Jan Chats with Actress Hiam Abbass

Jan Chats with Actress Hiam Abbass

(First Posted in 2005)

Hiam Abbass poses with co-star Hanna Laslo & director Amos Gitai at the Cannes International Film Festival (5/19/05)

Hiam Abbass, one of my favorite actresses, came to Chicago in October 2005, to lead the Q&A after a Chicago International Film Festival screening of her new film FREE ZONE. Since I’d already seen FREE ZONE twice by the time she arrived, Hiam graciously accepted my dinner invitation, and we had a leisurely chat about her career, before returning upstairs for the Q&A.


Jan: You live in Paris now, Hiam, but where did you grow up?

Hiam: I was born in Nazareth. I grew up in a village in the north of Israel, and then I went to study in Haifa for three years. After I moved to Jerusalem, I spent four years working in a theater, went back to Haifa for another theater, then in ’88 I left the country, because I wanted to get fresh air. So I went to London, and from there I got to Paris.


Jan: The first time I was really conscious of you as an actress was in SATIN ROUGE, which I just adored. Now you seem so much younger than the character you played in that film. What is it like for you to walk the different lines that you do, to be a modern woman representing Arab women to Americans and to international audiences?

Hiam: I don’t see it that way. I’m an actress. What interests me most is the humanity of the characters that I could play. They can have any identity and be of any nationality. I play the roles of different kinds of women who could represent parts of societies in different countries, as well as the Arab countries. It’s not a choice of my doing a role because I can speak in the name of someone of a particular nationality or level of society.

Jan: So when the “right part,” comes to you, you say: “This is wonderful.”

Hiam: Right. The part comes to me because it’s not an accident; people see you, see your work, and see whatever you can defend in the character that they choose you for. As a lot of directors would say, “Part of the success of a film is the right cast. When the cast is right, then everything goes with it.” So I think something like, “I should have a rebellious side with this character, and also a motherly side.” Then I follow the script and the intentions of the director.

Jan: In SATIN ROUGE it’s wonderful the way your character “Lilia” lets loose; she’s so wild. Were you were already a dancer, or did you have to learn all that?

Hiam: I knew how to dance, but I wasn’t really proficient at it. So for the scenes where I had to work in the cabaret and become a dancer, we worked with a choreographer. The first time Lilia dances, she does so in a way where she’s really not sure of herself, so she’s very shy. At the same time we see that she loves dancing, but she’s surrounded by these people that she doesn’t know. She knows that she’s socially restricted—unable to show parts of her body—so I danced with that psychology.

Then, in the second scene, I thought I was the biggest dancer in the world, so I was dancing in the way I thought every dancer would do it. And then the boss comes to me and he asks: “What are you doing? There are rules about dancing. You cannot do whatever you think you can.”

And then the third time it’s more organized, more qualified, and more professional. The hardest part for me wasn’t really the dancing; it was how to play the dance, It was how to be the character, knowing that I have to be going from one step to another and growing up, developing in my psychology and my liberty and whatever physically that happens to me in the progress of the dancing effort.

Jan: What kind of response did you get from the Arab world; did you notice anything?

Hiam: Oh, I did, yes. I met various people. They would hate the film and think that it’s not true for an Arabic society and that it didn’t exist.

Jan: Men or women or both?

Hiam: Both. Then I had more reactions. I even had Europeans being really disgusted by what happens to Lilia, because in the story she sleeps with a boyfriend of her daughter, so even Europeans were kind of shocked by that. Others thought it was great—that it was very, very courageous to do a film like that. In Tunisia it was hard; people really didn’t like it because it was the part of Tunisian society they didn’t want to see or being reminded of.

Jan: I have a friend from Tunisia who didn’t like SATIN ROUGE at all, and I was so surprised because I really loved it. I’ve told all the women I know about it; I find it very liberating: Lilia’s voyage, her journey. 

Hiam: Exactly—it’s a journey! In fact, a lot of people couldn’t see that it’s the journey of an individual woman, that she doesn’t necessarily represent all women in Tunisia. The film didn’t “represent Tunisian society.” When you’re a Tunisian director and you write a story, you use your own society and the clothes and whatever the habits of that society have been to accompany the character that you’re drawing.


Jan: So how did you get involved in THE SYRIAN BRIDE?

Hiam: The director, Eran Riklis, called me. The producer sent me the script, and when I read it, I called him and said that I really liked it very much and I was ready to meet the director. So Eran came to Paris. I walked into the room in which our appointment had been set up. The French and German producers were also there. I knew Eran was Israeli, so I whispered to him in Hebrew: “You can talk in Hebrew.” He was very surprised, because he didn’t know I was able to speak Hebrew. He thought I emigrated from Israel a long time ago, and that I didn’t speak Hebrew at all. Straightaway, that opened the door. He has said on different occasions that as soon as I walked into that room, he knew I was a character for him.

Jan: You do fit that character (“Amal”) wonderfully well. When I lived in Israel, I lived in Kiryat Shemona for awhile, and I actually visited a Druze school in Majdal Shams. It was a very beautiful place to live. Tell me about Amal and her relationship with her husband. How did you create a back story for yourself about how their relationship had changed over the years?

Hiam: I always create a back story for myself, even when I play a small role. Before I get to the set I need to know where “I” come from. But this time almost everything was written in the script. This woman, for me, just kind of met her husband, who’s from her village. People said he’s a good husband for her, so she got married, because it’s really a destiny for woman there. You don’t have a choice, because woman there don’t go to study, so they don’t have the possibility to meet people, and that’s the way it happens.

