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Oscar Nominated Director Basil Khalil

When we met English-Palestinian filmmaker and Oscar nominated director Basil Khalil at Cannes Film Festival last year to talk about his latest short, Ave Maria, he was still an up and coming filmmaker. Fast forward a few months and the young talent has numerous awards to his name, including a 2016 Oscar nomination for his Cannes premiered film.

Beautifully filmed and guided by a poignant message, Ave Maria takes a comedic look at worlds coexisting within the same world. The fifteen minute short revolves around Palestinian nuns who have taken a vow of silence and who encounter a family of Israeli settlers who crash into their cloister while rushing to return home before the Sabbath.  The family can't operate machinery on the Sabbath, but need to communicate with the non-verbal nuns in order to get out of the situation.

Basil Khalil's short tears down barriers and brilliantly sheds light on a delicate issue through comedy. He sets up a cascade of dichotomies throughout the duration of the short yet immensely rich film, and asks us to question the rules imposed upon us and those which we create for ourselves.

We're rooting for Basil Khalil to win the Oscar tonight, and once you see Ave Maria, you will be too.

CM: When did you first realise you wanted to make movies? 

I think from the age of 13 I was reading books instead of studying, and I would fall asleep and imagine them in the movies. As a child I had a lot of National Geographic magazines, and I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. I was always involved with images. So when I grew up and became a teenager I moved towards movies.

CM: How do your ideas for films come about?

If I try and come up with an idea, it doesn't come to me. It just comes just like that. When I was making Ave Maria, I was looking for a story about two worlds that live in the same place and the same world. In Palestine–where I come from–it's these little stories and events that people don't hear, but which happen every day, but if you look at them from an outsiders perspective they're actually crazy. So in my film you've got nuns who've taken a vow of silence who meet Israeli settlers who can't operate machinery on the sabbath and they need to speak and operate a machine to get out of there and it's both of these elements that are perfectly normal over there in the Middle East, but when you bring them together, it's crazy. So I wanted to make a film that's normal and crazy at the same time.

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CM: In what way does Ave Maria reveal your personal story?

My dad's Palestinian and my mum's English so I had a foot on each side of cultures and I was able to look at each side of world view with a critical eye. I was brought up in Israel in a Palestinian city.  Being Palestinian you're treated as a second class citizen, so you're given a sort of reality check and it gives you a perspective that normal people don't have; people who take their freedom for granted. And that's what the film's about: rules that are imposed upon you from the minute you're born; you're this side or that side, or rules that you adopt on yourself whether it's taking a vow of silence, or following religious rules like not touching machinery. So you have rules that are imposed upon you and rules that you choose to keep.

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CM: What is your directing style like?

I am hands on in rehearsals. I don't try to control too much because I know as actors always come up with their characters, they already see them in their head and they might see something different, that's actually better than my idea. I don't profess to know everything about everything. The old woman that plays the senile mother, she was amazing at rambling on and on with crazy hilarious lines. In the end, all her ramblings made it into the film and the scripted stuff did not because it was just spot on for her character. We had to delete my voice because I was laughing so hard on set.

I like not being too strict because when people talk they like not being too scripted especially when it's actors who are putting on a performance, you can feel that, but when they're being someone you can't.

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CM: How was the reception to the film in different countries?

I can't please everyone. I made this film knowing that because it is sensitive, some people will love it, some people will hate it and if I want to please everyone, I'm in the wrong business. I think it goes well because it is a comedy on a sensitive subject and people are curious. Also Palestinian nuns, you don't hear about that a lot, and for us in Palestine, in Nazereth where I grew up, it's normal to see nuns walking around doing their shoppings, but when you put it on mainstream television in the West they're like "What? nuns? speaking Arabic, and in a non-western country how is that possible?

CM: Is there something you would have done differently?

Every director would say that when they watch their films they always want to fix something, but I've learned to let go, but I would do a little trim here and add a few frames there, but I can't do that, it would cost too much money.

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CM: What do you hope people will take away from the film?
My main message in this is about rules. Everyone has rules, whether it's cultural rules, religious rules or society, they were there for a reason, but humans put them there and everyone has their own agenda, so... question your rules .

CM: What are you doing next?
My next film, I'm starting to write a feature film. Its a light hearted foodie film about a food critic who has to look after his ultimate critic which is his dad. Again about two worlds.

Photo Stills © Ave Maria

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