Mai Masri on 3000 Nights: ‘It’s a True Story, and I Wanted to Show It Could Happen to Any Palestinian’

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Maï Masri lors de la présentation du film 3000 Nuits pendant le festival Palestine en Vue

This week, Palestinian documentarian Mai Masri’s 2015 film 3000 Nights was announced as Jordan’s entry submission to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language film category, the first time Jordan submits a film directed by a female director. 3000 Nights, which is Masri’s first narrative film and inspired by a true story, centers on a Palestinian schoolteacher named Layal (played by Maisa Abd Elhadi) who is falsely accused and sentenced to eight years in an Israeli prison. While there, she gives birth to a son and raises him behind bars. The film has been well-received by audiences and the media, winning the Audience Award in Valladolid in Spain and the Jury Award at the Women’s Film & Television Showcase (TheWIFTS) in Los Angeles.

Speaking with the Boston Palestine Film Festival about the film being submitted to the Oscars, Masri said, “I am so happy and excited that 3000 Nights has been chosen to represent Jordan at the Oscars! This is a great achievement for the whole cast, crew, and producers of 3000 Nights. We are so proud that the film is getting the recognition it deserves and touching people’s hearts and minds around the world.”

3000 Nights opens the tenth annual Boston Palestine Film Festival on October 14. Masri will be in conversation after the film. Masri’s past work will also be featured in a special retrospective during opening weekend.

We spoke with Masri about 3000 Nights, film, and why shooting ended up being a therapeutic experience for many of her actors.

BPFF: All of your previous films have been documentaries. Why did you decide to tell Layal’s story as a narrative film?

MM: I thought that it was a story best done as a drama fiction rather than a documentary, because I wanted to recreate the events and bring to life the characters as they were….especially since the story is based in the 1980s. I wanted to recreate the moments—the emotion and the passion and the drama. I felt fiction would be best.

Having said that, my fiction is very inspired by documentaries in terms of themes and even style. With the way I shot it, I wanted it to have a documentary edge. A lot of the shooting was handheld. That, to me, was important.

It’s a true story, and the events were all factual. So in the end, my documentaries and fiction are a natural progression or continuation for me.

BPFF: Did your background as a documentarian aid you in your research for this film?

MM: Yes, it did. The actual story is based on a Palestinian woman whom I met several years ago while I was filming a documentary in my hometown Nablus during the first Intifada. She told me her story, how she had her child in an Israeli prison, and I was really moved by it. Especially the conditions of the birth—she was in chains and raising her son behind bars with her cellmates. So I decided to do interviews with other former women prisoners. I approached it like I would a documentary, actually. I wanted to get all the facts and the stories…I was inspired by the interviews to recreate or create the real characters that were in the prison. So, that kind of work has a lot to do with documentaries. I wanted it to be very based on true stories. At the same time, I wanted it to show the creativity and imagination of the prisoners, what allows them to escape the prison with their imagination. That’s where fiction factors in.

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Scene from 3000 Nights

BPFF: Why do you think the stories about prison and prisoners resonate so strongly with Palestinians?

MM: Prison is such a strong metaphor for people who are living under occupation, and especially Palestinians, because it symbolizes occupation. So many Palestinians have been in prison at one time or another—almost a million Palestinians, which is almost 20% of the population. Nearly every Palestinian has either been in prison or has a relative who has been in an Israeli prison, even my actors.

So it resonates with them, because it’s an ongoing condition. There are many Palestinians who are still in Israeli prisons, many on hunger strikes—so many children. It’s a huge wound. At the same time, prison has been a huge part of the Palestinian struggle. There’s so much organizing and education—within the prison, it’s a school.

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Scene from 3000 Nights

BPFF: Why do you think there are hardly any films about Palestinian female prisoners in the prison genre?

MM: Yes, I find that very strange actually, surprising. That was one of the reasons that encouraged me to make a film, because there’s an absence of such an important and sensitive subject. I am happy to see there are several films in the making about prisons, and more Palestinians making films about prisons. Before, there haven’t been many.

BPFF: What do you think accounts for the absence?

