Paris-based Palestinian actress and director Hiam Abbas is one of the few Arab talents who stars regularly in American movies. She has worked with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Tom McCarthy, and Jim Jarmusch, among others, and will appear in the upcoming Denis Villeneuve-directed “Blade Runner 2049.”
In “Insyriated,” an Aleppo-set chamber drama by French director Philippe Van Leeuw — which world premieres Feb. 11 at the Berlin Film Festival — Abbas plays a Syrian mother of three trying very hard to keep her family life intact while the civil war rages outside. She spoke to Variety about her hopes that the film can help elicit greater empathy with the Syrian people and how the biggest victim of the Trump travel ban are actually Americans.
What drew you to this project?
I felt an obligation of sorts to say yes to this film. The script was beautifully written, but aside from that it casts the spotlight on the actual lives of people in this war that we are hearing a lot about without ever getting the individual human stories that people can really connect to.
It certainly provides a perspective on the war in Syria that you don’t get from TV news.
It’s an opportunity for people to identify with normal people trying to live their lives during the Syrian conflict. The conflict is on the outside; some of the people are involved, and others are not. This aspect is very ambiguous, just like the real situation in Syria; and we don’t know who belongs to which side. But the emphasis [of the film] is really more on this family during a single day, from dawn to dawn. It gives you an idea of what it means to live one day in this war. Of course that one day has been going on for years now.
Where was “Insyriated” shot?
It was shot in Beirut because we could not shoot in Syria. We worked with Syrian actors, some of whom had to travel from Syria to Lebanon just for the shoot, and they were stuck there the whole time because they couldn’t risk going back and forth. The kids are all Syrian or half-Syrian, and they are all from families who fled the war in Syria and came to Lebanon as refugees.
How did their condition affect you?
Though it’s totally different, for me it’s almost a mirror, I would say. It’s almost like the Palestinians fleeing Palestine in the War of 1947-48. All these stories I heard from my grandparents and relatives who just ended up being refugees in Yarmouk and Damascus. Their kids, who are now grown ups of course, have to flee the war for a second time because Yarmouk was attacked. It just struck such a big nerve for me due to my own history, and the story of my ancestors. It wasn’t very difficult for me to identify immediately with these people, and with this story and these characters, and be able to give it what I had from my emotional baggage.
How do you feel about the travel ban with which Donald Trump has tried to indefinitely keep refugees from Syria from entering the U.S.?
I’d love to make some nicely wrapped packages and send DVD copies of “Insyriated” to some people in power all over the world, just to have them understand and identify with the Syrians. Humans have a very short memory. As long as they are safe where they are, they tend to forget [about], or seem not to care about others. President Trump’s decree of course just makes their lives harder. But I think the first victims of it are not really the Syrians. They are victims anyway in their own country, and in their refugee plights. I think the real victims of this isolationism are the Americans. Where is America going? How long can you just close the doors and think that you are safe when the beauty of life is when you can mix cultures together?
As one of the few Arab actors who regularly works with American film directors, are you concerned that the climate being fostered by Trump could have an effect on Arab actors, both within the U.S. and outside it?
Yes, I am. I noticed that after 9/11 there was an increased awareness in the U.S. about the fact that they wanted to open up and change the image of Arabs — who have always been portrayed in Hollywood as terrorists, or like evil ghosts — as being dangerous to Americans. Somehow, since then the awareness of this has been making certain directors portray Arabs in a different way. I think now is time that we really need to think about the role of art and what art can do to change mentalities. And though Trump may make things more difficult for Arab artists in the U.S., at the same time I think this will give them more power or courage to really go ahead and do their thing.