Making a name for himself

Arab-Palestinian-Israeli actor Ali Suliman is doing well in Hollywood, but not at the expense of his roots.

Actor Ali Suliman 521 (photo credit: LAMA FILMS)
Actor Ali Suliman 521
(photo credit: LAMA FILMS)
May 2012 was a big month for self-described Arab-Palestinian-Israel actor Ali Suliman, when he found himself sharing a red carpet in Cannes with US film director Kanye West, who had given him a starring role in his latest project.
West chose the star-studded Cannes Film Festival to debut his new short film Cruel Summer, starring his protégé Kid Cudi.
Suliman was cast on a recommendation from the head of the Film Institute in Doha, Qatar, where the movie was shot. “It’s a special film, very artistic, based on cutting edge media and unconventional filming techniques”, he tells The Jerusalem Report. And working with the controversial moviemaker and musician “was an unusual experience”.
West is well known for his taste for scandal; in 2009 he was called “a jackass” by US President Barack Obama after storming the stage during an acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards by pop sweetheart Taylor Swift. Suliman, however, has high praise for West, describing his conduct on set as focused and calm. “He is a very quiet man, very meticulous and very confident”, Suliman says. “He knows what he wants, and knows exactly how he wants it to be done. I knew he’s famous for his rap music, but he’s also erudite in cinema, in art, in design”.
Suliman says that the two did not have much time for communication on a personal level, or even about politics, but admits that “the chemistry was really good.” “The schedule was very tight,” he relates. “We had 10 days of filming, which began the same day I arrived in Doha. Everything was work focused. The film was being edited until three to four hours before the premiere in Cannes; the screening really was an extraordinary show”.
Two years ago, 35-year-old Suliman relocated from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Long before the social protests that punctuated the summer of 2011, he realized that with the soaring housing rates in the city, which had been his home for a decade – renting an apartment only to leave it vacant while he was working abroad – made very little sense.
Suliman was proven right. His career is still on the ascent, and he does indeed seem to spend more time on location and in the entertainment industry’s hubs than in the home he is now renovating in Israel’s northern capital.
His presence in West’s bombastic yet artistic project was no fluke. Ever since his 2005 breakthrough with a leading role in the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, the actor has navigated his career to include a wide range of cinematic genres, everything from Hollywood blockbusters to European TV and film, as well as different Middle- Eastern independent movies – including Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish and Jordanian productions.
Suliman was born in Nazareth to a family who fled their Galilee village of Saffuriya after it was shelled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. He studied acting in the small but acclaimed Yoram Levinstein Studio in Tel Aviv, graduating in 2000, and worked in different theater and cinema projects. During that period he also moonlighted as a caretaker at the Arab- Hebrew theater in Jaffa, but money was tight.
“Yoram waived my last year’s tuition,” says Suliman. “If it wasn’t for his help, I would not have graduated. So I worked as hard as I could to earn that sum to repay him”.
His break came when Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad offered him the role of a suicide bomber in the 2005 film Paradise Now, a drama portraying two young Palestinian men recruited for a terror attack in Tel Aviv. “I was young, and I had no previous experience of carrying a leading part in a film, let alone in a film about such a sensitive topic. I told myself, OK, this will either be the beginning of a glamorous acting career or the smashing end to it”.
The film triggered so much resentment in Israel that no commercial cinema was willing to screen it. It eventually ran only in the country’s art house movie theaters. Worldwide, Abu- Assad’s endeavor to explore the emotional journey that leads people to perform such atrocities garnered much praise. The film won 14 awards, including a Golden Globe, and was nominated, after much ado, in the Academy Awards’ best foreign language category as the first Oscar submission from the Palestinian territories.
Not surprisingly, Paradise Now’s success resulted in Suliman being bombarded with a certain type of screenplay. “I rejected most of them”, he says. “I wasn’t willing to just take whatever role I was offered.”
“Most of the Hollywood screenplays I read portrayed the same character, that of the bad guy,” he elaborates. “I received endless offers to play the guy who commits a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. I was not willing to do the same role over and over again. The choice was, you know, to get good money now, but be stuck with a certain typecast for the rest of my life.
And, thank God, so far I have indeed been able to choose which roles I take, so I’m not bound to a stigma or a certain typecasting.”
But it wasn’t only typecasting that worried Suliman. “Watching movies, especially American movies, I saw how Arabs were depicted as terrorists, as the shady, scary figures. I have always loathed this description.
“So it’s not that I have a problem playing an Arab”, he smiles, “it’s not that I was born an American. But I wanted to contradict the pattern. To show that there is diversity. That there’s a society, a culture, a civilization.
That like with any other society, there’s good and bad just as well among Arabs, and that nothing is one piece”.
Suliman’s opportunity to change public opinion came almost right away. His next film, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), was a Hollywood production about a team of FBI agents investigating a massive anti- American terror attack in Saudi Arabia.
He played politically ambiguous Saudi policeman Sergeant Haytham, and even swayed the director on the depiction of the character. “In the initial script, my character, who during the film helps the FBI team to collect evidence, and who even kills some of the bad guys, was supposed at the end of the film to commit a suicide attack that killed the entire team.
