Palestinian director overcomes politics to screen love story

Wed Dec 14, 2011 9:00am EST
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By Nour Merza

DUBAI (Reuters) - It took Palestinian director Susan Youssef 10 years to overcome a political obstacle course before she was able to screen her heart-wrenching tale of doomed romance in Gaza at the Dubai International Film Festival this week.

"Habibi" (My Beloved) retells in a modern Middle East setting the ancient Arabian story of "Layla and the Madman," a tragic romance similar to that of Romeo and Juliet.

The film tells the tale of two students in the relatively liberal West Bank who are forced to return to their homes in Gaza, stronghold of conservative Islamist group Hamas. There they try to continue their love affair in defiance of tradition.

Youssef, a Palestinian-American who moved to Gaza to write the script, told Reuters in an interview that the project ended up taking so long to complete because of local politics, which sometimes required great sacrifices for people to support the film and at other times made production impossible.

"On different trips to Gaza between 2002 and 2005, I felt everyone wanted to help me. I felt unity, hope, love. I had no political problems from Palestinians," she said. "But in 2007 when I returned to Gaza, I couldn't get back in. For the first time, people on the inside were telling me I shouldn't come."

In 2007, a year after Hamas eclipsed the dominant Palestinian nationalist movement Fatah in parliamentary elections, the two groups waged a civil war for the control of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas won out and ousted Fatah from the area, but in 2008-2009 Gaza faced an Israeli military offensive triggered by rocket attacks into Israel. About 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis died in the conflict.

Youssef, unable to continue her project, bided her time doing small jobs outside the region. In 2009, she went to the mountainous West Bank, where she decided to continue shooting in locations that she felt resembled Gaza, with its markedly flat landscape and overcrowded urban centers.   Continued...