Leading Arab producer Ossama Bawardi is in development with Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s fourth film, a period drama set in Palestine, with European and Arab characters, in what he describes as “a very competitive Arab market” for Arab films. Speaking to Variety at the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt, Bawardi spoke about his upcoming slate.
Jacir, who served on the Berlinale’s International Jury this year, has just finished the script for her next project. The plan is for it to qualify under the British-Palestinian co-production agreement. “We have begun reaching out to international partners, to those who want to be part of Annemarie’s new film, which she calls the project of her life,” Bawardi said.
Even with the global pandemic, and at times because of it, it’s been a busy year for Bawardi and Philistine Films, the company he runs alongside Jacir. The husband-and-wife team met on the set of Jacir’s debut feature film, “Salt of This Sea,” thought to be the first feature film to be directed by a Palestinian woman, and Palestine’s Oscar entry in 2008.
Philistine’s next film to world premiere is “The Translator,” a Syrian film about the revolution, directed by Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, which is in competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
“I’m in production on three projects,” Bawardi said. “They are ‘A Gaza Weekend’ by Basil Khalil, a British-Palestine co-production, which we had to shut down because of the coronavirus. We are in post-production on Hany Abu Assad’s ‘Huda’s Salon,’ and I am in production on Hind Shoufani’s documentary ‘They Planted Strange Trees,’ about Arab Christians in Galilee, Palestine.”
He also has Firas Khoury’s “The Flag,” which has funding from France’s CNC, about to shoot. The film follows a 17-year-old Palestinian-Israeli whose political apathy is challenged when he falls for a beautiful and politically engaged new classmate, leading him into a dangerous act of protest against the Israeli government.
There are several other projects in development, including Jacir’s.
Bawardi, a former musician, has been working in film production for more than 15 years. He made music for one of Abu-Assad’s short films before the Palestinian director persuaded Bawardi to work on “Paradise Now.” “Hani was a pioneer who brought cinema to my generation in Nazareth,” said Bawardi. “He brought in real productions and foreign crews, which was rare at the time. It is through Hani that I fell in love with cinema.”
He then worked as a production manager on Ali Nassar’s “Jamra,” and “Salt of this Sea,” before working as a producer on BBC stand-up comedy episodes set in the Middle East and on Jacir’s second feature film “When I Saw You.” He has since worked as a producer, or a line-producer for international productions in Jordan and Palestine, including Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights,” Amin Matalqa’s “ The Rendezvous,” and Jacir’s Locarno Film Festival award winner “Wajib.”
In his almost two decades at the forefront of the Arab film industry, Bawardi said the landscape for Arab films has changed. “We have more experience, but it’s becoming more competitive.” He added, “The streamers, all the VOD markets, has really changed the market, the funding and how producers approach projects. Then at the same time, co-productions are not becoming easier; it’s the same level of bureaucracy. A lot still depends on the nature of the project.”
He added, “There are so many more filmmakers emerging in the region, which is good, of course, but it makes the producer’s job a lot harder.”
Bawardi argues that film festivals, such as El Gouna, are vital to the success of Arab independent cinema and filmmakers.
“For the type of films that we make, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go directly to the market, because part of our filmmaking is also building the career of the director,” he said. “If we go directly to distribution, without showing [the films] at festivals, I think we all lose. Festivals are an essential platform for our films to gain popularity and media attention. They are an important piece of the puzzle in telling our stories to the world.”
Bawardi also supplies production services in Jordan for international companies looking to shoot in the Middle East. “Working in Jordan is on the easier side,” said Bawardi. “The Royal Film Commission in Jordan has invested in creating an infrastructure for producers and production companies to work and operate. And it’s attractive for foreign companies because it’s still affordable.”
He was an executive producer on “The Translator,” line producing the film in Jordan. The Syria, French, Belgium, Switzerland, Qatar co-production was lead produced by Paris-based Georges Film, and was presented as part of Toronto Industry Selects.
In March, Bawardi was in the midst of production on “A Gaza Weekend” when it became clear that the coronavirus was going to shut down film productions around the world. Ironically, the film is about a pandemic that happens in Israel with the only safe place in the region being the walled-in Gaza. The actors had been filming in masks before corona became the most used word of 2020. The comedy sees an American and his Israeli fiancé try to smuggle themselves into Gaza through tunnels from Israel and stars Stephen Mangan, Adam Bakri and Mouna Hawa.
It was a tough call to halt production. “It was a decision I took with the British lead producers, Amina Dasmal and Robin Fox, of Alcove Entertainment, because we knew we couldn’t continue,” said Bawardi. “The next day was supposed to be our big shoot day with effects and explosives, so it was a very expensive day to lose. There was a lot of losses because of shut down, and now gearing up to shooting again in December, we have restart costs. It’s not good for the project or its budget, even if some in the industry think shutdowns are an opportunity for directors to look at the footage.”
The silver lining of the global production shutdowns was that it allowed Bawardi the opportunity to work with Abu-Assad again. “Initially I wasn’t available,” said Bawardi. “Then, because of the pandemic, things changed and I was able to join his project.”
“Huda’s Salon” went back into production in July when principal photography was completed. “Because Hany knows what he wants as a director, and works as a producer, he needs a partner with him that can help him and the relationship is very fruitful.”