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In “The Taste of Apples Is Red,” Syrian director Ehab Tarabieh tells an enchanted tale of religion, war, family and unforgotten sins of a distant past.

As a native of the occupied Golan Heights and an opponent of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Tarabieh was eager to make a film about what was happening in Syria. A member of the minority Druze community, Tarabieh also had insights into a religion that has as its central pillar the belief in reincarnation. Bringing together these elements, infused with magical realism, he has created a story about family, faith and the absurdity of living under Israeli occupation next to a raging war just beyond the border.

A fan of Guillermo del Toro as well as of Studio Ghibli, Tarabieh says, “It’s about imagination. When you put imagination into something, you force the viewer to think.”

“What happened in Syria is so absurd. No one can imagine the things that this regime has done to Syrians. I thought to myself, I need to make something absurd in the film for the audience.”

“The Taste of Apples Is Red,” which screens in the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Meet the Neighbors section and the Marrakech Film Festival’s main competition, follows Sheik Kamel (Makram Khoury), a respected religious leader in the Druze community, who faces a difficult decision between family and duty when his estranged brother Mustafa, played by the late Tarik Kopty, returns to the Golan Heights after nearly 50 years in exile. Having traveled through the ongoing civil war and quietly crossing the heavily guarded border from Syria, Mustafa shows up at Kamel’s door wounded and alone. The sheik does not want the unwelcome news of his brother’s return to reach the rest of the village.

As a non-religious member of the Druze community, Tarabieh had always thought about the mysteries and core beliefs of the faith. “The core of the religion is reincarnation. Druze believe the number is maintained the same all the time and so when you die, someone else is born and your soul will go to another body.”

“I think it’s an amazing element to tell stories.”

Following the onset of the war, Tarabieh, as a Syrian himself, felt driven to discuss what was happening on the other side of the border. “But I’m not there, so I don’t actually have the right, ethically, to say what’s happening there, although I know what’s happening. So I began to think about how to tell the story in a way that I can give a glimpse about how I see the things there.”

He thought a lot about the Syrians who are refugees in their own country but cannot return home to the occupied Golan Heights. He notes that the Israelis in 1967 destroyed around 135 villages in the Golan Heights. What remained were four Druze villages.

Tarabieh’s 2012 short film “The Forgotten,” which likewise features Kopty, covered similar ground with its story of a Syrian refugee who returns to the Golan Heights to find his home.

“I took the facts that I know and the religious elements from the Druze community and combined them.”

With a religious man as its protagonist, the film differs from many other Middle Eastern works that often portray religious people as “the bad ones, the primitive ones,” and not real humans, Tarabieh says. Noting that his father and grandfather were “good men” who were religious all of their lives, Tarabieh says he chose to make his protagonist a man of faith.

Making the film was a major challenge, however. “The Taste of Apples Is Red” took 10 years to complete. Tarabieh spent much of that time looking for financing. As a citizen of the occupied Golan Heights, he is unable to access funding from Arab countries. “They don’t know if I’m Arab, not Arab, Syrian, not Syrian, Israeli, not Israeli. It’s political. The Golan Heights is a very sensitive case for them.”

As a Syrian citizen of an occupied territory, Tarabieh has an Israeli travel document instead of a passport, further complicating his existence.

Gulf countries that provide film funding remain distant from the Syrian regime and consider the Golan Heights as part of Israel, “but it’s not,” Tarabieh says. Yet those countries don’t want to finance “Israeli films” from the Golan Heights.

In the end he managed to finance the film with money from Israel and Germany, with Tel Aviv-based Anemos Productions and Match Factory Productions in Cologne producing.

It’s Tarabieh’s debut narrative feature and follows his 2019 documentary “Of Land and Bread,” produced by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, an organization with which he works.

Despite his works, Tarabieh says he doesn’t consider himself a filmmaker. “I’m trying to do things that I’m thinking about and I think the medium I can do them in is cinema.”

His main goal with the film is to tell audiences about what is happening in his homeland. “If you as a viewer go and google Golan Heights, that’s enough for me, for you to learn about this forgotten place.”  

Tarabieh is currently thinking about his next project, “something minimalistic, with fewer actors, maybe with animation as well.”