Saeed Taji Farouky: “Strange Cities Are Familiar”

15 June, 2022
Moham­mad Bakri as “Ashraf” in Strange Cities Are Famil­iar.


A film by Saeed Taji Farouky


Strange Cities Are Famil­iar will be view­able for a lim­it­ed time only. We rec­om­mend that you watch this short film full screen, and give your­self time to absorb its effect, before read­ing the direc­tor Q & A that follows.




For Strange Cities Are Famil­iar, what was the par­tic­u­lar emo­tion you were going for in the writ­ing, and did that evolve as you began film­ing with Moham­mad Bakri, who is after all, one of the great clas­sic actors of Pales­tin­ian cinema?

I had always want­ed the film to evoke a sense of atmos­phere, rather than focus on a lin­ear nar­ra­tive, on the events. In all of my films I’m inter­est­ed in break­ing away from plot, from a lin­ear deter­min­is­tic nar­ra­tive style. I don’t feel it works for me, it does­n’t reflect the way I expe­ri­ence life. It does­n’t cap­ture the chaos and unpre­dictabil­i­ty of life. It does­n’t reflect the vio­lence and frac­tured psy­che of the world I see around me. I also feel that in rela­tion to Pales­tine, a nation that is so frac­tured, so torn apart, sub­ject to intol­er­a­ble vio­lence in every aspect of our lives every day, lin­ear­i­ty, and log­i­cal, effi­cient plot are insuf­fi­cient. So I try to make films that are about expe­ri­ence, atmos­phere, emo­tion, about evok­ing mean­ing rather than describ­ing it. This is, I guess you could say, the polit­i­cal rea­son for con­struct­ing my films the way I do. There’s also the per­son­al rea­son, which is just that I don’t expe­ri­ence my life as a log­i­cal, effi­cient sequence of inter­con­nect­ed events, but rather as a net­work of impres­sions and the rem­nants of events and emotions.

With this film, I was inspired great­ly by Mourid Bargh­outi and his mas­ter­piece I Saw Ramal­lah. Although my life is very dif­fer­ent from his, I found so much was famil­iar in that book. He put into beau­ti­ful words so much of what I’d felt. So I tried to evoke that expe­ri­ence, using events from my own life and my fam­i­ly’s life. The over­rid­ing emo­tion for me was melan­choly. A suf­fo­cat­ing cycle of fear, and relief. Of grief and love. Mourn­ing and redemp­tion. These are my expe­ri­ences as some­one who always feels he’s liv­ing in exile, no mat­ter where I am. That was the thread that is woven through the film.

The role was writ­ten for Moham­mad, and to be hon­est I don’t think we could have made it with­out him. When he came on board, he’s also some­one who, I feel, has an over­whelm­ing sense of melan­choly. He’s seen a lot. He’s been through a lot. He’s always fight­ing. He’s some­one who under­stands that when he feels relief, there’s still the unde­ni­able aware­ness that this is only tem­po­rary and indi­vid­ual relief. The polit­i­cal real­i­ty of Pales­tine remains, and there’s lit­tle relief for that. So Moham­mad brought with him a weight that I could only imag­ine. A weight I haven’t expe­ri­enced in my life, drag­ging the char­ac­ter of Ashraf through life. Moham­mad also brought with him the his­to­ry of Pales­tin­ian cin­e­ma, and that was invalu­able in my aspi­ra­tion to make a new kind of film. 

Can you talk about the evo­lu­tion of the screen­play, and how you felt once you fin­ished shoot­ing and edit­ing the film, in terms of how it evolved, or came to express exact­ly what you hoped it would?

Like all my sto­ries, the screen­play start­ed as a series of vignettes. I don’t real­ly think in terms of sto­ry, I think in terms of evok­ing a par­tic­u­lar feel­ing at each point in the film. The events, the plot, is real­ly just there to help evoke these emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences, or to hold them togeth­er. But once the order is there and I feel the events have the cumu­la­tive effect that I want, the screen­play is more or less fixed. I’m quite pre­cise in what I’m going for, and although I love col­lab­o­rat­ing and work­ing with actors, cin­e­matog­ra­phers, com­posers etc to try new things, I’m not some­one who wants to do a lot of impro­vi­sa­tion, or wants to play with the film a lot dur­ing filming.

The sto­ry in the end is quite del­i­cate, for me, and needs to be per­fect­ly bal­anced but always on the edge of col­laps­ing for the film to work. In the end, I think the film was what we had hoped it would be. The most impor­tant aspect of it was that Moham­mad had the space to explore his char­ac­ter through tiny move­ments, ges­tures, looks, with­out using much dia­logue. And we achieved that. He said it was some of the hard­est act­ing he’d ever done, because so much of it was inter­nal, and non-ver­bal. My only regret, look­ing at it now, is that I would have cut even more dia­logue. But what’s the say­ing, “a film is nev­er fin­ished, only abandoned.” 

In this sto­ry, a son is wound­ed — “they shot him” — but we don’t know exact­ly what hap­pened. In the wake of the killing of Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, Shireen Abu Akleh, as a view­er here, I did feel we were talk­ing about the Israeli occu­pa­tion forces shoot­ing a Pales­tin­ian bystander, pro­test­er or even a jour­nal­ist. We just don’t know very much about your char­ac­ter Ashraf’s wound­ed son, Moataz.

I like ambi­gu­i­ty a lot in films. I like cre­at­ing moments that the audi­ence can feel have a lot of weight, a lot of his­to­ry and den­si­ty, even if we don’t know exact­ly why. I like to make scenes that are imbued with this spir­it, this sense of expe­ri­ence and before and after, although we’re only allowed to see the now of it. So I love that you got a very spe­cif­ic sto­ry from that scene, even though it doesn’t explain much. And of course, the cir­cum­stances we watch a film in will always inform the viewing.

