The filmmaker on finding inspiration in poetry, why numbness is dangerous, and the meaning of “home” in Palestine.
My Love Awaits Me By the Sea is Mais Darwazah’s documentary film inspired by the short life and creative legacy of Palestinian artist and poet Hasan Hourani. Darwazah never met Hourani, who drowned near the Port of Jaffa, a place from which he was forbidden as a Palestinian living in the West Bank, in 2003. But she was deeply moved by his search for freedom. Darwazah’s feature film is also inspired, in part, by her own near-fatal car accident; living as a member of the Palestinian diaspora and missing a home she never visited; and a special bond with a mother who was a life-long dreamer—one of those, Darwazah says, “who just wanted to be by the sea and have a simple life.”
Darwazah uses archival photos, original footage, drawings, watercolors, Hourani’s poetry, and interviews with young Palestinians to produce a mosaic, by turns elegiac and sobering, of how she sees her homeland. She pays homage to something ineffable—the individual’s fight against suffocation and numbness—by creating borders both personal and political. The filmmaker moves through the landscape of Palestine for the very first time, and the viewer is never orientated, nor formally introduced, to the subjects they meet. We only know the subjects’ names and where they live, plus a small bit of their biographical histories. The film is a portrait of lives and journeys in medias res.
Darwazah lives in Amman, Jordan. She has been making short experimental films since 2001 and received a Chevening Scholarship from the British Council, completing an MA in documentary directing at Edinburgh College of Art in 2007. In 2008, she began to develop My Love Awaits Me By the Sea at a Beirut DC documentary writing workshop and later at the Berlinale Talent Campus DocStation, and received seed money from the Sundance Documentary Development Fund, among other funds. She spoke to me via Skype from Dubai, where her film, which debuted in Toronto in the fall of 2013, was being shown at its International Film Festival.
—Pamela Cohn for Guernica
Guernica: The way you talk about the occupation of historic Palestine is very specific—you’re coming to it as someone who does not live in your homeland.
Mais Darwazah: Yes. Usually films on Palestine or films on this subject show Israel’s occupation as a militant one. In my film, I have not shown that, but instead discussed the meaning of the existence of this state. I don’t discuss the military aspect of the occupation, but I’m looking at the core, and so are the subjects in my film. It’s not just this sweet romantic film based on my captivation and love for Hasan and his own journey. There are the harder truths that exist mixed in there, as well.
When you are forbidden to occupy a space or a place, there is not the luxury to enter or leave in any kind of casual way, whenever you want, however you want…
Guernica: How did you decide who and what to put in this film? Were these people you knew?
Mais Darwazah: Interestingly, I have to say that no one has really expressed too much commentary on the film itself and my process in making it. The focus seems to always want to land specifically on its more political aspects.
When you are forbidden to occupy a space or a place, there is not the luxury to enter or leave in any kind of casual way, whenever you want, however you want. I could not stay there for five years to grow deep friendships with the people I met. So what I had with these people was based on pure instinct and pure chemistry. Considering I’m visiting the space for the first time, I allowed my emotions to lead me. Like a child, I allowed myself to say, “I like this,” and I allowed myself to follow it. In a sense, with everything in the film, my brain was mapping through visualization and through narrative.
So I start with Hasan’s book. I wasn’t going to deal with thirty poems since it is not formally a film that is portraying his work. It’s a film that is portraying what I like from his work or what touched me. I chose the four or five poems that I was very connected to. I had a lot of footage from my first research trip so it was to either continue with this initial material or go find new characters. Initially, there were no other characters, really. It was a very experimental, expressionistic realm I was exploring. I didn’t have these more concrete documentary elements.
I allowed myself to fall in love with the poems first. And then I started writing about the kinds of characters I would like to meet. I knew, for example, that I wanted characters that could express this feeling of suffocation. I wanted characters that created, within that suffocation, something beautiful. I was also looking for Hasan’s eyes and Hasan’s hair, a resemblance. I had met Mohammad in Damascus through friends in a very casual way. I was drawn to him because of his wildness, rejecting the space in which he lived. Most of the subjects do reject the space or rebel against it in their own ways. They create their own worlds, all of them. One world might be made up almost entirely of chaos, one almost entirely out of love, another lives in a perpetual dream state. This was the kind of character I wanted to search for because it represented Hasan. It also represented my mother and this utopia I was seeking.
Guernica: The film begins and ends with your mother. How did her spirit and that of Hasan’s come together for you?
Mais Darwazah: I opened a book someone had given me and I saw this man, Hasan. I read his story and I read how he died. I saw a guy who had these really sweet eyes, half closed. He died in the sea, a place he longed to be near, trying to save his nephew from drowning even though he didn’t know how to swim. After my encounter with this book, I started writing the film. I really didn’t have my mother there at that time but I did know that she, too, loved the sea very much, the sea also metaphorically representing everything forbidden to us. But I didn’t understand the relationship between her and Hasan. I think when I started to articulate more through my writing, I better understood what moved me so much and made me so sad about his story. And that was recognizing my own desire, my own memory, triggered by certain emotions I felt when I read his work.
