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Palestinian pic takes on sensitive family issues

Cast features Arab-speaking amateur thesps

JERUSALEM — Palestinian films about oppression from without are not unusual.

Helmer Tawfik Abu Wa’el’s debut feature “Thirst,” however, looks at oppression from within.

Pic revolves around an Arab family, ruled by a tyrannical father, who abandon their native village in shame after the eldest daughter has an illicit relationship; they wind up living illegally at an abandoned military base.

“I don’t particularly want to make a social or political statement,” Abu Wa’el says. “I simply want to make a film that sparks emotions, and perhaps makes people laugh and cry.”

Abu Wa’el, 27, hails from the Arab town of Um Al Fahm, just inside Israel on the border with the West Bank. He calls himself Palestinian, but in Israeli eyes he is an Israeli Arab.

Once a popular daytrip destination for Jewish Israelis, Um Al Fahm has been a virtual no-go area ever since a riot in September 2000, during which 13 locals were shot dead by Israeli police.

Currently in post-production, “Thirst” was shot on location just outside the town in a disused Israeli army training camp.

The cast features Arab-speaking amateur thesps drawn from the local population. Most of the crew were Jewish Israelis.

“Most people are too scared to come here these days. … I haven’t told my parents where I’m working,” confided one young runner from Tel Aviv when Variety visited the set in October.

Abu Wa’el’s previous works include short “Dairy of a Male Whore,” about a Palestinian refugee who makes his living as a prostitute in Tel Aviv. It was loosely based on Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s novel “For Bread Alone.”

It comes as no surprise that Israeli producer Avi Kleinberger is a driving force behind the project. Kleinberger is a longtime collaborator of Elia Sulieman, director of the first Palestinian foreign-language Oscar submission, “Divine Intervention.”

Kleinberger met Abu Wa’el when the latter applied for the position of assistant director on “Divine Intervention.”

Funding for “Thirst” is mainly Israeli. Backers include the Tel Aviv Fund for Arts and cable TV company ICP.

Technically, the Arab-language pic is Israeli and could be entered into the Jerusalem Film Festival’s Israeli feature competition.

Kleinberger says such a move is unlikely.

“It’s complex,” he says. “The film is financed by Israelis and has an Israeli crew, but in reality it’s a Palestinian film.”

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