Habibi director Susan Youssef accepting an award for Best Arab Feature Film at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Director Susan Youssef's first feature-length film Habibi has garnered huge praise. It won Best Arab Feature Film at the Dubai International Film Festival and Filmmaker Magazine featured her on their list of “25 New Faces to Watch.” Habibi tells the story of two lovers from the Gaza Strip, Qays and Layla, who unexpectedly must return home from their school in the West Bank. Once there, they are no longer free to spend time with each other or continue their romance without the approval of Layla's father. What unfolds is a poetic story about courage, love, social and cultural boundaries, and freedom that has a Shakespearan quality about it. Based on the ancient Sufi parable the Majnun Layla, Susan Youssef's film offers a glimpse into a world seldom, if ever, portrayed on screen.

What inspired you to re-tell the Majnun Layla?
I first visited Gaza in 2002 when I was shooting my documentary Forbidden to Wander. It was then I saw children acting out the romance Majnun Layla. It tells the story of Qays, who is driven mad by his love for Layla.

There, in a gymnasium in Khan Younis, I witnessed a teenage Qays wade through imaginary desert sands, looking for Layla. Gaza is flat, over-crowded, and on the Mediterranean Sea. Horses and people in full dress wade into the water. A cacophony of calls to prayer by mosques reverberates in the air. There are groves of palm trees in some parts, dirt-paved refugee camps in others, and hotels and restaurants on the beach in Gaza City luxurious enough to impress even me, a native New Yorker.

In 2002, the Israeli army destroyed fields of homes and staged aerial bombings. The heat was overwhelming. But even in this atmosphere, everywhere I filmed, kids stopped by to give me their “hellos.” It was also at this time that Mohammed, a local theater director, joined me to help shoot my documentary; he took complete care of me while respecting my space as a woman. I didn’t pay him, give him a place to stay or even provide him with food. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with his kindness, his heroic commitment to art in a situation where most people are just trying to survive—that is to say, I fell in love with Mohammed. The experience of seeing the children’s performance of Majnun Layla, and of finding love in Gaza, compelled me to retell the legend in the setting of modern-day Gaza.

There were two advantages of working with Majnun Layla. One, it gave me a structure that had been working for centuries. Two, I was completely enchanted by this idea of a poet who existed in the seventh century and whose name other writers for centuries have used to author their own love poetry. There’s an argument that the Majnun Layla poems aren’t by the original poet Qays ibn-al Mulawwah. I felt I could connect to that tradition of hiding behind his poetry.

You have traveled the globe with your film and exposed it to many different audience. What have the responses to your piece been like?
What a gift it is when audiences take time out from their busy lives to buy a ticket and spend some time engaging in the world that I have created with the cast and crew of Habibi.  Honestly, what a privilege, what a luxury, what a reward on its own.

I have experienced women and men from Gaza weeping soulfully at the end of this film, approaching me to ask me to make more work.  This has been the most profound experience for me, actually succeeding in making a world that is true to some individuals.

I think that other audiences who get the most out of the film are those where they give themselves over to the love story. I find people young and old, of all different backgrounds—at screenings in Busan, Reykjavik, Charlottesville—have befriended me after seeing this film. They come to me after the Q&A, and I can see a light in their eyes. I can feel I took them to a different place and for some reason or another that they enjoyed the journey with me. This is also a stupendous experience to feel the universality of love reaching into non-Palestinians' hearts through Habibi.

Each audience has its own take on the film, I find. A small number come to the film looking to identify with the horror of the occupation. There is also a small group of people who are hard on the film because of their extreme problems with Palestine, itself. Very often those individuals have not been to Gaza and yet somehow they are harsh on the film. I am fortunate to find that the responses to Habibi are never lukewarm and this, to me, means that I am provoking a response through the film and therefore the film successfully reaches its audience.

Was it your intention to make a political film? Do you even see it as political, or just a representation of life in the Gaza Strip?
I love the idea of bringing this poetry back to the mainstream. So that’s one goal, to share how amazing I find my heritage to be. And I believe in the hope of collective consciousness: that greater understanding of the situation in Gaza will somehow improve things there. This film is part of a continuum. I look to the U.S. civil rights and gay rights movements—much of their success has to do with collective consciousness coming through media, culture. 