MM: I don’t know! I can’t tell you. In fiction, it’s kind of a challenge to recreate the prison and the set…that may have been one reason.

BPFF: In the film, Layal is falsely accused of a crime. Was this an important decision in the writing of the script?

MM: Yes. I wanted to show that it’s a situation that could happen to anyone. Even at the moment, there are Palestinians in Israeli prisons without charges. I wanted to show that it could affect anyone, even ordinary people who are not politically involved. I wanted to show that aspect, that it’s not just revolutionaries and militants who go to prison. Even an ordinary schoolteacher could be in prison wrongly for a few stands she took.

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Scene from 3000 Nights

BPFF: The film has been shown in parts of Palestine to both Palestinian and Israeli audiences. What has the audience reaction been?

MM: The reactions in general have been really positive everywhere, including the Israelis who saw it. That, to me, is important, because I want the film to be widely seen. I was very keen on showing the film in Palestine, to women prisoners themselves. I wanted to get their feedback and see how it resonated with them.

I also wanted to see how Israelis would react, because it’s important for them to see a reality that they don’t know about or want to deal with. It creates awareness and also opens their eyes. It can lead to dialogue, eventually. Or maybe reflection, action—and inspiration, I hope. For me, the main thing is to inspire audiences.

BPFF: What were some of the difficulties you encountered while making the film?

MM: The main difficulty was figuring out how I would tackle the subject. It’s such a sensitive subject. That’s why I took a lot of time doing research. To me, that was the biggest challenge, writing the script. The second challenge was raising the funds. Raising funds for a film like this was not easy at all. I think partially because of the subject. Most independent films have trouble raising funds, but especially when they are dealing with political subjects. Even more so if it’s about Palestine—it makes it much more difficult.

The third difficulty was the shooting. We shot in a real prison, which I think was great. But at the same time, we shot in desert-like conditions. It was a lot of pressure on the actors, but in a good way. It brought out the best in them. It was also very tiring, working long hours, six, seven days a week. [Shooting was also] compressed…we shot the film in six weeks.

I also worked with several non-actors as well as professional actors. That was a challenge, but I think it brought a freshness to the film, because with non-actors, you can get very real and raw performances. That was something I wanted in the film, a raw edge.

BPFF: How do you think film and film festivals like the Boston Palestine Film Festival change perceptions about Palestinians?

MM: I think it’s fantastic that there’s a Palestinian film festival in Boston. The films can have an effect on local audiences for sure because the films all touch on human stories. That’s the power of a festival like that, bringing human stories to American audiences.

BPFF: Could you talk about the cast that you worked with on this film?

MM: The actors that I worked with—they are very close with the subject. Many of them have a connection, whether it was a relative or they had been in prison themselves. The cast is all Palestinians, even for the Israeli roles. This was a decision I made in the beginning. In the end, they were able to deliver roles, even the Israeli roles, in a very convincing way. I think because they know what it’s like to be on the other side. For instance, the character who plays the Israeli interrogator in the film was actually once a Palestinian prisoner. One of the Israeli characters in the film who is a tough inmate—she’s actually Palestinian, and her brother was in that exact same prison for 15 years. She spent her whole childhood visiting him in that prison, so she was very traumatized when we went to shoot the scenes, because it all came back to her.

But at the same time, I think it was like a kind of therapy for many of the actors to play, to reenact, to act it out, to express all that bottled-in suffering, hope, and defiance. The film is all about resistance, resilience—but in a very human approach.

So my actors were very connected. They weren’t just coming to act in a film and leave. For them, it’s something they live with every day.

BPFF: Thanks for talking with us today.

— Zane Razzaq for BPFF

3000 Nights screens Friday, October 14, 2016 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at 7 pm as the festival’s Opening Film. Masri will be in conversation after the film and throughout the opening weekend, which also includes a retrospective of her work (Part I, Part II). The show is co-presented by the Institute for Palestine Studies. 3000 Nights screens again on Sunday, October 16 at 3 pm, also at MFA.
View the full festival schedule and buy tickets here.