Sheree Joseph went behind the scenes at the Arab Film Festival Australia to meet the screen-stopping Palestinian actor who captured the revolutionary spirits – and hearts – of every opening night attendee in Sydney.
‘Where are you, Saleh?’
Festival Directors Fadia and Mouna call out to the audience where Saleh Bakri is embedded, one of the main actors from the opening night film When I Saw You.
‘Here!’ he calls out, jumping up and jostling down towards the stage microphone. He appears to be a man of few words and greets the crowd briefly before opting to dedicate his brief time to the people of Gaza, asking everyone to stand for a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the massacre taking place in Gaza, until recently.
I bowed my head and thought instantly of a poem from the great and inimitable Mahmoud Darwish..
‘What is beautiful about Gaza is that our voices do not reach it.’
And so we stood in the shadow of a silence that has long characterised the Palestinian struggle, permeating it from every angle, before taking our seats to watch a film from director Annemarie Jacir.
Somehow the world has always operated under the idea that through the general absence of representation, the Palestinians as a people, could be forgotten. But they are never more present than through art and the imagination. The film dives straight into the one thing the Palestinians will never let us forget – the memory of their nation, the power of their longing, and the eternal hope of their return. The fog of nostalgia and eternal hope merges together in a visually breathtaking film that holds the shot until the feeling resonates from within.
This is a brief glimpse into how it feels to sit across from the wonderfully enigmatic, personable and ultimately very humble Saleh Bakri. His smouldering, piercing blue-eyed gaze can burn a hole through your soul. And yet now, in lieu of the silence from before, words spill out from him. He has so much to say. Every question is a springboard to discuss Palestine, a word I do not hear spoken often or with enough conviction as I do on this evening. Something is propelling him forward. He wants you to know about his world, but more importantly that he believes in all people, and their right to exist, even if all people don’t believe in his right to exist.
Right off the bat, I can tell that Saleh is a people person. He draws people into his world. Women and men are simply rapt by him. He is overwhelmed with love for people. I feel instantly at ease and try to make the limited time we have stretch into an eternity because there will be no silence here.
When people ask you where you’re from what do you say?
You don’t hear that often. Is it hard for you, living in Israel and being Palestinian?
It’s hard to be a Palestinian no matter what. Whether you are in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem or the Diaspora, the reality is that it’s hard to be a Palestinian. That’s why we are fighting, that’s why there’s a resistance, that’s why we make art and that’s why I’m here. No matter who I am and no matter where I come from, I think everybody has his purpose: to exist.
Do you think the struggle is the same whether you are from Israel or the West Bank?
The way we struggle is different but in the vision, in what we want, in the end goal, it’s all the same. I’m living in Haifa – so my way of struggle is different to someone who is living under siege in Gaza. My interaction with the Israelis is different than those in Gaza. The people of Gaza haven’t seen any civilians since the siege; they only see the Israeli army, the tanks, the planes and the drones. I see civilians, all around me, with their babies and children, their women. So it’s a different way of resistance, of dealing with occupation and with colonisation. But the goals are one, which is the right of the Palestinians to live a normal life.
But it’s still hard for you because there are discriminations against Palestinians living in Israel?
Yeah of course, since 1948 there is an apartheid system. For example, I’m not allowed to expand naturally – our homes, our land – our lands are confiscated. We don’t have a university – our own university – we don’t have a city, all our big cities inside Israel were destroyed in 1948. It was completely destroyed, so we have been missing this city atmosphere since 1948, and we don’t have the opportunity to access each others’ places very easily. For example, I’ve never been to Gaza because I’m not allowed to be there. Now, it’s different from place to place but it’s an apartheid system.
Was it a challenging role for you to play one of the Feda’iyeen (the young, idealistic fighters who were ready to sacrifice their lives to liberate Palestine in the ’60s and ’70s) in the film When I Saw You?
Yeah, challenging. Maybe not playing the Feda’iyeen, because I am a kind of Feda’iyeen, but it was like, challenging to work, for example, in front of this great, talented kid.
Yeah the kid was amazing! (I frantically writing down the words, ‘I am a kind of Feda’iyeen’.)
It was challenging for me as an actor. I mean he’s 14 years and already acting, so to act in front of this great talent, it’s reminding me all the time of my child.
You have a child?
I mean of me as a child. When we study drama the subject, the issue of the child is a basic subject, or a basic image, because it’s about pureness.
There’s a childlike nostalgia in the film, going back and accessing that memory. You have to access your inner child when acting.
Exactly, you have to be a kind of child, in the way of seeing things the way the child is seeing things.
After the film, I ran into some Palestinian friends born in Australia. They said for them it was like an old flashback to the exiled past and there were things in the film that only they knew and the sense that it was a film made for Palestinians. I read that this is what the director Annemarie Jacir wanted to do – to make a film for Palestinians. Do you think that’s the case?
Yeah, I think what she meant was because we’re used to seeing a lot of things coming out of the Arab world – part of it from Palestine – and it’s directed towards the West so the West understands how we live and who we are. Here she is kind of deviating from being in that kind of category, of being boxed into this one viewpoint, and she is aware of this category and she doesn’t want to be there because it’s a bit commercial to be there. She wants to deal with the people of Palestine, more than dealing with the world.
It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to deal with the world – the opposite actually; and we see in this film that people from all over the world understand the film and interact with the themes of the film as well. From the beginning she has thought about her people. And it’s very important because if we want to say something, I believe that to be personal is much more – it’s the most important thing, to be personal, whether I’m doing a Palestinian role or I’m doing an Italian role, it’s very important for me to be personal, because if I’m not personal, I can’t get through to the person watching it.
