Abbe Hassan • Director of Exodus
“I really wanted the sense of humanity towards others to come through in the film”
by Jan Lumholdt
- We chatted to the director of the Göteborg opener about the movie and about his own life journey so far
A young girl’s journey from the war-ridden Middle East to a new life in Northern Europe is the central theme in the Nordic Competition-entered Exodus [+see also:
interview: Abbe Hassan
film profile], opening this year’s Göteborg Film Festival. Director Abbe Hassan, who first rose to prominence as the producer of A Hustler’s Diary [+see also:
film profile] in 2017, shared some thoughts about his own journey.
Cineuropa: You garnered international recognition as the producer behind A Hustler’s Diary, the feature version, and you then directed half of the series version. What percentage of you is a producer versus a director?
Abbe Hassan: I’d say I’m 70% director, but I’m fully driven in as many aspects as possible. I like to secure the full package regarding casting, budget and other things. In short, I get things done, and I know how to hustle! Still, I produced A Hustler’s Diary a little out of necessity – we were a small group and someone had to do it – which has led some industry people to see me mainly in that role. But I’m a director first and foremost, educated as such at the Swedish School of Television in Gothenburg, and I’ve done a dozen shorts so far.
One of those shorts, Gold, was released in 2018 and had a fine festival run, winning a slew of prizes. It deals with a young girl, Amal, living in a bomb shelter in wartime Syria – a kind of prologue to Exodus in many ways, it feels.
Very much so. I made it as an exercise, and also as a showcase for potential producers and backers of the main feature. It’s a kind of magical-surrealist piece closely based on memories of my own experiences of war and bomb shelters. I’m from Lebanon, born and raised in Beirut, from which my family escaped in 1987 when I was six. We got separated along the way, but we managed to reunite later on in Sweden.
What made you choose a Syrian setting?
Different reasons. Syria is close to Lebanon, we speak the same language, and I have relatives there, so I know it well. I did toy around with the thought of an unspecified place but ultimately decided against it. These events from Syria in 2015-16 are so well documented: people have filmed a lot, and those I met through my research showed me their footage. I could easily relate my story to theirs, not least to the warmth among them, the fact that despite their “victimhood”, they kept their spirits high and helped each other out. I really wanted this sense of humanity towards others to come through in the film.
You described Gold as “magical surrealism”. Exodus, on the other hand, comes across as quite a straight story. Is that a valid evaluation?
That’s the ambition, and I’m glad you see it that way. It partly stems from the producers and backers, who suggested a straight tone. And for a long, 100-minute format, this made sense to me.
Two main protagonists appear this time around – Amal, the girl, and Sam, the smuggler – who together make the journey towards Sweden. Sam is played by Ashraf Barhom and Amal by Jwan Algatami; a seasoned player against a fresh-faced newcomer. Can you talk about the casting?
I had originally planned to use the girl from Gold. But the pandemic hit, and she got too old for the part. I phoned her mother with the bad news, only to be told that just next door, there was a girl of the right age who liked acting, and she asked if I would like to see her. That girl is Jwan Algatami, and she is perfect.
For the part of Sam, I asked for advice from two filmmaker friends and sometimes “sparring partners”, Tarik Saleh and Josef Fares, and they suggested Ashraf Barhom. Wow, wouldn’t he be too big? “Well, ask him,” they said. I found an email address online and wrote him a message – and he replied! Already at our first Zoom meeting, I felt his presence through the screen. “I’ve gotta have him,” I thought. And he felt strongly about the theme and wanted in.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Kristoffer Cras, with whom I co-wrote Exodus, and I are finishing a story about human-organ trafficking. The working title is Exchangeables. It takes place in Sweden, Denmark and the UK, and is based on real events, which are very compelling. I’ve also done a series for Swedish television, Beloved Samir, with Ahmed Bozan from Caliphate [+see also:
interview: Gizem Erdogan
series profile] as a freshly dumped thirtysomething manchild. It’s a humorous, coming-of-age drama, of sorts.
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