really ready to start my acting career.”

She had done a little acting before at school, she says, but this was a whole new thing – and all the more exciting because she related to the subject.

“I'm Palestinian, and it's the role of a Palestinian girl who speaks English. And I just thought, ‘Oh, that would be an amazing start to my career.’”

We’re joined by Muayad, who is in Jerusalem, under a beautiful blue sky. Talking about the spirit of hope within the film, I ask him if he is still able to feel that in light of everything that has happened since he made it.

“I wouldn't have made the film if I didn't believe it,” he says, “but you're right in the sense that the times we're living right now, it's very sad, in a way, how relevant it is, given everything that's going on in Palestine. I mean, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of people were expelled from this homes. Now we're talking about millions of Palestinians being expelled from their homes and their homes destroyed and tens of thousands killed and injured. I never imagined that I would live to see this happen again.

“When I was working on the film with my brother and the entire team that was involved, we were aware of the importance of it for so many reasons for, you know? For the history, for the personal connection to our family and our family story, and its relation to the Nakba and everything that went on, and the traumas of our parents and grandparents. My grandmother. But, yeah, you really need to work harder to find a bit of hope in everything that's going on and to believe that a film can touch a few hearts around the world and challenge a few minds. So it is hard. It is harder than I ever thought.

“We always wanted to appeal to an adult audience, but definitely also to a younger audience. The journey in the film of our two young stars is, in a way, their stories. They face the adult world through their innocence and through their quest. They're raising questions and they're brave because of their innocence. They're not corrupted by everything that's in the adult world. I think there is the potential for young audiences to enjoy it, and in a way, that gives me a little bit of hope.

“I know that right now, across the world, particularly in the West, the younger generations from all backgrounds, all ethnicities, are becoming more and more aware of what's going on in Palestine. So in a way, I do see how relevant this is, especially seeing the massive movements in the UK and the US and everything that's going on now in solidarity with Gaza, with Palestine. I saw Greta [Thunberg] taking to the streets for Gaza. And so it is definitely aimed at this generation as well because they are the hope. I no longer believe the systems that were created by adults so far will ever do justice to Palestine or will ever find a just solution in this region.”

This also allows him to take a different angle on the situation because the young characters are discovering its injustices for the first time.

“This was something that we stumbled upon and we decided we thought it worked and went for it,” he says. “Rasha, played by Sheherazade, is a young girl in 1948. She knows that some things are happening, but she does not know what exactly happened. She does not know all that we know, you know? And Rebecca is a young girl born and raised so far in the UK, and she doesn't know much of what's happening because the vast majority of Jewish British and Jewish American children are either not taught what happened from the perspective of the Palestinians, or if they are taught, they're given a narrative that is promoted by an older generation of Israelis. You know, the Zionist narrative of ‘This was a land with no people and it was desert, and we came and’ - you know.

“Unless you're brought up in a super liberal, progressive left family, then you wouldn't know. So the two girls do not know these things, and they need to kind of find out some basic things about each other that raise big questions.”

“I grew up with a Palestinian mother, so we talked a lot about the history, about my history,” says Sheherazade. “I think it was very important for me to grow up learning about who I am and where I'm from. I definitely think that Rasha went through a very terrifying time in 1948. I could never begin to imagine how horrible it must have been to live through. But I am Palestinian, and I've been scanned at airports and I've been taken out of my car at a checkpoint. And I lived in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem during filming, so there were protests outside my house, bricks being thrown around, cars being set on fire. It was all really frightening. I think that helped me to understand more about how Rasha must have been feeling.”

As the two girls become friends, it’s strange for Rasha to realise just how much Rebecca doesn’t know. Is that an experience that Sheherazade can relate to, from friendships she’s had?

“Yeah, definitely,” she says. “I think Rasha was also very confused. ‘Who is this person in my home? Where are all my things?’ Because her room, to her, is the most important thing. Her things are her whole life. And then when she came to her home and found out that all of those things were gone and there was a new person living in her room, she was shocked and she was confused and scared, all of these emotions rushing through her.”

We talk about the location, and I remark on how difficult it must have been to find a large, traditional house that they could use, given the state of the Jerusalem property market.