Your leads, Qays and Layla, have amazing chemistry. What was the casting process like?
After watching Paradise Now, I knew I wanted to cast its lead Kais Nashef to play Qays in Habibi. I asked the gifted, generous director of Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad for the introduction, and Hany put me in touch with Kais while advocating for Habibi. I cast Kais over the telephone, without having met him. Kais insisted that he discover Layla for himself and was actually the one to send me Maisa Abd Elhadi's photo via email. When I saw Maisa's photo, she was visually exactly what I had imagined for the character! I asked our kind and well-connected casting director Najwa Mubarki and she said Maisa was a brand new actress who was appearing as an extra in other work. When I auditioned Maisa, I learned she had virtually no training yet she was committed and that convinced me. Her audition with Najwa went so well that I cast them as mother and daughter!

So it was an absolutely monumental experience for me in the end, learning to work with someone like Kais who was rich in experience and training and someone like Maisa who was very fresh yet completely devoted to giving her best work. Who also really helped my process was Yusef Abu Wardeh, who played Maisa's father. Yusef is an intuitive and skilled veteran actor who has appeared in leads in feature films that have screened at Cannes Film Festival, as well as on stage at venues such as the Young Vic Theatre in London. Yusef and Maisa fell into each other as father and daughter in such an easy and natural way that, when Yusef completed his shooting days, I actually wept from gratitude. Yusef put his trust in me as a director and I could feel that. It made a marked difference in my ability to trust my instincts and take creative risks with where the scenes would go. 

Some of the most powerful scenes in the film show Qays wandering across town, caressing the walls that stand between him and loving Layla. The camera seems to move differently about him and capture his emotions via intense closeness. Was the poetry that he grafittis on the walls original? Did you intentionally give these scenes a different feel from the rest of the film?
I didn't intentionally give the poetry scenes a different feel from the rest of the film. The poetry itself generates its own body of feelings for the viewer of the film, I believe! If you go back and watch how Qays caresses a wall or Layla's face it is quite the same, in terms of its expression, for example.

Habibi fuses poetry and graffiti to retell the famous Sufi parable Majnun Layla. There is a body of poetry, dating back to the seventh century and attributed to the Qays ibn-al Mulawwah (a.k.a. Majnun Layla) who originally and famously fell in love with Layla. In order to bring this story to screen, I incorporate graffiti art into the film, having Qays write the poetry rather than recite it. The poetry penetrates Layla and her family’s daily lives as they read it on the walls surrounding the town. An example of Qays’ poetry is: “Layla slips from me like someone who holds water in his hand. The openings between his clutched fingers always betray him.”

Can you speak a bit about the issues of class and gender pictured in Habibi?
I borrow elements of Iranian cinema. My focus on a strong female protagonist on a journey alone, in a story mixing reality with events that seem supernatural, and a variation between wide shots and close-ups mirrors Mohsen Makhmalbaf ’s KandaharHabibi is influenced by Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry: it experiments in the use of slower paced scenes, relies on visuals rather than dialogue, and presents the character of Layla as a character on the verge of a necessary change in order to survive. Characteristics of Habibi also include symmetrical framing, a soundtrack relying mainly on diegetic sound, and natural cinematography that doesn’t distract from the story, elements drawn from Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon.

Inherent to the storyline are issues of class and gender. Qays faces the challenge of preparing a marriage proposal to Layla’s family. She lives in the town of Khan Younis; he lives in the refugee camp. The town dwellers are of higher social class than the camp residents. Qays must provide Layla’s family with a dowry, a house for him and his bride to live in, and a wedding. As a college student from the camp, Qays has none of these things.

What does “New Arab Cinema” mean to you?
I make a work honest to the world in which my characters live and the work crosses over to audiences because of the universal humanity all of us share. I found the quality of my work has exponentially increased when I stopped reflecting on it it being “Arab.” I have more of a responsibility to make good work with the support that I find in others, than I do to make work that suits others' ideas for representation or even healing. In “New Arab Cinema,” the only bounds I place on myself are those related to storytelling based in the truth of the characters I create. I look to the directors who have come before me for lessons in this, everywhere from African-American to Iranian cinema, there are role models for me and my work. For example, when people speak of A Separation, they speak first of Asghar Farhadi's craft and then the issues at hand. I search, pray, and dream to reach that level of excellence in my own work, Arab or not.

Habibi screens Saturday, August 25 at 7:20 PM and Monday, August 27 at 1:00 PM as part of Film Society's New Arab Cinema series with director Susan Youssef in person! See any two films in the series and save when you create your own Double Feature Package.