Though born and raised in Haifa, Israel, filmmaker Amos Gitai (“Kadosh,” “Rabin: The Last Day”) had never heard of Fattoush, a popular restaurant-cum-club located in the port city.
“I discovered this club through one of the actresses from one of my previous films. She basically said, ‘Why don’t I take you on a tour of the nightlife in your own town, which you don’t know,’” says Gitai.
That tour, and Fattoush, forms the focal point of “Laila in Haifa,” Gitai’s latest drama, which follows 18 characters from all walks of life as they converge for one night at the Haifa club. The film, which debuted Tuesday in competition at the Venice Film Festival, features a diverse cast of Palestinian and Israeli actors, including Bahira Ablassi, Tom Baum, Tsahi Halevi, Makram Khoury and Amir Khoury.
“The first thing I needed to cast was the site,” says Gitai of Fattoush, a spot known for its spirit of inclusivity. “Little by little we were submerged in the atmosphere of this place, which has really a gentle reception to everybody from every origin, without any pre-judgements. You have Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Palestinian women who want to be with an Israeli guy, and vice versa, members of the LGBTQ community. Everyone you can expect you will find, in one night, at one club. You feel like this place was done with love.”
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But “Laila in Haifa” is more than just “an homage” to Gitai’s hometown. At its core, this is a film about celebrating the differences between individuals, whether Jewish or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, people living in a part of the world that’s fiery with political discord and ethnic tension. Fattoush is not only a “refuge” for the characters in “Laila in Haifa,” but a symbol serving as a reminder of the beauty that unfolds amidst multiculturalism.
“In Israel, every city is really distinctly different,” says Gitai. “Jerusalem is the center of all these religions fighting each other; it’s very intense and also very strong. In its own way, it’s a very powerful city. Tel Aviv is kind of hedonistic, with a lot of fun clubs and nightlife. And Haifa is more a city of tolerance, more of a mixed city. And I thought, we have so much hatred and so many conflicts in the Middle East, and it made me want to make a film that was an homage to the spirit of Haifa, that spirit of tolerance.”
“I like contradictions,” adds Gitai. “I am a collector of contradictions, and this film is actually full of contradictions. In ‘Laila in Haifa,’ when you expect to find hatred, what you may find is friendship.”