Muayad nods. “Yesterday I was reading this article about a Jewish immigrant that moved into West Jerusalem in 1948, and he became friends with the Palestinian community there, and he was really trusted. And when the Nakba happened, the Palestinians in that neighbourhood in West Jerusalem, out of fear, the only thing they could come up with is ‘We should keep the keys to our houses with this new friend of ours,’ because then the newly established state would not take the houses away. And what ended up happening – I mean, it's a long article, but what ended up happening is that this guy and his children ended up selling those properties to the state.

“This is one scenario of what has happened, you know, but in Israel, there was this law that was created that was called absence law. So basically, if they found something, it's theirs. And if there is nobody there, you cannot ask for it, even if you're like 100 meters away, like where I'm talking to you right now. My grandmother's house is less than a kilometre this way.” he gestures in one direction, and then another. “My grandfather from the other side of the family is less than a kilometre this way. And my family, basically, they became refugees here, where we live right now. We cannot claim those properties back. We were never given the right to do so. One house is now part of a kibbutz, the other is an Israeli business, and we pass by this space every day and I take my children to these areas every other week, and there's nothing we can do about it.

“The same applies in terms of the location. We cannot approach the new Israeli owners and ask them to make this movie in the house. It was a big challenge, and we knew that was impossible. There's no chance, particularly in Jerusalem, that you would use one of these houses in the Palestinian neighbourhood that are still there in West Jerusalem, which are now part of the Israeli part of town. So what we did is we scouted houses in the eastern part of the city that were built pre-1948 with the same architectural design, the same influences from that era. And we basically found two houses only that preserved the garden, that did not turn the thing into a complex or a duplex.

“We really worked so hard to convince the family of one of these houses to rent us the house for a couple of months. It was a massive challenge. And we ended up actually shooting all the exteriors in West Jerusalem. So the minute we're in the garden, in the house, geographically and geopolitically as well, we're in East Jerusalem, and then the minute we step outside to the streets, we're in West Jerusalem.

“We could not be a big crew into West Jerusalem for a Palestinian film. Even though we have European co-production, still, with the theme of the story, with a Palestinian director and partly Palestinian crew, there is no way you could block streets in West Jerusalem. So we had to be a small crew, almost guerrilla-style, scattered around the region. The area where we're filming, like, the base would be in a park nearby, and then we'd have a couple of rooms in a hotel somewhere, have a base for the actors and then the actual crew, so that shooting at any given time had less than ten people in the street. This had to be designed by the production team to accommodate the politics of the city.”

On top of finding the right location, they had to be very careful about establishing aspects of character history. I ask Sheherazade how she got herself into the mindset of a girl from 1948.

“I think rereading the scenes and the script so many times that it was ingrained in my brain, I didn't even have to think about it. And so instead of me just playing Rasha, she became a part of me. I think that was really helpful, because then I completely understood her. I knew everything she was going to do, everything she was going to say, and it became natural.

“I thought that the use of the doll as her thing that was taken away from her, it made her a real girl, you know? And her doll kind of represented her – that her doll was taken away from her in the way that her home was taken away from her. And I think it was a really nice symbolism.”

“I remember Zada struggled with being an unseen ghost in the beginning,” says Muayad. “She had to be around a bunch of actors, playing a person that cannot be seen. And I remember that a few days later, she started having fun with it.”

“I remember once curling up into a ball on the floor in the kitchen and practicing one of the scenes where two people would walk in and notice me,” she recalls. “I was going ‘Why can't you see me? Please notice me.’ But then I got used to it more as we kept filming.

“Maybe she represents people who aren't noticed in society and that everybody else in the house would represent the people who are kind of dominating and ignoring the minorities.”

“I can see it symbolically,” says Muayad. “We take for granted the past and the souls that inhabit places, and not just in the situation of occupation and the colonising of Palestine, but in general in our modern life, in our modern cities, we take that for granted, with everything that's going on in the world and the fast pace of life.

“I think we do tend to not see the ghosts that are left behind in so many places that are dear to people, or in so many spaces that have so much weight and memories, you know? And Jerusalem in particular, Palestine in general, it's very heavy when it comes to that. Everywhere you go, the weight of the past is so loud.”

