Bright Lights Film Journal

Beyond Borders: Talking with Filmmaker Eyas Salman

“Salman says he identifies as a Palestinian, but does not feel a sense of nationalism. His is not the generation that still holds onto house keys and deeds to property that was confiscated long ago.”

Filmmaker Eyas Salman was born and raised in Nazareth, Israel in 1980. His heritage is Palestinian and in his short films, he investigates human existence in narratives that acknowledge the impact of politics, yet do not revolve solely around questions of identity and nationality. His short films showcase a director who is developing a distinctive narrative and visual style.

The 2009 Dog Days shows the day-to-day existence of a young Arab man and his aging father in a story that is by turns humorous, bittersweet, and brutal. There are none of the stereotypical scenes of checkpoints and guards that are an earmark of Palestinian films — a sort of shorthand to show life under occupation. Instead, the rough existence is shown in the financial woes and unemployment of the young man, Noor (played by Saleh Bakri). The one direct reference to Arab life under Israeli control comes when Noor’s father tells a story about his life shortly after the creation of the modern state of Israel.

Abu Noor (played by Tarek Copti) describes how he abandoned music lessons after being questioned by a government official. Abu Noor’s point is that his son’s life is no harder than his own was at the same age. Noor listens to his father’s story, but focuses on the fact that his father gave up on his dreams. As Noor internalizes the story, he comes to a decision to take a different path than his father, even though his father will suffer because of it.

Salman’s storytelling in other films combines the surreal with the mundane. No News (2010) is a ghost story that takes place in broad daylight; the short was featured at festivals such as the Adana Golden Boll Film Festival and Australia’s Palestinian Film Festival.

In 2006, Salman and Gerd Schneider were selected for the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation Award, which recognizes new creative voices in cinema, for their documentary The Edge of Hope (2006). The film focuses on 35-year-old Ramadan, who was born in a refugee camp and who still lives there and works as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera’s Ramallah office.

Salman’s other early films include Coffee Break (2002) and Displaced (2003).

In No News, a family encounters a young woman in a cemetery, and they offer her a bottle of water. From her clothing, it is obvious she lived in the 1940s, prior to the 1948 establishment of modern Israel. They offer her moisturizer with sunblock because of the sun’s rays. She scans the sky and sees no difference in the 21st-century sun than the one she knew during her lifetime. As she brushes her hair, she looks beyond the family to the roads and mountains. "Are they still—still here?" she asks. The family nods and the young woman does as well. Everyone seems to be resigned to the situation. Since nothing has changed (yet everything has been forever changed by the creation of the Israeli state), the young woman retreats to her grave again.

Salman says he usually avoids direct political messages in his films, but No News was the exception.

"I felt kind of obliged," he says. "People expected me to do more hardcore Palestinian stuff."

Salman says he is not interested in making films that show Palestinians as the underdogs, and he gets frustrated with Palestinian movies where the characters do not grow or change in some way over the course of the film. The changes characters go through in his own films might be a bit subtle for American audiences to understand—for example, Noor wanting independence from his father and obligations in Dog Days is seen as a regular part of the maturing process in the U.S., where children are expected to be independent after high school. In Palestinian society, the extended family takes precedence over the individual. People remain at home until they marry; even then, young couples will live with the groom’s family until they have saved enough money to build a house of their own — a process that might take decades. Noor’s decision to put his own happiness first is a very bold act in his society.

Salman says his audience is largely European, but he does have a "niche following" at home among younger people who are interested in the arts. When he is making a film, though, he says he tells the story he wants to tell and aims for a broad audience.

"I try to be as international as I can be because that is the magic of film — you can reach anyone who is willing to watch your film," Salman says.

Salman’s introduction to the world of filmmaking came from a variety of cinematic traditions, which is laying the groundwork for a filmmaking career that goes beyond geographical and social borders of all sorts.

