By Maria Heater
Anyone knows that it isn’t enough to give birth. Beyond creating a life, you have to raise it, nurture it, protect it, and sometimes fight for it.
It’s a similar responsibility for an artist, one that writer, editor, director, and producer, Susan Youssef knows well. Youssef is currently touring with her film, Habibi, a story of forbidden love set in the Gaza Strip. The film is a modernization of “Majnun Layla,” an ancient poem that originated in what is now Saudi Arabia. In the original story, a man named Qays falls passionately in love, and writes poetry for his paramour, called Layla, in which he mentions her name frequently. He is rejected by her father upon asking to marry her, and shortly after, she marries another man. Qays retreats to the wilderness in madness and is occasionally seen reciting poetry to himself, or scrawling verses in the sand with a stick. He becomes known as “majnun” which means madman in Arabic.
As passion sometimes results in another life, Youssef’s own passion for the Gaza Strip set in motion what would eventually become Habibi. But the film also has another, more personal inspiration: “Habibi is inspired by my own experience loving in the Gaza Strip and my deep reverence for ‘Majnun Layla.’”
But passion alone cannot result in art. It needs something more to come alive, for which Youssef was a ferocious appetite to create. What she describes as “an insatiable, uncontrollable desire to tell a story” led her to make the film, which is the only Palestinian release of 2011 and was made almost exclusively with Palestinian cast and crew.
Working with a team to make her vision materialize required nurturing her relationships with actors in order to extract the best out of them: “I think my job as a director is to create a safe environment for my actors so they can come out and play. Sometimes I do this really well, and sometimes I fail.” Developing a creative and productive chemistry among the performers can be daunting, as it is so subject to variables like emotion and personality. Even a project led by highly talented people can flounder if relationships are weak. Says Youssef, “It depends often on chemistry between us as people, our mood, the circumstances.”
Building the right working environment also demands humility on the part of the director, the willingness to entertain and accept the ideas of others, though they may seem contrary to the original vision. But sharing ideas and expanding one another’s artistic scope can also be rewarding: “Sometimes, the actor changes what I want and what they do is better. But I have to give them some trust and some space. If I do, they come out and play with me. Sometimes they don’t want to give me what I want, or feel like I see. And I have to accept that and work with what they see or feel. That’s a special kind of experience too.”
Just like an actor, the story itself needs space to develop. Many writers believe that a story cannot be forced or coerced. Rather, it needs to mature and materialize on its own, a view that Youssef shares. When asked what makes a good writer, she says, “I think it depends on if I am patient [in] my search for the story to reveal itself for me; living, asking questions, and most of all discussion with others. Life informs me of the story. And I have to stretch my mind outside of how or what I would do. I have to really understand my character, what they would do, not me.”
Production was also riddled with larger problems. Filming in a volatile place like the Gaza Strip has its own challenges. The film took nine years to complete only because Youssef was unable to return to the Gaza Strip to complete filming.
There’s also the major issue of funding, a frequent deciding factor in the success of a film. Attracting a producer (and therefore financing) was challenging, but ended up as an unexpected advantage: “I am very fortunate that a more established producer would not take a risk in working on this film early on with me because I made exactly the film I wanted, with exactly the people I wanted.” Limited funding also created the opportunity to be “more creative, perhaps forcing me to make more interesting work.”
Being a low budget film, the artistic integrity of the movie was also not muddied with profit lines, which gave Youssef more creative freedom than she would’ve have had with an army of well-heeled producers: “There is nothing like making all creative decisions without compromising integrity.” Because of this, the project ended up attracting associates and co-producers who were not interested in financial gain, but rather artistic gain—something Youssef considers “the ideal basis on which to make a film.”
Once production was completed and the film was screened, Youssef says the wild hunger that drove her to make the film in the first place was finally satiated. But she realized that quelling that desire did not mean the project was over: “I can’t move on as that would be irresponsible! I take care of Habibi, making sure it grows into as wide of a distribution as possible.” Finding this distribution for an independent film has been extraordinarily difficult. But Youssef is confident, saying, “I believe we will break through it and into the wider consciousness of audiences.”
The experience has also inspired Youssef to think beyond her original ambitions: “In the past, my vision was very short-sighted. I could only see what I wanted for this film. Now after having had the privilege of being at film festivals, and being with many directors who have made four or more features, I realize I have to think bigger. I have to allow myself the breath to have a breadth of work.”
As was Habibi, Youssef’s future scripts are also rooted in existing texts. With her original desire to make Habibi satisfied, what makes her work now? “I make the work to make the work. Not to succeed, but simply for the practice of filmmaking.”
But to create, one must always accept the possibility of failure, which Youssef is very aware of. “As a filmmaker, the thing I fear most is ‘failing’ in a creative endeavor. Not completing the endeavor, at its most basic, or completing it and my very own lack of esteem in my work. But I must give myself permission to fail in order to grow.”
And the reward for all this hard work?
“I generally fall asleep very happy because I am doing what I love everyday.”
Habibi will be released in Seoul in May. For information on how to view the film, contact Youssef’s team at: www.habibithefilm.com/contact