“So I sat with Peter, and told him that in my view such an ending was excessive. That it didn’t make sense that this character plays along with the team and then commits a suicide attack. In addition, I said, why make him evil? Can’t it be that his antagonistic attitude toward that foreign team has gradually changed – following the personal acquaintanceship that developed there? The ending, in which both sides swear revenge, was already grim enough. But why should we make it a story of black and white? Why should we destroy this rudiment of hope that was embodied in the character?
“Peter heard me out, and then said, ‘You may be right, let me think it over’. A couple of days later he came back to me with a positive reply. He decided to change that ending. I was surprised, I said – well, this can’t be happening. But it did – I convinced him”.
Despite his reservations about Hollywood’s frequently one-note depiction of Arabs, Suliman is full of praise for the industry’s high production standards, which nurture creativity. “It is everything an actor dreams of. You don’t need to rush at the end of a day of filming to a shift waiting tables in a restaurant, or to work as a caretaker in a theater as I did. These conditions provide you with the emotional space to work on the character you’re playing. You really feel appreciated and respected for your professional abilities. Some artists perform better under want and stress but, for me, work in Hollywood productions was a positive experience.”
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum of Suliman’s career lie low-budget independent movies such as The Last Friday, a Jordanian-United Arab Emirates production that made its international debut earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, not long after it earned Suliman the best actor award at Abu Dhabi’s Arabic Film Festival.
Suliman depicts a Jordanian man who had lost his high-powered job, and drifts helplessly apart from his son, his exwife and any hope he may have had for a better future. “I met the director, Yahya Alabdallah, at a film festival”, Suliman recalls. “He showed me short films he had made, and I fell in love with his work. I saw in him something which is very distinctive from the conservative Jordanian society. He has a say. He dares to criticize and he’s very courageous.”
The film is indeed politically daring.
References to the Arab Spring are woven in the background, insinuating a lack of freedom and speech in Jordan and highlighting the violence with which the government dealt with protests. The piece received financial support from Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, but Suliman dismisses any suggestion that this made it difficult to include the political criticism.
“It’s as critical as you can get over there. There’s hardly any dialogue in the film, for instance. Within such a conservative society, that’s a defining statement. I don’t want to be a judge, and yet, for me, it’s the first time that I’ve seen somebody [there] with such a new perspective”.
Suliman’s career recently revisited the issue of suicide bombers with his leading role in The Attack, a French-Belgian-Israeli- Palestinian production helmed by Lebaneseborn French director Ziad Doueiri, which was filmed in Tel Aviv last winter. The Attack debuted in early September at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival and is scheduled to be released later this year.
The film, an adaptation of a bestseller by novelist Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul), tells the story of an Israeli Arab physician who realizes that his wife may have been the suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv attack that almost killed him.
“The character I played in Paradise Now was young and brainwashed. Yet eventually he decided, at the end of the film, not to commit the suicide attack,” Suliman says.
“The situation in which the protagonist of The Attack finds himself is completely different. Here’s a successful physician who’s obtained a high stature within Israeli society and who has basically detached himself from ‘political’ issues. Then, abruptly, these issues penetrate his life, and his whole world collapses. The complexity of that character is that, eventually, he is stuck in the middle.
He finds himself in a no man’s land, between Palestine and Israel, neither here nor there”.
This, he says , is a pe rception he can identify with. “Especially when I lived in Tel Aviv, in that social bubble, which disconnects you from everything else.
But today, with all the political developments [a reference to recent Israeli anti-democratic and anti-Arab legislation and growing resentment toward Israeli Arabs], “my perception is clearer, it’s crystallized.
“And at the end of the day, I know that I am an artist and I can live anywhere. Just as the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said – my homeland is a suitcase and a suitcase is my homeland. And I am not going away.”
Suliman does not see his Israeliness as a sensitive issue when it comes to working with Arabic and other Middle Eastern productions. “The Israeli passport is a barrier,” he admits, “but it’s a barrier of a purely technical nature. It holds me back simply because there are many countries I cannot travel to with an Israeli passport”.
Nor, he says does he feel any pressure to deny his Israeli identity. “I think that people in this profession have the emotional and intellectual maturity, as well the historical knowledge, to understand the position of 1948 Palestinians”.
So does he really feel Israeli? A couple of years ago Israeli-Palestinian director Scandar Copti made waves when his film Ajami was nominated for an Oscar and Copti stated that he did not represent Israel.
“We’re good friends, but on this, I disagree with him. Yes, you feel more Palestinian than Israeli – OK, I too, feel more Palestinian than Israeli. But when you’re there [at the Oscars] you do represent a country, and this would be the country that sent you there.
It’s not about an approach, but rather about representation.
“You can be a Palestinian director who made an Israeli film. Alternatively, you can say in advance that you’re not ready to present your film in that specific category and request a different category. Actually, I too faced such dilemmas in the past, and I made my decision, which was not to represent anyone but myself. I want to represent the arts, not countries.
Moreover, I’m not keen to represent a country which places me, as an Arab, at the bottom of its scale of priorities – a country that sees me for what I am rather than for whom I am.”