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Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Salon de Huda’ continues the director’s tradition of questioning himself
LONDON: If a story makes Hany Abu-Assad wake up in the middle of the night, it’s fair to say it’s probably worth telling. The Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning director recalls waking up at 4 a.m. and spending the next four hours drafting the idea for what would become “Huda’s Room,” a drama by tense espionage that will open the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 6 – after a conversation with his wife and longtime production partner, Amira Diab.
“I got this story about a salon that recruited Palestinian girls to work for the occupation secret service by putting them in a shameful situation and blackmailing them,” Abu-Assad told Arab News .
“It was in the papers, and I was struck by it. It stuck in my head. Two years ago my wife wanted to explore something about women in Palestine, and I told her about this idea, ”he recalls. “She asked me what the story was, and I didn’t know. So we slept on it. Then I woke up at 4 a.m. and started writing. During the night my head had to work on it.
“Huda’s Salon” is the tense, character-driven story of Reem, a young mother who visits a Bethlehem business for a haircut and finds herself trapped by salon owner Huda, unless she is. agrees to spy for the occupation. At the same time, Abu-Assad’s film focuses on Hasan’s interrogation of Huda, who begins to understand the gravity of the impossible situation facing a woman also trapped in the shame of her past actions.
Abu-Assad is such a comfortable director with making documentary, biographical and fictional films, but “Huda’s living room,” he explained, could only have been done as a story.
“A documentary would have been impossible. I don’t think victims would want to talk to me because of the issues they would still face if they did. And, of course, the secret services are not going to talk about it, ”he explained. “In fact, one of the only victims who came forward 15 or 20 years ago wrote a letter and then committed suicide. So a fictional story was the only way.
“But the way I shot the film was like a documentary,” he continued. “Most of the scenes are in one shot, where the audience feels like they’re trapped at the same time and place as the characters. We walk with the characters, we sit with them. When there are no mounts, you live alongside them, second by second. You are almost a mirror to them. And it’s also shot with a handheld, which adds to that feeling.
In order to pull off such a feat, Abu-Assad needed actors he could trust to control the scenes, who were able to drive the story for the audience to follow. To this end, the director wrote the roles of actors with whom he had previously worked: Maisa Abd Elhadi (Reem), Manal Awad (Huda) and Ali Suliman (Hasan).
“I called them all after I got the story but before I started the script,” he explained. “I told them the idea and that I wouldn’t write it down unless they were involved – especially Maisa, as she needed to be vulnerable, not only physically but emotionally. It takes courageous actors to do that.
The close-up and often claustrophobic nature of the film is a far cry from the previous Abu-Assad film, “The Mountain Between Us” of 2017, starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. But that’s in line with his commitment to pick projects that challenge – and scare – him.
“That’s why I love him. Without challenge, I cannot do this job. It’s tough, but I’ve always challenged myself to go to extremes and discover new things. I don’t want to do another version of the previous “Paradise Now” or “Omar” movies. I have to find something new, and I might fail, but at least I’ll learn.
“Huda’s salon” was quite new, stimulating and frightening for Abu-Assad.
“Making an entire movie in two locations, with three characters, almost always in one shot, with a handheld – which I had never done before – was definitely a learning process. You have no idea if it’s going to work, if a plan is going to work in favor of the story or the characters, ”he said. “But otherwise, you’re working on autopilot. You know what’s going to happen because you’ve done it before, and you know what mistakes you’ve made, so you don’t do them again. It gets boring.
The next step for Abu-Assad – and one of the reasons for his involvement in the Red Sea International Film Festival – is the desire to continue to challenge and learn.
“For the past eight years, I have worked with my wife, and we are excited to explore the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to expand our borders beyond Palestine. We have several ideas, and we want to explore them with producers from the Arab world. I can not wait.