When I put my mother’s picture and Hasan’s picture side by side, they had the same eyes. During my research, I asked his brother things about Hasan and realized that Hasan and my mother were very similar characters; they were both dreamers, unconventional, unaccepting of the given way of life. That kind of person finds life very difficult. Hasan, through his poetry, found another way of creating his world. My mother lived her whole life also creating another world for herself. She passed away during the making of this film, while I was editing. Even before she died, during the edit, sometimes I would be sitting there and the tears would just come. And I realized that this film was like a farewell letter to her. But it was also a celebration of such characters.
Very few people have the courage to speak and dig deep into their own hearts. I’ve been many places and traveled a lot and I’ve met very few people who can sit down, be calm, and say, “This is how I’m feeling.”
Very few people have the courage to speak and dig deep into their own hearts. I’ve been many places and traveled a lot and I’ve met very few people who can sit down, be calm, and say, “This is how I’m feeling.” Most of the time, on a personal level, I’m getting bashed around because I’m like my mother, too, somehow. When I saw Hasan, I so wished he was alive, that I could meet someone like that when I talked about my emotions, someone like him who would not be afraid of those emotions. I really wish I had met him. It wasn’t a joke. I was so happy to know that there are people like this in real life and not just fragments of my imagination. Reading his book, I realized he couldn’t be anything but this book. No one can create a piece of art like that and be someone totally different than what you encounter in that work. When I started researching and asking who Hasan was, he wasn’t much different than what I had imagined. There is such truth in his artwork. Such honesty.
Numbness is a very dangerous state. And that takes me back to the political aspect. Before the revolutions, the Arab world was going through a deep and abiding numbness. I don’t understand how you can do anything without feeling. This is what the revolutions are all about. When you’re going down the street in Damascus, Tunis, or Cairo, you are risking your life. So the only way you can go down there is if you’re feeling something, some emotion. My whole goal of making this film was to make something that would allow people to feel, to feel what it’s like to go home, to live in a space that had no boundaries, to feel what it’s like to breathe.
Guernica: There is surrender to a kind of suffocation in your film, but there is also a life force that remains strong. Did you mean to pursue this as a contradiction? Mohammad, one of the young men who resembles Hasan, says that he’s beyond depression. He’s beyond what he would have perceived to be the end of his healthy emotional self.
Mais Darwazah: When I was in Toronto at the premiere of this film in September, I learned that Mohammad’s eighteen-year-old brother had been killed in Syria. I had such a strong feeling to sit and shoot with Mohammad before he went to Europe, went abroad, became a migrant, became one of those people you see, cold on the street, their eyes lifeless. They shouldn’t be there. I caught him when his eyes were still lively. I haven’t seen him since. There’s a problem engulfing everyone. I know his parents are still in Syria because they prefer to stay there and suffer the consequences rather than experience the life of a refugee yet again.
Almost eight years ago, I had a very, very serious car accident that kept me in bed for four months and on crutches after that for about a year and a half. During the aftermath of that car accident, there was a thought that I might be paralyzed, and I thought to myself, “Okay, Mais, you’ve got to accept the fact that you’re paralyzed and you can’t go through life ignoring it. We can’t have everything in life. And just like you did not find this utopian love, you’ve still been able to live and survive. So it’ll be okay without legs.” When I woke up in the hospital, I thought it had been so odd to have these thoughts at that time, in that death moment, thoughts about love. I had to make sense of that. Why was I thinking about love in such a moment? What also crosses your mind about being in such a severe life-altering event is that you think, “If I had been delayed just one second, it wouldn’t have happened.” There’s a fatalistic aspect to it somehow.
Whatever world you want, you must seek it out.
So in terms of finding this life, I thought that if I am meant to be there in that moment, then at some point in my life, this utopian love will be there. I can’t work for it. It will accidentally hit me without me working for it. And I will ask you to keep in mind that when I’m talking like this, about love, I am also talking about politics. These are not separated in my mind at all. I waited two, three years, and waited for destiny, as far as love was concerned. After waiting two, three, four years for this to happen, I ended up becoming completely numb. I was starting to die inside. So if and when love would eventually come, I will be totally dead inside. I wouldn’t even feel it. So this idea of finding love and finding a homeland, meeting Palestine, were so connected. The faraway dream had to become a reality before life passed away.
Whatever dream you desire, you have to live it through fantasy, through reality, find any way to live it. Fall in love, create a lover, do something with these big questions of life. I didn’t want to wait anymore. I didn’t want to wait for Palestine; I needed to go there. And even though I don’t have a lover, instead of waiting, I created one and went to go find him. I created Hasan. Now, I feel very differently toward Hasan. There was a point where I was very, very attached to him.
Guernica: You end your journey when you reach the sea, the place where Hasan lost his life. It seemed like the journey was the reward of your search, that you weren’t seeking any kind of staggering revelation or neat conclusion or even emotional catharsis. I sensed some recognition that, of course, the journey does not end there. Perhaps this is its beginning.
