"It is the personal stories that are interesting"
by Boyd van Hoeij
- Palestinian-Danish director Omar Shargawi won a Tiger Award for his debut Go With Peace Jamil at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where Cineuropa spoke with him
Born of a Danish mother and a Palestinian father, former still photographer Omar Shargawi was raised in the Danish capital. His film Go With Peace Jamil [+see also:
interview: Meta Louise Foldager
interview: Omar Shargawi
film profile] is entirely set in the closed world of an Arab-speaking community in Copenhagen that is deeply divided along religious fault lines (notably the Shi‘ite/Sunni division). The film is largely in Arabic but very much in the Danish tradition of raw, modestly budgeted dramas that face the big questions head-on. It won the top prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January and will be released in Denmark on May 30.
Cineuropa: Would you say your film is a European film?
Omar Shargawi: From the start I knew this wasn’t a film only for a Danish audience. It is just as important or maybe even more important to get it out there, in front of a European audience. It is not a Danish film; it could be set anywhere, in any large city in Europe.
The film lacks clear geographical references. It could even be set in the Middle East.
Yes, it could happen in the Middle East. This is the way these people lead their lives, in small, closed communities. I wanted to stay as close to them as possible. It is the personal stories that are interesting, and through one person you can get an idea of what is happening in society.
Most of the dialogue is in Arabic…
The little boy speaks Danish, and his father speaks Danish to him, but most of the dialogue is in Arabic, with occasionally a Danish sentence thrown in. I just tried to make it as realistic as possible. The grandfather’s generation speaks Arabic all the time. For Jamil’s generation, perhaps it’s fifty-fifty, and his son speaks only Danish. The third generation doesn’t speak very good Arabic. Like myself, my Arabic is not that good.
How did the script evolve? Was it written in Danish and then translated? And how was the collaboration with co-screenwriter Mogens Rukov?
It was mostly in Danish, with some Arabic. Mogens didn’t really do any writing, but he coached me. There were many nationalities in the cast: Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis… So I sat down with each of them to make the dialogues fit with their dialects. I often had the rough lines and then we developed it together with the actors.
How did you work with the actors, since all of them are non-professionals? Did your own experience as an actor help?
I wouldn’t say I’m a professional actor. I did some small things, but that’s it. Dar Salim, who plays Jamil, had been in an episode of a TV series before. But many are just family and friends. Jamil’s father is played by my own father and the Egyptian (Hassan El Sayed) is one of my closest friends. Since the feature grew out of a short film, many retained their original roles which had been specifically written for them. A lot of the work is in the casting. Not necessarily because they are like their characters in real life, but because I knew how they would look if they said this or did that. Most of the time, their real lives are completely different: Hassan works in a library and Dar is a pilot!
So how did the feature grow out of the short?
The short was also about revenge, but it was more of a crime story. I never actually finished it, because when I was making it I just knew that this story had more things to say. So I took the best scenes and edited together a 3-minute trailer and went knocking on doors in Cannes, asking for money to make the feature.
The film’s revenge-motives come from honour killings. Those are not a very common in Denmark, though.
It doesn’t happen every day. In Denmark, most of the time killings are about jealousy or revenge and it is mostly Danish people that are involved; drinking buddies fighting over an old girlfriend – which is also jealousy. My film just happens to be set in an Arabic environment. Half my life takes place in an Arabic environment, so for me it makes sense. And I have always been interested in the religious aspect. How can people hate someone for not being a good Muslim if they are not living as they should be living themselves?
Any idea how the Danish audience might react to a Danish film without any Danes?
It is the first movie made in Denmark with only Arabs, maybe even the first one in Europe. I don’t know how the audience will feel about that. I look forward to seeing their reaction when the film comes out.