Jan: So how does Amal come to think of herself as someone who has larger possibilities? In THE SYRIAN BRIDE, Amal plans to go to school in Haifa. How did she break out?

Hiam: I would say that’s in her stomach; some people are born with it. But even if Amal had it as a kid, she wouldn’t really express it, because of the structure of the society that wouldn’t allow her. Then she gets married and has two daughters. She becomes a mother very young, so there’s no time to think about herself.

Once the daughters are big enough, they remind her of what she missed in her youth and what she would have loved to be that she couldn’t be. Suddenly her daughters become the mirror that she reflects herself in, which means that she has a very big responsibility in the education she’s going to give them. Her daughters were growing and very soon they would have to make the choice of marrying a man like she did or falling in love with another one… Twenty years later, her life changed.

Jan: Watching THE SYRIAN BRIDE, I did ask myself: “Is it realistic that Amal would have been able to break free like that?”

Hiam: I think it is possible. Everything is possible. It depends really on the strength the woman has, and the goal that she wants to work to achieve. At the same time, had it been me, I would have taken my daughters and left. It’s possible, right? But the price would be very heavy. Then it’s about you as a person, to calculate the price you have to pay for each step you’re taking in your life.

Jan: So directors must see this quality in you, and they must know inside that you can be these women. The camera knows you; it knows that you have this inside you.

Hiam: I’m born as I’m born, and that’s why I believe that Amal is possible in that village. I was born in a semi-traditional family. Although my parents were very liberal and educated, they were surrounded by people who were very different from them. But at the same time, they had to live with them, so they had to educate us in a way where we would just fit into the society. When you come with ideas that are strange to the traditions that you’re living in, everything is hard. For them it’s hard. And for me it’s hard, because I’m bringing this new idea that they don’t want—and so the struggle starts. I was born different.


Jan: So, now, going over to tonight’s film, FREE ZONE. In FREE ZONEwe’re watching three women who all have very compelling individual stories and a lot of mystery about them, but at the same time they’re also representing the character types of their countries. To me, it was really amazing that that you, Natalie Portman and Hana Laszlo were able to simultaneously be very interesting characters, but yet you also carried with you more representative qualities. Did the director, Amos Gitai, tell you how to be?

Hiam: We talked in general about Leila’s character and what she would be representing, but a lot of the stuff was almost improvised.

The first time I met Amos Gitai, he told me that he had this idea about the film, but I felt he didn’t know what the hell he was going to do. So he asked me a lot of questions about myself and my life, and he told me the story of “the Free Zone,” with this Israeli driver who once drove him over there. When he got there, he was really very surprised to discover this place, with this Israeli guy who was doing this business with this Palestinian guy over there.

Since he was very interested in doing it, he told me, “I want you to write this story. I’m interested in you playing the Palestinian. But we’re still putting ideas together, so I want you to meet my co-writer and talk to her.” 

So I went to see this woman (Marie-Jose Sanselme). She asked me a lot of questions. She told me a first version and then a second one. She saw that I was a strong woman, and that directed her towards something. We were putting together ideas, asking questions like: “Is Leila married or not?” Then they would call me two weeks later and say: “Okay, we have something for you to read.” So I go to see Marie-Jose and I read and I tell her what I think, what I do and don’t like.

Collaborating is really incredible. I just received a new script. I called the director last Wednesday and told him: “There’s some stuff I think doesn’t work very well, but I will do the film whether you are willing to listen to me and take my notes in consideration or not. I would love to do it, because I think the story is really very interesting.” Fortunately, the director was really very accepting and open and he took my notes. Now what he’ll do with them, I don’t know.

Jan: Back to FREE ZONE: your character, Leila, was so gentle and dignified, but she was also elusive. I always felt like she wasn’t quite telling the truth.

Hiam: It’s very true. If this woman was a Palestinian from Israel I wouldn’t play her in the same way, but knowing that she is a Palestinian from Jordan, I have to play her that way. Now it had nothing to do with me personally and what I can give the character. She doesn’t know the Israelis, although I do. I meet with them. I’m a great traveler, so I tried to defend the character in that way.

Jan: But there is also something hidden, because Leila’s so charming that you want to trust her—except she’s not really trustworthy, is she?

Hiam: No, but the thing is she was very afraid at that stage of her life, because of her son. There was a worry about herself and her future in Jordan with this son creating difficulties to her daily life.

We were supposed to understand the whole journey of “Hana” (Hana Laszlo) and “Rebecca” (Natalie Portman). When they come in, they just see men, men, men. So you understand that Leila is the only woman there, and it is frightening for her. She doesn’t have Hana’s money, and she knows she’s in trouble, so what is she going to do?

Jan: And at the end, Rebecca, the American, just wants to escape, right? She runs away, so she can escape being in the car?

Hiam: For me it means: Americans, get out of our life. 

Jan: Or maybe that when the going gets tough, Americans run away?

Hiam: Exactly. But it is a lot to go through in a day for a stranger, especially from where Rebecca comes from.


Jan: Well, thank you, Hiam. Whenever I see that you’re in a movie, I will always see it. You can count on it!

Hiam: Oh, thank you very much.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (November 1, 2005) – Special for Films for Two. Reposted with permission.

October 10th interview conducted at Yen’s restaurant in Lincoln Park (Chicago). Interview notes condensed and edited by Jan, with assistance from Gina Pantone and Alan Waldman.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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