October 28, 2008

Ali Suliman

Further proof that the Israeli cinema is thriving, and continues to deliver thought-provoking portraits, the Mill Valley Film closed with the smashing film Lemon Tree. The drama demonstrates that Israeli and Palestinian can live and work together, at least in the artistic community. The situation is made more complicated due to politics and bureaucracy of the region.

It's the second collaboration between writer/director Eran Riklis and Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass after the internationally renowned The Syrian Bride. In Lemon Tree, a Palestinian widow fights the Israeli Establishment to save her lemon grove after the Defense Minister moves in next door. The film shows that the Israeli mindset is so far off from the Palestinians – this despite being so geographically close. It's a clash of polar opposites where there's hardly any room left for human connection. The two lonely women at the center of the story have so much in common but can't communicate and can only stare at each other from afar. The film is even-handed and doesn't shy away of criticizing both sides. Its perfect allegory for what has taken place for the past 6 decades – if only the people in power could take a similar point of view as the film then a whole lot of healing would occur.

I interviewed lead actor Ali Suliman at the Sequoia theater in Mill Valley, CA.

Yama Rahimi: When did you decide to become an actor?
Ali Suliman: I decided early. I knew that I would become an actor since my older brother was an actor before me and has guided me. I had the talent as a kid and used to act out for family and friends.

YR: What was the biggest challenge for you as a Palestinian to act in Israel?
AS: First of all I didn't speak Hebrew which is not my language, so I had to learn everything in Hebrew which was very difficult. You learn Hebrew as a second language in school but in Nazareth which is the biggest Palestinian city in Israel we don't use Hebrew that much except for official uses such as the courts because there's no contact between the Palestinians and the Jews there.

YR: Is it common in the artist community for Palestinians and Israelis to work together like in this film?
AS: Well it's getting more common because artists such as in the film and theatre are open minded on either side, so it's easier for them to understand the other perspective and go deeper on issues. It's the artist's responsibility to hold the mirror to the society on important issues. To go beyond the news and politics and find out what's really going on. So we the artists work to build a bridge for us to reach over.

YR: How was working with the director Eran Riklis with whom you worked on "The Syrian Bride"?
AS: Well I had a small part in that film but I loved it so much and also loved working with Eran. I love the way he works and directs and he's amazing as a human being. He never made me feel like I'm a different than him. So we connected on both the professional and personal level. So we were like a family on this film.

YR: Did you receive any backlash from the Arab community for working with the Israelis?
AS: Not at all. I usually get in trouble when I travel to an Arab country because I have an Israeli passport. So for them I'm not a Palestinian but an Israeli. I can't travel to certain Arab countries because they haven't recognized Israel despite being a Palestinian which is the most complicated thing.

YR: So "Paradise Now". How did you get the role and how did it change your life?
AS: Well I was doing a lot of theatre before it and had some small roles in films. After I auditioned for the role, I had to go through a surgery but the director Hany Abu-Assad wanted me for the role, so he waited for me. Since I loved the script, I felt a great responsibility since it was an important role and my first leading role as well. Also to do a film about suicide bombers scared me a lot at first because it could have destroyed my career but I did it anyway even if it meant to be my last film ever. Instead it opened many doors and opportunities.

YR: How was your experience working on the Hollywood films "The Kingdom" and "Body of Lies"?
AS: It was amazing because I never experienced anything like it before. My first experience was on The Kingdom with Peter Berg and the amazing cast. I always dreamed to work on a Hollywood production. We usually have only one camera when we shoot a film but on that set there were five or so. So I was in awe with the whole experience. I was so lucky to get the part in Body of Lies because Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. He's such an amazing talent to work with. My agent sent me the script and I auditioned over a tape and was glad to get the part.

YR: How did you get the part in "Lemon Tree"?
AS: Well again my agent sent me the script and I knew it from Eran as well. So I auditioned for the role. Initially they were looking for an older actor because the role was written for an older character but Eran loved my audition that he decided to change the character. So it paid off at the end because it worked better.

YR: How was working with Hiam Abbass?
AS: She's a very good friend of mine and I love her. I always love to work with her and we just did our fourth film together. I think she will direct a film and I hope to work with her as my director as well. She's an amazing talent and giving as actor. I always look forward to work with her.

YR: I interviewed her for "The Visitor" and she's very funny and sexy that you don't get to see in her films because she has to play serious widow roles.
AS: That's right. She's funny and one of the sexiest women I ever met.

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