Religion is big business in Israel. Even bigger in Jesus’ childhood home, Nazareth, where Muslim and Christian Arab Israelis (wow, that’s a mouthful), share crowded, ancient streets with European religious pilgrims… perfect customers for the newest spiritual product to hit the Holy Land: Holy Air.
In the eponymous film that is part autobiography, part biting satire, and part family drama, writer/director Shady Srour and producer Ilan Moskovitch manage to find humor in the web of competing interests and identities in “Israel’s Arab capital”.
Holy Air tell the story of Lamia and Adam, a couple from Nazareth, and members of a minority (Christians) within a minority (Arabs in Israel). When Lamia (played by Laetitia Eido) gets pregnant, Adam (played by Shady Srour) decides to sell bottles of “Holy Air” to provide for his impending family.
Cinema Escapist’s Jake Goldwasser caught up with Shady and Ilan over videochat to learn more about Holy Air. Oh, and in this interview, these two Israelis–one an atheist Jew and the other a Christian Arab–seem to get along pretty well.
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I have a very trivial question to ask first. Shady, in the movie I watched you speaking French, Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic. Do you actually speak all of those languages?
Shady Srour: When I was a kid I studied in a school where by second grade I was supposed to learn Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French. So I have the French a little bit. But in the film the Arabic, Hebrew and English, that’s easy for me, but the French and Italian, I learned it and mimed the language more than I speak. I never spoke Italian, I was miming.
I’ve noticed that Arabs also tend to use hand motions like this. My Arab professors used to flick their wrists when they would make a point.
Shady: Yes, and we also have the “ahh, ahh, ahh” when we speak. We have a lot of “ehhh, mhh.”
Did you grow up in Nazareth?
Shady: Yes, born and raised.
Maybe you can tell me a little bit about what inspired you to make the film, what the writing process was like, and what shooting it was like?
Shady: I did my MFA in San Francisco for three and a half years, and after that I got married in Nazareth, and then I had one year of trying to get a job and I couldn’t. However, after one year, I got this annunciation from my wife that she was pregnant. And my first reaction was, “What! I’m not ready to bring—I’m not ready to be a father, because of… so many things.”
And after a negotiation, we had a mutual decision to get an abortion, and we had a hell of a week. It was really very hard, because we can’t, for instance, speak about it to our community. We have to keep it secret; it’s a conservative society.
So the movie is autobiographical to a pretty large degree?
Shady: Yes, very much. It’s my own story. It’s my personal life, edited in a way that could be more universal. So after one week of a roller coaster of very hard emotions, up and down, my wife had a panic attack. I didn’t know back then what that was, but we decided to keep [the baby], and I was planning to make a documentary – like a mockumentary – about us having a child. But we wanted to emigrate.
I couldn’t get money for that (bringing a crew, bringing a camera, or sound) so time passes by and we had the first baby, and I decided to make a fiction about this story, and I started to write the script. After a couple of years, we had another baby. I’m the father of two daughters, and I’m not emigrating – I’m stuck in this place. So I felt that the script is far from me, since I’m in a different situation now, I’m more mature, and I wanted to update it.
There’s a term in Nazareth that people say: “What are we doing here? We’re selling air.” I developed and updated the script and it started to be about a guy who’s [literally] selling air to survive.
Oh wow, so it’s actually an idiom that people say in Nazareth?
Shady: Yeah, they say it in a way that means they are very disappointed with life? [mumbles to Ilan in Hebrew] Or it’s not “disappointed” but having no hope. That was the trigger of the film.
Ilan Moskovitch: When I met Shady by coincidence, it was on a stage. I went to Akko, my hometown, to see a theater festival. I go and see a play where he was the main actor, a play on the stage, and I liked him a lot. The gap between his big physique and his sensitivity. After that I said to him “I love your acting, and maybe we’ll make something together in the future.”