Sad­ly, in Pales­tine, these kinds of killings hap­pen all the time. Only three weeks after Israeli sol­diers killed Shireen, they killed anoth­er jour­nal­ist, Ghufran Harun Waras­neh. So we are con­stant­ly refer­ring to the lat­est hor­rif­ic mur­der when we watch scenes like that. This is our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, and trag­i­cal­ly our col­lec­tive visu­al his­to­ry: images of inno­cent peo­ple killed by the occu­pa­tion. We should­n’t exploit this, of course, but we also should­n’t shy away from it. My per­son­al life was also marked with con­stant and spon­ta­neous vio­lence, so it’s some­thing I write into my films as a mem­o­ry, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of inte­ri­or psy­chol­o­gy, as a shock. The scene isn’t “real” in the world of the film, but it’s real to Ashraf. We all have these scenes that are real to us even if they only exist in our memories. 

Ashraf appears to be lost in Lon­don, even before he receives word that Moataz has been shot. That news pro­pels him into a tun­nel of mem­o­ries, with a woman named Souad who is a refugee with a baby, and Ashraf recall­ing him­self as a sol­dier “in two wars.” What do you hope view­ers will take away from this film?

I always try to con­struct my films in such a way that every­thing feels slight­ly off-bal­ance, it does­n’t quite make sense, until the very last moment. At that moment, there should be a sen­sa­tion that draws every­thing togeth­er. It’s not explained, it’s not the end, it’s not the tra­di­tion­al “cli­max,” it’s not the con­clu­sion of a plot, but it’s a good­bye. I always remem­ber good­byes — the feel­ing, the mix­ture of relief and guilt, the sen­sa­tion that lingers with you long after the per­son is gone. That’s how I want my films to feel. That they remain with the audi­ence like a mem­o­ry. The exact con­tent of that mem­o­ry isn’t so impor­tant for me. I think many peo­ple can watch that film and feel it reflects some­thing about their lives — exile, lone­li­ness, friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, despair, relief, what­ev­er it might be. My per­son­al expe­ri­ence that I want­ed to reflect in the film was this: the moment we real­ize we need to find com­fort, con­so­la­tion from our grief, and that com­fort needs to come from some­one else. 

As a Pales­tin­ian film­mak­er in Lon­don, you’re part of a vast dias­po­ra. I’ve always won­dered how it is that grow­ing up and/or liv­ing abroad in anoth­er coun­try and lan­guage not only does­n’t extin­guish Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty, but seems to strength­en it. 

Yes, that’s very true. I also come from a home where Pales­tine was­n’t empha­sized very much. I think my father’s pri­or­i­ty was to give us a sta­ble, ordi­nary life with­out any of the trau­ma he grew up with. But it’s not unusu­al for the refugee to want to bury their expe­ri­ence, while their chil­dren begin the process of dig­ging it up. So that’s where I am now, dig­ging it up. There’s also a very explic­it polit­i­cal agen­da for me in this kind of work — that is, to chal­lenge the Israeli nar­ra­tive that we don’t exist. Our cul­ture is a ham­mer that can shat­ter that lie. Our cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry is also a very lit­er­al vic­tim of the occu­pa­tion because our film archive was stolen when the Israelis retreat­ed from Beirut in 1982. It still hasn’t been returned to us. So every Pales­tin­ian film­mak­er is not only cre­at­ing a new visu­al cul­ture, but is fill­ing in the void left when ours was stolen. This is a very pow­er­ful mis­sion, and some­thing that I think keeps us going, keeps us inspired.

More broad­ly, when I look at the work being pro­duced about Pales­tine — even some­times by Pales­tini­ans — it’s often super­fi­cial, over-sim­pli­fied, pro­pa­gan­dis­tic, trad­ing in tired clich­es. We have to move beyond that. We have to cre­ate a new cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage that can com­mu­ni­cate our expe­ri­ences, so cre­ative­ly there’s also a very strong com­pul­sion to re-con­nect with Pales­tine in order to bet­ter under­stand how to com­mu­ni­cate it. I’ve been immersed in Pales­tin­ian folk­lore for around a year now, doing research for my next film, going back to our ear­li­est sto­ries to learn how to move for­ward with our nar­ra­tives. So I need to gen­uine­ly engage with Pales­tine in a very pro­found and vig­or­ous way, decon­struct it in order to learn how to recon­struct it. I always keep in mind that when we cre­ate art, we’re part of the mis­sion to build a state because what is a state but the cumu­la­tive mem­o­ry of our shared culture. 

Jor­dan Elgrably


BeirutLondonMohammad BakriPalestinePalestinian film archivesShireen Abu Akleh

Saeed Taji Farouky is a Palestinian - British filmmaker who has been producing work around themes of conflict, human rights, and colonialism since 2005. His latest documentary, A Thousand Fires premiered as the opening film in Directors Fortnight of the Locarno Film Festival 2021 where it won the Marco Zucchi award for most innovative documentary. His previous documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year premiered at the Berlinale 2015 where it won the Audience Choice Panorama award and the Amnesty Human Rights Award. His films focus on exile and the lingering trauma of conflict. He tells intimate, personal stories with an emphasis on humanism, and its mirror image: surrealism. He is also an educator who runs the radical SLG Film School in South London, a free film course for participants from backgrounds underrepresented in the film industry to develop creative, unconventional approaches to moving image work.


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