The long road to ‘Personal Affairs'

Nazareth-born filmmaker Maha Haj’s award-winning debut feature explores the political and personal forces that unite and divide members of a multi-generational Arab family.

‘MY FILM is personal but it’s not about me personally. I came to tell a story, from my imagination,’ says ‘Personal Affairs’ director Maha Haj. (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘MY FILM is personal but it’s not about me personally. I came to tell a story, from my imagination,’ says ‘Personal Affairs’ director Maha Haj.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Maha Haj, the director of the film Personal Affairs, it all began with an image. “I imagined two older people, their backs to the camera,” she said.
Any number of movies begin with a picture in the writer/director’s mind, but her next sentence makes clear how her story is different from most: “[This image] became the poster from Cannes.”
Haj is an anomaly in so many ways. A mother of two from Nazareth, she studied English and Arabic literature, didn’t direct a movie until she was almost 40 and her first feature film premiered at Cannes, the dream of almost every filmmaker.
Personal Affairs, which won the Best Israeli Feature Award at the Haifa International Film Festival last fall (as well as prizes around the world), is a low-key, quirky and often funny story of an Arab family, told with extraordinary grace and assurance.
It starts out with an elderly couple, just as Haj imagined. Nabeela and Saleh (played by a real married couple, Sanaa and Mahmoud Shawahdeh, who are not professional actors), barely speak to each other, but still manage to drive each other crazy. She knits and watches her soap operas, while he is glued to his laptop, struggling with insomnia and contacting his son Hisham (Ziad Bakri) via Skype.
Hisham lives in Sweden and he is the only one of Nabeela’s three children she brags to their neighbor about. Their daughter, Samar (Hanan Hillo), is a housewife in Ramallah, married to George (Amer Hlehel), a mechanic, who has never seen the Mediterranean and dreams of getting a permit so he can go to the beach. Pregnant, she sits at home, caring for his grandmother (Jihan Dermelkonian), who barely remembers who Samar is. Their second son, Tarek (Doraid Liddawi), wants to be a writer, and he is living in Ramallah near his sister but refuses to settle down. He has been dating Samar’s friend, Maysa (Maisa Abd Elhadi), but won’t commit to her.
“At the beginning, all they have in common is an inner feeling of depression, not being able to communicate, a lack of appetite for life, an inability to change their lives,” said Haj. “They can only dream of nature and the sea... both the older and the younger generations. They live in lots of tension, without discovering the secret of the tension. All of them, even the grandmother. They are all closed, both externally and internally... They have an inability to see the future, and everyone wants to flee from the reality.”
Their stories play out as the children try to intervene to save Nabeela and Saleh’s marriage. The film’s high point is a tango that Tarek and Maysa dance in the police station, where they are being held after she storms out of their car as they fight over their relationship, on the way to a dance contest. The twist is that she does this near a checkpoint, and they are both arrested.
Speaking about the scene, which shows how inextricably the personal and political are linked in the characters’ lives, she said, “I was thrilled about it, it is very metaphoric, it’s a very strong political statement about the political strength of the Palestinians, even in their weakness, even when they are trapped and monitored by policemen and the army... They are choosing life and not to go into despair, it’s a very sad and beautiful dance to be held in such a dark place... There is hope and despair at the same time... They are already suspects, crossing the border, and a misunderstanding leads to that scene... It’s our reality, our absurd situation here... The politics are always in the background of our lives.”
While she identifies with all her characters, to different degrees, she said, “My film is personal but it’s not about me personally. I came to tell a story, from my imagination.”
Becoming a director was a long process for her.
“I never had a dream to become a filmmaker. From when I was a child, I loved reading books and writing, I wanted to be in academia and focus on academic research. I didn’t finish my thesis, that wasn’t that interesting to me, I didn’t get my master’s degree... I had to think, who am I? What am I? What am I going to do when I grow up?” Her husband, a director of photography, encouraged her to write her first script.
She began working in the movie industry, behind the scenes, doing art direction and production design.
In 2008, her short film Oranges was released, to critical acclaim. She began working on the screenplay for Personal Affairs in 2011.
The success of her first feature, which is being distributed around the world as well as locally, has been gratifying.
“It’s so exciting and amazing to see the reactions of so many different audiences. The reactions are the same all over the world to the specific scenes. The sense of humor is the same around the world. Film language is universal. This family is so typically Palestinian but they are universal. You don’t have to be Palestinian to understand boredom from a long marriage... To understand a Palestinian never who has never seen the sea.”
Haj, who counts among her cinematic influences Ingmar Bergman, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, understands that because her film has come along roughly at the same time as a movie by another Arab woman, Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between, people will think that she is part of a trend.
“It’s very exciting to see Palestinian women making films... I hope it will be the case that it’s a new trend, a new wave, a revolution, but we need to wait and see...The important thing is not that these films were made by women, what’s important is that they’re good.”
Although she isn’t ready to talk about her next movie yet, she is working on one. But right now, she is still very much involved with the release of Personal Affairs.
Haj emphasized that movie making is a collaborative art, and she did not make Personal Affairs alone. “They were all magnificent,” she said of her cast and crew. “I loved working with them, I owe so much to my crew, to my producer, Baher Agbariya, who was supportive and generous. The director of photography, Elad Debi, was so talented. Habib Shadah, who did the music for The Band’s Visit, was wonderful. I wish I could thank every member of the cast and crew... I enjoyed every minute of making the movie.”