Then he said he wanted to tell me a story. He knew I was a filmaker, so we sat and he started to tell me the story and I liked it a lot. I liked the content, but we also continued to develop the content of the script. But I liked the way he told me—I felt immediately that it was a personal story, and I like personal stories in the cinema, the personal stories of directors. I felt that he knows Nazareth very well, the locations, the characters – it’s him. And second, I liked that it was subtle because I don’t like movies that are too in your face. I like stories that put questions in your mind, that they don’t feed you the whole story.
And also, another thing that I thought could make it succeed: on the one hand it’s a local story, that happens in Israel-slash-Palestine, but on the other hand it’s a unversal. It’s a story about minorities that I think people can… [to Shady: likshor?]
Shady: Be attached to.
Ilan: To be attached to. These emotions that Adam (the main character of Holy Air, played by Shady Srour) brings, even to an audience from Bangladesh or Norway, Finland, Germany, can … likshor im zeh?
Shady: Be attached to.
Ilan: Yes, to be attached to it. I think that was the reason that I wanted to go with Shady.
You were saying it’s a personal story, but it’s a minority story—
Ilan: I want to tell you something. Me as a filmmaker, as a person, I came from a very simple place, in Akko. My father was a Holocaust survivor, he came in the 60s, and I was born from Eastern Europe, from Romania, but I was born in Akko. [asks Shady for translation from Hebrew] But my destiny is that my father, who only studied two grades, he wasn’t educated. Very nice and warm but not educated. He had a small kiosk in the Arab cinema in the Arab town. So I live in a very simple place. The people who surrounded me were not so educated and didn’t have a lot of money.
Of course, when I was five, I understood there were Jews and Arabs. Suddenly I found that there are Jews and Arabs, and I didn’t like this. I felt immediately that it wasn’t equal, and what surrounded me were people from the margin of society. I like to deal with people from this area, not from the center. My father suffered; he was a minority in another place. So these are the deep issues that attract me.
When I saw Shady, immediately I loved him, I was with him. He’s not a sad guy, Shady, but sometimes when I see some part that someone hurts—how do you say… not sadness, not suffering—it’s my point of you, maybe he’s not suffering, but my soul goes there.
So when Shady told me the story, it wasn’t sad, but it was difficult. It’s not equal. We have to say it clear. It’s not equal. The day after ’48, it’s a Jewish state. A lot of people […]. They call them Arabs. They call me a Jew. I didn’t decide to be a Jew. The Arabs are now a minority, but a lot were there before ’48, before most of the Jews came. So I think about what would happen now if there was another king or something who occupied the territories that I was born in, and suddenly I became a minority, not equal, not nothing. I think it’s a bad situation, really really bad. Words can’t express what I feel about it, and because of that, I am with Shady. We are the same, you see?
Shady: We are the same.
I’m going to take a screenshot of this to put in the interview.
Ilan: They told me I am a Jew – what does it mean? I am a person. My wife, she’s Armenian, she’s Christian. We have a daughter, she’s half and half. For the Jews, she’s a Christian, and for the Armenians, she’s a Jew. See, I like Shady. I’m shy even, a little bit, to say there is no difference between us – of course there is no difference between us! This is the base. I don’t have to say it.
Shady: So basically it is about a minority inside a minority. It’s my situation, and it’s not easy to survive in such a place, when you’re born as a Christian inside the Arab community and inside Israel, which is a Jewish state. The political aspects, the religious aspects, the social aspects. Everything is hitting you, and you have to deal with that.
When someone asks where I’m from, I have to explain so many things, so many layers. It’s absurd how many layers. There are layers that only the Israelis or Palestinians or Middle Easterners get. For instance, when the doctor says the baby had a fifty percent chance of making it, he said “fifty percent resist; fifty percent fail.” He didn’t use the medical terms, he used the terms of “in this land you have to resist, or you fail.” We start to resist even when we are still in the womb. Jewish and Arab doctors make this joke. Imagine, you are bearing children who are going to be soldiers to fight, and who might end up dead. Same thing [for Arabs], you’re bringing kids into a world where they can’t have dreams. I don’t have dreams. I was dreaming to be a pilot when I was a kid, but they didn’t tell me that as an Arab I couldn’t be a pilot.
