Production has finally completed on “Huda’s Salon,” the new film from double Academy-Award nominated director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”). Production was halted twice this year because of regulations brought in to stop the spread of coronavirus. Variety spoke to the Palestinian director from his home in Nazareth after he gave a masterclass via Zoom at the Cairo Film Festival.
Written and directed by Abu-Assad, “Huda’s Salon” is based on real-life events telling the story of a woman whose visit to a hair salon turns into a nightmare when its owner blackmails her. Starring Manal Awad, Maisa Abd Elhadi and Ali Suliman, filming took place on location in Nazareth and Bethlehem.
H&A Production, the company run by Abu-Assad and his wife Amira Diab, are lead producing, alongside Egyptian producer and Cairo Film Festival head honcho Mohamed Hefzy at Film Clinic. Philistine Films came on board during the lockdown. Sales are being handled by Memento Films International, which launched the film at the Berlin Film Festival when “Huda’s Salon” was scheduled for a fall debut.
Although lockdown was a frustrating personal experience for Abu-Assad, the director admits, “‘Huda’s Salon’ has benefitted from COVID because I was supposed to finish it in August. Now I think that I’m going to finish in March. This nine-month delay benefitted the movie enormously because I had more time to work on the script, the edit and to plan the shooting schedule.”
The changes include “details of the plot in order to give the characters more of a journey and the ending has changed a bit.” The film is in the edit where Abu-Assad admits that the team have still not finalized what the end of the film will be. One concern, he says, is about not “making the ending too dark. This movie is about loyalty and betrayal. The relationship between loyalty and betrayal. Can loyalty exist without betrayal, and can betrayal exist without loyalty?”
The hope is for the film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021. “It’s an ambition, yes, but it’s not in my head,” says Abu-Assad. Of his previous films, “Rana’s Wedding” unspooled at Critics’ Week in 2002, while “Omar” landed an Un Certain Regard spot in 2012.
Abu-Assad was frustrated with being at home conducting his Cairo masterclass via video-link. “It’s better if I was in the room with the audience,” he says. “Otherwise it’s weird because if you don’t feel the reaction of the audience, you have the feeling that you are talking to yourself.”
Last time out, Abu-Assad helmed his English-language debut, making “The Mountain Between Us” in 2017, an action-adventure set in the aftermath of a plane crash, starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. The director admits, “It was a big challenge for me to go from a $40 million to a $1 million movie, working with a minimal budget.”
Abu-Assad says that ultimately whatever the budget of the film, the same problem arises. “I never feel like any of my movies has really been a finished product. The only thing that was finished was the budget, which is when I have to stop.”
But for the director, the job is not about how much money he has, but how creative he can be. “Whether the budget is 40 million or 1 million, it’s about creativity. How do you want to tell the story? How to visualize it with the materials at your disposal. When you find a way to visualize something it is a feeling of ecstasy, like an orgasm. This is what drives me, not the budget.”
The director also gave an update on “The King’s Wives,” a six-episode TV series he co-wrote with Amira Diab, and presented at the 2020 Berlinale Co-Pro Series. Set in a modern unnamed Arab monarchy, the series follows Zein, a revolutionary princess who wants to challenge the monarchy and improve women’s rights. “It’s still not greenlit. Hopefully, in March we will have a clearer picture on the finance.”
Abu-Assad is also producing acclaimed Egyptian helmer Mohamed Diab’s new film, “Amira,” alongside Cairo-based outfit Film Clinic. The film from the “Clash” director is now completed and awaiting its premiere. “We are looking to launch it either at Berlin or Cannes.”