Mais Darwazah: I created a memory by making my dream become a reality.
Guernica: But more importantly, you went on a physical journey through real landscape, through real topography, talking to real people. It wasn’t you merely observing, passing through. You encountered things you needed to see, hear, and try to understand.
Mais Darwazah: But you have to understand that directing my vision and my search in a very particular way and a very circumscribed way is my only option.
Guernica: Why was that your only option?
Mais Darwazah: Because this life is too harsh. Because where we, as Palestinians, are living is unfair. Because the systems of law within which we live are crap. Because we don’t have any rights. As a Palestinian, I have nothing. So my only option is to see these girls that are there by the sea at the end smiling. It’s the only land I have, these girls smiling. And then there are the boys dive-jumping off the cliff into the sea. That’s the world I create. I am not the only one inhabiting this state. I’m not the only one creating it. It’s a rejection of reality and choosing or creating your own. We see this in these revolutions. That is why the whole world got so excited and was so captivated about what went on in Egypt and Tunisia.
Guernica: I noticed in every sequence when you’re engaged with your subjects, there is a point in the conversation where they go totally silent; they cannot say any more about their situation. Nothing. It is then that you step in with other elements, such as your own narration, your painting, Hasan’s poetry, the exquisite musical score—using the tools of cinema.
Mais Darwazah: Again, to talk about things in this way moves me very deeply because even these things I usually cannot articulate. I wanted to create a safe world, a comfortable one, a place to protect these beautiful people. Because of course, in real life, this is something I cannot do. This is where my mother steps in again, because as a kid, I was always trying to protect this beautiful woman who just wanted to be by the sea and have a simple life, a simple dream, a simple vision. I saw from a very early age that in our life, there was no space for people like her, or for people like Hasan. I call them the people who see too clearly. Life is not kind to them.
I’m not allowed the life I created in this film. Physically, geographically, and otherwise, the state of Palestine resembles what I want and I’m not allowed to have it.
For me, one of the most painful things about watching this film is encountering these people I miss so much, starting with my mother. I miss Mohammad. I miss Nael and Leila. I’m not allowed the life I created in this film. Physically, geographically, and otherwise, the state of Palestine resembles what I want and I’m not allowed to have it. This is my home where there are people who speak my dialect.
I once asked this older Basque man why he has spent his whole life fighting for his version of utopia—social equality and basic rights—when he knows that they are never going to happen in his lifetime. He said, “If I stop dreaming of a utopia, then I have nothing to fight for. I’m no longer a romantic person because I have died from the inside.” He’s talking about this area of desire. If I no longer have this area of desire, then I will die.
What I realized after this trip was that I wanted to find Hasan’s beautiful world. And I found it with these people. It gave me more confidence, more strength, which proves my theory that whatever world you want, you must seek it out. If you are asking for a right to be restored to you, then that right will never be taken away forever. There is a chance that it will be restored if you keep asking for it. I did find someone who sits on his roof and puts his feet in a bucket of water and transmits the sound of the waves through his speakers over the [refugee] camp. I did find this beautiful couple that rejects all form of occupation by creating an oasis of their own with their small children. They have not forgotten Palestine. I found those boys living in the middle of Jerusalem who dream every day and never let go of that dream; they never stop thinking about it.
Even though I found Hasan’s world, in real life, I still found myself feeling nervous. This utopia existed in the very fragile world I myself had created and preserved in creating this film. Throughout the process, I would tell Hala Alabdalla, the creative consultant on the project, that I couldn’t live any of this in real life, that real life is so different. And she kept telling me that my film is real life. Even at this point, long after its completion, I’m not sure I understand this equation very well.
Guernica: But that’s why films done in the style in which you’ve done this one are so vital to the specific genre of documentary—a genre always mistakenly taken for slices of “real life.” We’re never seeing real life in cinema. We’re seeing infinite possibilities for real life.
Mais Darwazah: I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but when you’re at the sea—and you have to have a fairly undistracted mind—you’re just standing there and you’re breathing. You feel light; there’s only breath. Well, that’s the film; that’s the feeling I was trying to get to and have the viewer feel. To feel that moment, in general, you need that moment of heaviness before it. For me, the end of the film feels pretty sad. But that’s a personal thing. I don’t think I imposed this. But it depends on how you come to it. But I did want this sensation of pulling the rug out from under a viewer, to catch what might be suppressed, what can only deeply breathe in the dream state.
In not wanting to over-philosophize all of this, I just wanted to find friends, people who were asking similar questions. Hasan became a pretext for me to create a life, to make a home by the sea—for myself, for me and my lover, for me and my friends. Hasan was asking for really the most basic, simplest of things, and the most beautiful things you or I could imagine. We are meant to believe that anyone who asks for equality in life is a stupid, romantic idiot. So that means me, as well, and Nael, and everyone else in the film—I and all my fellow stupid, romantic idiots are going to make a world of our own.
To contact Guernica or Mais Darwazah, please write here.