Can I just say that I loved specific moments in the film that were quite touching, and which felt like they would really resonate with the Arab and Palestinian audience. Things like cracking open the pomegranates, combing the mother’s hair and that spine tingling folk song being sung around the fire – they were such beautiful moments.
Thank you. Your beautiful eyes are seeing beautiful things.
Haha! Oh, stop it you. So, um, where was I? Oh yes; do you think the Palestinians are too fractured, too separate? Do you think that there’s no sense of unity or something that brings them together?
Yeah yeah yeah! There is no sense of a nation in reality, there is a sense of a nation in a dream.
I like that. What could unite them in reality? Do you think they need to come together?
It’s part of the problem; I think that unity can also cause problems. Like, I mean, in Lebanon people are united and there was a civil war.
Yes, but they were able to separate them by highlighting their differences.
Yeah, they were able to do that but they were still kind of living together as the one country, right? Because we were separated for a long time already and this separation caused so many differences between us, but to come back again, to re-connect again, it’s going to take us a while, maybe years to re-connect again and to try and live again as a normal nation. It’s going to take another two or three generations. So it’s a long way towards a normal life. But it can happen. So it’s not about only the right to return, it’s beyond that and it’s a lot of work even then, but the Right to Return is sacred for me. So we can start working towards creating a normal life.
Tell me about the idea behind the Feda’iyeen. You said before that you’re like a Feda’iyeen. Do you think that idea of the freedom fighter has changed? Do you think it was different back then and how has it changed?
The only difference is that they were not as desperate as they are today. To resist, they didn’t need God. Now there is nothing behind them except God. Like before, they had Russia and other sources that were supporting the resistance. And there was a belief in communism and socialism, so they were fighting from these kinds of backgrounds. Today, Russia has fallen and there’s no support for these ideologies of communism. So now religion has taken its place. There is a belief that God is behind the resistance today. And this is the situation. There is no other resistance. This is what we are facing today. And we had to accept that because I respect democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, they won the elections – they should be there today. But the army kicked them out and it is not justice. If you are looking for democracy, let us try the Muslim Brotherhood. And everybody supports the idea of them as terrorists, like the America [he laughs at himself]. The America; it’s like saying ‘the Arabia’!
HA! Another idea in the film is the idea of returning, and I love the ending for that reason. It builds up this suspense. In fact, the woman next to me was covering her eyes, assuming the worst as we always do. But it’s suspended in time with that ending – do you think the momentum for the Right of Return has diminished? Have people lost hope in ever returning?
I think some people have lost hope and some people haven’t. Some hope is dying and there is a kind of rebirth in this idea all the time. It still exists. I believe in the Right of Return; a lot of people still believe in it.
And it’s still important to you even though you’re in Israel and don’t have to ‘return’ as such.
No, I have to return, my friend, of course! I am a refugee in my own land.
Wait, I didn’t know this. Where were you born?
I was born in the Galilee, in Jaffa, and grew up in the Galilee, but I will consider myself a refugee in my homeland until the Right of Return is fulfilled. The home is not about land and ground. It is about people. When people are transferred and people remain, it’s the same for me. The ones who remain are missing something because they were transferred, and the ones who were transferred are missing because people still remain. So homeland for me is people. You take the people out and what does the land mean?
I read somewhere that you didn’t always want to be an actor growing up and that you wanted to be a painter. Do you still want to be a painter?
Yeah, this is my dream – to be a painter.
Why don’t you do it?
I need some money to study it!
You should do it! Come to Australia, we have heaps of courses.
Oh no sorry, they’re expensive.
I’m telling you I don’t have money!
Look, you could star in a film here.
You’re making jokes now, ha.
So tell me – why acting?
Because I was afraid of an audience and I wanted to defeat this fear. I had a public fear when I was a teenager, and I thought acting is the best way to defeat it.
Did it help?
Yeah, now I can stand in front of millions and shout and feel normal. It’s good; now I’ve fulfilled it, so now I want to be a painter.
I hope you can fulfil that dream! Look, I know you have to go so I’ll leave it there.
One more question.
REALLY? But I have five more questions. Okay what about this one: what makes you happy?
I laugh uproariously. Saleh laughs at my reaction.
You’re lying! You just met me.
No, you make me happy; you make me laugh.
Oh good, I’m happy to hear that (and I am blushing).
No, really, meeting people and getting to know people and speaking with people – that’s what makes me happy. I mean not all people, some people make me sad. Like Israelis today, 90% of them supporting the massacre on Gaza, more than 90% – I’m being generous – these people I’m not happy to meet, I’m not happy to live with.
Would you ever leave Israel?
I have left Israel since I was born, but I won’t leave Palestine.
He looks into the distance and says in a voice I’ll never forget:
Palestine won’t leave me.
Luckily, at this point a random guy comes over and asks Saleh for a lighter so no one has to see that I have tears in my eyes.
‘You want a lighter, here take this,’ Saleh hands him a spare lighter.
‘Really? Are you sure? Thanks man!’ says the random guy, who turns to me and says, ‘He’s a good man this one!’
It’s funny because he has no idea that he’s talking to Palestine’s hottest talent, totally oblivious to the fact that Saleh is known as the Brad Pitt of Palestine and was once voted Sexiest Man in Israel. But to him he’s just another generous stranger giving him a lighter.
Maybe that’s all anyone is, and we are just struggling to get by as equals, searching for the light. With people like Saleh, hope for this dream no longer feels like such a futile thing. If that isn’t worth fighting for, then what is?
And personally, I think: in Brad Pitt’s dreams; he wishes he was the Saleh Bakri of Hollywood.
By Sheree Joseph
Sheree spends her days darting in and out of the Internet (her second home) as a social media ninja in film and television, occasionally blogging at Tiny Thought Revolution (rumour has it she was live blogging her own birth) and working on her novel almost never because she has no time. She is also very fond of cheese.