Film-maker Maha Haj: A director's dilemma

Maha Haj's film about a Palestinian family is a highlight of the Seret London Israeli film festival.


Personal Affairs, a film about a Palestinian family, backed by the Israeli Film Fund, is one of the highlights of Seret London, the Israeli film festival which starts today

Its director, Maha Haj found it difficult to apply for the backing, even though she is an Israeli citizen, born and based in Nazareth. “It should [have been] a very natural thing to do since I have an Israeli passport and ID and it’s the right thing to do. Yet, at the same time, it caused me problems and dilemmas — political, national and ethical,” she says.

She objects to regulations introduced by Limor Livnat, the former Culture and Sports Minister that stated that film-makers can make films with money from the publicly financed Israeli Film Fund on condition that they are presented — at festivals and when selling them — as Israeli films only and not as Israeli-Palestinian features. “I’m a Palestinian living in Israel and nobody should oblige me to write otherwise,” she says. The decision of both Haj and her producer to sign the necessary document took a long time and “a lot of heartache”.

Personal Affairs premiered at Cannes last year and has since screened at numerous film festivals worldwide, winning prizes and acclaim. It is a gently comic, keenly observed film that touches on the absurdities of daily life in its focus on the lives of three generations of a Palestinian family. Nabeelah and Saleh are an elderly Palestinian couple living in Nazareth. They are bored, weary and frustrated with each other and with their marriage. They have three children. Their heavily pregnant daughter, Samar, lives in Ramallah with her husband George. She sits at home caring for “Granny”, his grandmother, while he lands an unexpected film role. Close by is her brother, Tarek, a playwright who wants to remain an eternal bachelor. Hisham, the oldest son and family mediator, lives in Sweden — which is where the initial idea for the film came from, explains Haj.

Her brother had sent her a picture of his lakeside, Swedish summer cabin, many years ago. On its terrace were two wooden blue chairs, which was the image that inspired her. “I wanted to see an old Palestinian couple from Nazareth sitting on these chairs. It’s how I started writing [the screenplay],” she says. While the cabin was used in the film it is the only autobiographical element, although, she adds, laughing, “I can tell you that all of the characters have me inside them.”


Although writing has been a hobby of Haj’s since she was seven, it is only in the past few years that she realised she had talent as a screenwriter. She began her career in the film industry as a set designer and art director, working with renowned Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman among others. This previous experience has informed her use of scenery and light to highlight her characters’ moods and relationships. Tight framing and a fixed camera also contribute a painterly quality to many scenes. “It’s to do with the fact that I like painting and drawing. I’ve always been an undercover artist,” she says.

Personal Affairs is not an overtly political film. Instead, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a subtle, thematic thread that is woven into the characters’ lives and runs throughout. “I don’t like films that reveal themselves immediately as political,” Haj explains. “It’s art not a news bulletin. However, at the same time you can’t escape politics when you’re a Palestinian living under occupation. It’s our situation, our daily life but, as a film-maker, you have to be very delicate in its use otherwise it becomes reportage.”

Haj believes opposition within the cultural community against the issues surrounding the artistic identity of films and funding is inadequate. This extends to recent proposals by the current Culture Minister, Miri Regev, who has suggested she would like to limit funding for the number of films she perceives as presenting a negative view of the state. “It is a very radical, harsh form of censorship,” says Haj.

These are significant challenges. “Being a film-maker is very difficult the world over,” she says, “but being a Palestinian in Israel and a mother of two who makes films… it is impossible!”


‘Personal Affairs’ will be shown on May 17 at JW3, as part of Seret London

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