For so many things, the ceiling is very low. So how can I be a father? The tragedy of this film is that this man becomes a father in this situation. Nothing is moving forward. I hoped for peace all my life; I think I will die hoping for peace. I will deliver this heritage of hoping for peace to my children. So that’s why the film starts with the traffic jam and ends with the traffic jam. Everything is stuck, it doesn’t move forward.
It’s like a Márquez novel.
Ilan: Think about Shady, he has great parents, they are so warm and… wow. Wow, wow, wow. They were born in Nazareth before ’48. It was much more Christian, forty years ago.
Because of Jews moving to Nazareth, or Muslims?
Ilan: There are no Jews in Nazareth, but [the Christians] are, how do you say it… vanishing.
Shady: For the Jews, we are Arabs, and inside the Arab community, in order to survive, they have to work like tribes or families. So economically and religiously, Muslims, Christians—like the scene in the film between Adam and Mahmoud—I wanted to bring the mentality that Christians buy from Christians, and Muslims from Muslims, so the economy is weak. The way to survive is to sell holy air or to leave.
A lot of Christians emigrate to the US, Canada, Brazil maybe. In the Ottoman Empire, the oppression of Christians was here for thousands of years. And look what’s happening now. But in each place it’s a different reality. Israel is different than Palestine, different than Syria, Iraq, Lebanon. It’s not easy to raise this issue, but I wanted to raise this issue.
It was ambitious to talk about any aspect of this, the political and social dynamics, especially in a fiction film, because everything is interconnected.
Shady: That’s right. You got it.
Can you talk about the gender aspect specifically? Your wife in the movie is working for an organization that promotes women’s rights. It’s centered around the possibility of an abortion.
Shady: Arab society is very conservative. Women are suffering from a chauvinist society. That’s from one side. Lamia working in the sexual center more for… ma zeh tarbut?
Shady: Education. It’s something we need as Arabs. They need to be sexually educated.
Ilan: It’s very Puritan.
Shady: I believe this is something that’s hurting society and keeping society more closed, so that why I wanted to put the character in this position. That’s from one side, then from the other side, there are Arab women who are like this, who are powerful, but they don’t get the chance in the media, because the media is very stereotypical. In the film, I wanted to break all of the stereotypical points of view about us, whether gender, whether political, whether religious. You can find Arab women like that, very strong. I wanted to design a society. I wanted to give Arab women their existence in this film.
And who was your audience when you say you wanted to shatter these stereotypes?
Shady: I wanted to reach everybody. Arab, Jew, Israel, Palestine, Arab world, Christians. Everybody. And it’s not only Arab stereotypes that I wanted to break. You’ll notice in the film there is no checkpoint, no soldiers, no kids throwing stones. This is what everyone sees in the media as the picture of the Holy Land. There is life over there! We live! We have fun; we drink; we have sex; we have life. We have people who suffer, but we have people who make money. I wanted to bring the human into the foreground. The couple is in the foreground, and everything else is behind. Because I wanted the audience to meet the couple first.
Ilan: You know, we made the movie together. This movie is for everyone to see that the religious is absurd. People suffer in the world, to be alone, to have a lot of questions, so people built religions to simplify. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything, and sometimes because of that, maybe I suffer. I have a lot of questions. I’m a modern guy, I don’t believe. [Religions] tried to make something good, but it’s so far from HaKavanut [what they intended]. It’s absurd. Jews, Christians, Arabs – there is a huge economic interest in making peace. They can live together. He wants to live well, I want to live well. You know? People are egoists. I have a small daughter, so do you – they are egoists! At the base, people are egoists, and they want to live well.
Not an Arab, and not a Jew, just an egoist!
Ilan: Yes! People in our area are so stressed. It’s like the scene where Shady gets into a fight in the traffic jam. If you don’t want to cry, you have to laugh about it.
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Trailer for Holy Air
Holy Air is screening at select theaters throughout the United States.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.