It’s the day after the world premiere of A House in Jerusalem at the International Film Festival Rotterdam when The National meets Palestinian filmmaking brothers Muayad and Rami Alayan. To say it’s been a long road to get here is an understatement.
“I think the very first idea of having a ghost story in Jerusalem was in 2009,” says Rami, who wrote the script with Muayad, who directs it. After realizing it was too ambitious for a first feature, they collaborated on two other movies, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (2015) and The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (2018), before finally returning to what is easily their most personal film yet.
The film has been created under the co-production treaty signed between the UK and Palestine in 2012 and was able to draw from the British talent pool, including Bafta-winning casting director Aisha Bywaters (County Lines). It was Bywaters who led the search for the young actress to play Rebecca, the 10-year-old daughter of a British man Michael (Johnny Harris). She also found Miley (who had already starred in the British TV series There She Goes with David Tennant).
“I honestly knew that Miley was going to be the one,” says Muayad, who was struck by the chemistry she forged with British actor Harris. There was a similarly extensive search for the actress to play a ghostly girl Rasha, with the production unearthing Palestinian newcomer Sheherazade Makhoul Farrell after auditioning her in Jerusalem.
The film follows Michael and Rebecca, both struggling after the death of Rebecca’s mother in a car accident.
Looking for a fresh start, they take residence in a villa in West Jerusalem, left to Michael by his father. Once there, Rebecca has several spooky encounters with Rasha, whom only she can see. It becomes clear she’s the spirit of a Palestinian youngster who was forced to leave the house along with her family during the Nakba.
The seed of the story came from very close to home. “Our father and mother both come from families that became refugees in 1948,” explains Muayad. “They were both forced to leave their homes, their businesses and their farming land in Jerusalem. But they were among the lucky ones who had to relocate within historic Palestine and not have to move abroad to other countries during the war.”
Still, growing up, Muayad and his brother would hear their father’s stories about the past. “A part of him was still there in that time,” he says. Or as Rami puts it: “Our parents essentially lived with ghosts of themselves.”
With this in mind, they began to craft the story for A House in Jerusalem, a film that wraps its tale of ghosts and grief inside a pertinent political story that humanises current events.
“If you make a Palestinian film, there’s no escaping the politics,” says Rami. “It’s a question of how you treat it. You don’t want to make it necessarily the subject matter of the film because that gets a bit repetitive. But at the same time, we cannot escape the Palestinian experience. It’s very much tied to what happened politically.”
Like many productions over the past two years, A House in Jerusalem faced added headaches during filming due to Covid-19. While cast and crew from across Europe faced all manner of health-and-safety protocols, it was far from the only concern.
“Filming in Palestine, regardless of Covid, is always complicated,” says Muayad. “You have areas that are controlled by the Israelis and areas that are controlled by the Israeli army in Palestinian areas — in Bethlehem for example.”
One of the film’s most moving sequences comes when Rebecca takes it upon herself to travel to Bethlehem to help Rasha. It took the crew to Aida, a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. “It’s really hard to film in the camp,” says Muayad.
”There have been so many misportrayals of the camp that the people really needed to trust whoever was coming to film.” After meetings with families and NGOs, though, they were warmly welcomed. “They just embraced us. They were so supportive. They opened their homes.”
Raised in a village part-way between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Alayan brothers say they were the first filmmakers in the modern era to have shot in Bethlehem, with their debut work, the 2015 film Love, Theft and Other Entanglements.
“For Palestinian filmmakers, when you start making feature films, you start with the places you’re familiar with,” says Rami. Of course, due to the region’s complex and saddening history, those places aren’t only confined to Palestine.
“And this is what makes Palestinian cinema very rich,” says Muayad. “You have Palestinians who are refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. And then you have Gaza. And you have Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.”
After encouraging first reviews in Rotterdam, the film should now be set for a healthy festival life and, more importantly, international release. But how do these filmmakers assess the state of Arab cinema? Are the films reaching global audiences?
One major challenge, Muayad says, is being framed through the news agenda. “Like how the focus is now all on Ukraine. A few years ago it was fully on Syria and that was giving attention to the region. Fifteen years before it was Palestine … so we still are stuck in that.”
But with increased interest from Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services, content is getting out there. “I definitely sense a change in recent years,” he says. “For the better.”