When he first considered the idea of learning about filmmaking, Salman claims he was naïve. He laughs and says, "Elia Suleiman [director of Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, and The Time That Remains] was making a film here in Nazareth and I thought, ‘Great! I’ll just go talk to Elia and he’ll put me to work.’ It doesn’t work like that."

Salman realized he needed to get some experience and learn about his craft, so he enrolled in cinema and television studies at Tel Aviv University, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts. After graduating from the program, Salman went to Ludwigsburg, Germany, on a scholarship. He lived there for two years, working as a film editor on documentaries.

While he was able to make a living through film editing in Germany, he decided to go back to Nazareth.

"I was doing well for someone of my age and experience, but I wanted to do more personal films," he says. Salman returned home and immersed himself in the small but growing film industry at home. He built an editing studio in his house and took a position teaching film editing and the history of cinema at Nazareth Academic Institute.

A serious student of film history and literary theory, Salman has a wide variety of influences. Some of the filmmakers he looks to for inspiration include Jean Vigo, David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Lee, and the figures associated with French New Wave and Italian Neorealism.

"In the Name of the Father is one of my favorites," he says, and points out that the film is about more than the political situation in Ireland. "It is also a story about fathers and sons." Films that weave politics into day-to-day human stories are what seem to interest Salman both as a viewer and as a filmmaker.

Salman has worked as an editor on feature-length films (most recently, Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad), but has only directed short films to date. Part of that is funding and part of it is because Salman feels that he is still coming into his own as storyteller.

"You do need to conform when you’re a beginner. You don’t have the right to be different because you don’t know the styles yet," Salman says as he talks about his early work and attempts to learn cinematic narrative structure.

As he is maturing in his storytelling, Salman is collaborating on projects with other young filmmakers like Maha Assal (who is also a writer as well as a filmmaker) and Ihab Jadallah. This is a generation of filmmakers who have been raised with international pop culture and global cinematic traditions. They are experimenting with structure, using parallel editing, and having characters break the narrative frame to tell their stories.

Salman is currently writing a new script for a film and working with Maha Assal on a feature-length film that interweaves four of her short stories. They have shot one segment of the film — a stand-alone piece — about a young couple going from Ramallah to Jerusalem to take Tango lessons and the difficulties they face both on the journey and as a couple.

Salman comes from a family that is steeped in science and practicality — his father is a physicist, his mother is a tailor, two brothers are physics professors, and another has a doctorate in computer science. Salman says he is the black sheep of the family, but his family has been supportive of his chosen career.

When he told his father what he wanted to study, the elder Salman replied, "Ah, maybe it’s about time somebody in our family did something with art."

Salman laughs and says his uncle’s reaction was less than enthusiastic. When Salman told his uncle of his chosen major, he responded with, "Why? Didn’t you do well in school?"

The dismissal of the arts is common in many places, but especially so among the Palestinians in Israel; with a tough economy and a life as second-class citizens, most Arab families encourage their children to go into fields that pay well and are in demand. There is a lot of emphasis on fields like medicine, engineering, law, and education.

Salman is interested in making movies that go beyond the specifics of the Palestinian experience and more fully explore the human condition.

He says his generation’s experience is very different from that of his father’s: "From 1948 to 1967, Arabs in Israel lived under a brutal military regime. My father’s generation is still traumatized."

Salman says he identifies as a Palestinian, but does not feel a sense of nationalism. His is not the generation that still holds onto house keys and deeds to property that was confiscated long ago.

"Nobody chooses where to be born," he says. "You shouldn’t be proud of being American, French, or whatever. You should be proud of yourself for your achievements, not for what you were born into."

He says he does not want to use film to be a spokesperson for Palestinians. "I like cinema for cinema and not for politics," he says.

Salman is interested in addressing the future and the role of women in Palestinian society.

"To my understanding, basically 50 percent of our society (the women) are marginalized within an already marginalized society. They suffer in a patriarchal primitive society. The occupation won’t last forever. When it ends, what kind of society will we be? What kind of society will we have? This is a question that bothers me."