Shady Srour’s politically-tinged comedy 'grew up' as the director did.
When you come from a religious minority of an ethnic minority in a religious state, religion is no laughing matter. Or, in Shady Srour’s case, that’s exactly what it is. From traditional taboos to Christian pilgrimage, Srour’s second directorial feature, Holy Air, leaves nothing off the table for potential mockery, and yet the film captures the complexities of some poignantly emotional moments.
The multi-layered tale takes place in Srour’s real hometown of Nazareth in Northern Israel, a predominantly Arab city which is home to much of the country’s Arab-Christian population. When Adam (also played by Srour, who is primarily known for his acting) must support his pregnant wife and ill father, he turns to bottling and selling “holy air” to tourists aiming to take home a little piece of Jesus.
As opposed to his character Adam’s lack of self-esteem, Srour is clearly a confident man and an assured director, and yet the two have more in common than a birthplace. In fact, the original script took a turn when Srour’s own life did. He told No Film School at the movie’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, “The script was totally different at the beginning. It was about a couple that went to immigrate and leave everything behind. Through writing and re-writing, the real trigger was when my wife told me that she's pregnant.” Unsure if they were ready to have a child, they ultimately decided to keep the baby, which turned his film—and life—in a whole new direction.
Holy Air was still a long way away, however. In fact, Srour recalls, “I had my first baby, my second, and my third baby came when we were shooting.” He says that part of the reason that the film took eleven years to make is that “For me to write, I live all the characters, even the female characters. When I write, I try to approach everybody's soul. I like taking my time, and I'm open to hear everybody. I'm open to listening.” He even sees his various roles in the film—writer, director, actor—as different characters to embody.
"I was growing up, and I had to also update the film. So the film was growing up with me."
His own personal growth over this period only helped the film. “From one side, I think that I lost ten years of my life not doing 10 films, but from the other side it's one shot that is really nice and good, and very deep,” Srour opines. “I had my first baby, and a second, so I was growing up, and I had to also update the film. So the film was growing up with me. But I love it. It's more mature.”
It also took the director that long to find the perfect actress to portray his wife, Lamia, who he discovered in the striking French-Lebanese Laëtitia Eïdo. Eïdo told No Film School, “I think when he found me, he found Lamia, so I didn't have anything to do actually, because she's me and I'm her.” The character’s frankness about sexuality and feminism—not as typical in Arab culture—resonated with Eïdo, as did “The fact that she is so troubled by the conflict in the region. All of these things are in me because I am half-Lebanese, half-French, and I have family from the three big religions in the same branch. So for me, all that is very complicated, and what I want to do is to be a link between these different people.”
One of the challenges? Despite having a Lebanese mother, Eïdo did not speak Arabic. “This was gambling. It was risky," Srour admits. But he was so convinced that she was the right woman for the job that, “I taught her Arabic for more than three months, every day on Skype for two hours. We learned with the script. And even if we changed one letter, she was going crazy.”
It was important for the authenticity of the film that she speak in an accent from Nazareth, which was different than the Arabic her mother spoke to her as a child. “The process was just repeating,” Eïdo recounted. “He recorded everything. This is the way I work in many languages. I did it in many languages before. I repeat, I repeat, I repeat. Until he tells me, ‘it's perfect, I don't hear your accent anymore.’”
“He knew with one sentence how to put me on track, and then my work was to keep on track until the scene is over.”
The extra time spent together was a benefit for the two leads because they got to know each other so well ahead of the shoot. They recalled one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, when Eïdo’s character is having a sort of nervous breakdown. Of all scenes, Srour recalls that “this is the scene I was dreaming to have it the way I want. We did one take.” How did they pull it off? Because of all the conversations they had shared, he remembered a time when she had been upset in real life about a breakup.
“I wanted to bring from life, something to touch her,” Srour remembered. “I asked her, ‘what do you remember, what do you think about now?’ She started to say, ‘kids from Gaza, people are killed,’ stuff like that. I said ‘no, forget about it.’” The director then reminded her of a specific scene from her real-life breakup and she said, “That was it. I was crying. I used it. He just said that one sentence, and then, this is my work, to know how to use emotion without hurting myself. It's fiction. It was months after. It wasn't hurting me for real anymore, but because of his direction, he knew with one sentence how to put me on track, and then my work was to keep on track until the scene is over.”
When asked about the Palestinian film scene, Srour was as honest as the film is about the challenges of Middle Eastern life. “It's very complicated,” he shared, “because you only have a few places where you can get the money from. If I get funding from the Arab world, then I can't get any from Israel. If I get it from Israel, I can't get it from the Arab world.”
Holy Air has a Jewish-Israeli producer, Ilan Moskovitch, and received money from Israeli state film funds. Srour explains, “At the end, I want to make my film. I want to see my work. For me, living in Israel as a citizen, I pay taxes, and it's my right [to get national funding]. In this case, I got money from Israel but I said whatever I wanted to say in this film so that’s what’s important.”
He adds, “It is very hard for Palestinians to make films but they are doing it. There’s a new generation that is making films.”
In the case of Holy Air, the multinational and cross-cultural collaboration served the production and was in line with the issues addressed in the film itself. Srour insists that this type of collaboration is not common in Israel but “I think it says something about our character as individuals.”
Srour’s wife, Arpi Shotigian, who helped translate our interview, jumps into the conversation with clear pride: “They could make a film about the making of Holy Air, because the cinematographer is Jewish-Israeli. The editor is Palestinian, the actress is French...”
“The gaffier is Druze,” Srour adds.
“...And they all worked together day in and day out.”
Srour mentions that people from the hip, modern city of Tel Aviv—which is the center of Israel’s film & TV industry—have a bias against Nazareth. “They have a feeling that it’s unsafe,” he says, “but the crew all came and lived there for the entire 18 days of production, and it was great.”
Shotigian ends our conversation on a positive note. “The movie itself is creating some kind of peace,” she says, “because they stayed there and are not afraid anymore, so they will come back.”
Mirroring the complexities of Srour's part of the world, there's more to Holy Air than meets the eye. By turning the camera onto these serious subjects, the director has found that perhaps comedy can be a step toward resolution of age-old challenges.