We talk about a scene in which Rebecca finds herself in trouble with the police because of her efforts to find out more about what’s happening to Palestinian people. I suggest that it’s a pertinent reminder of how difficult it is for anyone to live under a regime like that, even if they’re not themselves part of an oppressed group.

“Last month, a law passed in Israel where they created a division within the police that's aimed at Israelis and foreigners who do any kind of activism or speak out in favour of the Palestinian cause or for justice for Palestine,” he says. “There is a whole division now. It's not the sub-job of the other departments. There's a separate department just to track down Israeli left wing activists and foreigners in the country who post something on social media or high school teachers who talk to their students about something that they should not be talking to them about.

“There's actually a teacher who's still, I think, in home arrest who posted a number of casualties from Gaza, three or four months ago. He was in prison for two weeks and then in home arrest. He's a high school teacher – an older guy who just posted something on Facebook.

“I've heard this question from few audiences around the world that thought, could this really happen? Could they really track the social media of a young girl? Yes. I'll give you another example, about the heads of the people in charge of intelligence per city, per neighbourhood in the Palestinian territories. So, for example, Bethlehem has one person who is the officer in charge of intelligence. He has a nickname. He makes sure the young people know him. He sends them threats on social media. He tracks what they're doing on social media. There have been incidents where he even used social media to frame and chase and arrest some young people.

“So the fact that they noticed a post on a Palestinian page and track this Jewish girl that is communicating with the young Palestinians on the other side is definitely something that would raise a flag and they would investigate. Unfortunately, it's not fiction. But when you talk to audiences, not only in the West, people really are surprised by the kind of police state that Israel is. It's something that somehow they managed not to get to the world, but it's the truth.”

The film has recently been released on Netflix in the Middle East and North Africa, and he’s looking forward to seeing people’s reactions. I mention that I loved his previous film The Reports On Sarah And Saleem, and ask if he plans to keep working on similar subject matter.

“I can say there are a couple of projects that fall in that category, I think, in terms of genre and realism and how can I say it, the Jerusalem-ness of things, the complexity of this particular city within this particular conflict, and the lives of averages Palestinian that are living under occupation in Jerusalem. The Palestinian anti-hero in Jerusalem is a character that I'm kind of obsessed with in a way, because it is my people and my generation and it is, a lot, my experience growing up as a teenager. But it's also – I carry so many stories and also traumas of other friends who have been in trouble and have really gone through things that marked their lives and changed their lives, although they are really everyday average people, like delivery men.

“It's being here in this part of the world, in this city, the reaction of the system to their lives is suppressing and tormenting them more than anywhere else in the world, you know? So I do have a couple of projects in the pipeline that fall within this category, but there's also others that are kind of a little bit different. There's a noir coming up. That's also very close to reality. I think in general, things are getting darker within our society because there is a lack of hope and despair is on the rise. On one hand, the lack of any prospect on the political aspects of life, that is also causing so many socioeconomic problems, and that is leading to crime. And so we're living in a kind of dark period.

“But wars bring people together as well, you know? So there's this change since lately, in the last few months. With what happened, people reacted immediately and got back this sense of togetherness and this collective goal. That kind of stops crime. The crime numbers were crazy up until the war started. We had the highest number of homicides in history. And then when the war happened, there was this unbelievable pause, like this crime disappeared for a few months, you know? But yeah, I wrote this project before the war.”

Sheherazade is currently studying in London, but she also has a film project coming up – albeit one that she’s not allowed to say very much about. “It's a completely, entirely different film about an English girl in the countryside. And it's going to be an exciting new adventure. A House In Jerusalem really launched me into this world, and I'm really grateful. Thank you so much,” she tells Muayad.

Does she still feel that there is hope and we can make things better?

“I think it's absolutely horrible what's happening,” she says. “Kids my age and younger than me are losing their families and having to live alone, and it's tragic. I can't imagine how life must be for them right now. But I think this film is about the friendship between two girls on opposite sides of the conflict, and they're helping each other out through their suffering and through their loss. And it's really important that we are able to talk about difficult issues like this through films and help people learn and spread the word a bit more.”

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