Palestinian Filmmaker Firas Khoury Talks Cairo Prize Winner ‘Alam,’ Teases Upcoming Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

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Palestinian filmmaker Firas Khoury’s fiery feature debut “Alam” (The Flag), which won the top prize this week at the Cairo Intl. Film Festival, sent a charge through the audience at its Middle East premiere, with moviegoers bursting into applause several times during the screening.

Khoury, however, was unable to witness the reception firsthand. The director, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, applied for an Egyptian visa with his Palestinian passport ahead of the festival. Egyptian authorities, he said, never replied. (“Welcome to the Arab world,” he deadpanned.) He’ll try his luck again with Saudi Arabian authorities ahead of “Alam’s” next screening at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, which runs Dec. 1 – 10.

Speaking to Variety from his home in Tunis, Khoury said he was saddened to miss his film’s first screening for Arab audiences, although upon hearing reports of the rousing ovation in Cairo he simply said, “Amazing. Amazing.”

“Alam” follows a Palestinian-Israeli teen, living in a village in the Galilee, who undergoes a political awakening sparked by a pretty, outspoken girl from his high school class. Against his better judgment, he decides to join her and some classmates in a risky operation to secretly replace the Israeli flag flying from their school’s rooftop with a Palestinian one on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day — a day of mourning for Palestinians.

The film struck a chord in Cairo, where it also won the audience award and best acting honors for newcomer Mahmood Bakri. In a glowing review, Variety’s Alissa Simon praised the “intelligent, sensitive treatment of the rarely seen, everyday lives of young Palestinian citizens of Israel [that] marks tyro feature writer-director Firas Khoury as a talent to watch.”

Produced by MPM Film, Paprika Films, Philistine Films, Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, Metafora Productions and Lacydon Bay Productions, “Alam” had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in its Discovery sidebar. MPM Premium is handling international sales, with Film Movement nabbing North American rights.

Khoury preferred to downplay whatever bureaucratic wrangling lay behind his absence in Cairo. “I don’t want to make an issue out of it. It’s bigger than me and it’s complicated,” he said. The director moved to Tunisia in 2016 to be with his wife, the producer Asma Chiboub, since the duo are unable to live together in Israel. The two countries broke diplomatic ties in 2000 after the start of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. The North African country, said Khoury, has offered him a welcome home. (“I live here like a king.”)

For the 40-year-old filmmaker, who last year became a father for the first time, “Alam” in some ways reflects his own belated political awakening. “When I was younger, I was afraid to go to demonstrations and participate,” he said. He became more politically active while researching the film, writing about the plight of Palestinians and “going to demonstrations where 90% of these demonstrators were youths under the age of 20.”

Khoury cast non-professional actors in “Alam,” although the process of filling the lead roles took several years. “I tried as much as I could to be loyal to the new generation in Palestine,” he said, with each of his four main characters representing “a symbol of a condition, of a state of this population.”

There is the patriotic firebrand, older and wiser than his years, and the rebellious young woman thumbing her nose at both the Israeli state and the patriarchy. There’s the stoner simply looking to drift through life in a drug-fueled haze.

And then there’s Tamer, the reluctant hero, who after a disciplinary hearing is on the verge of expulsion. He is more tepid in his politics than many of his classmates — “He is sort of a blank page,” said Khoury — and wary of crossing a stern father determined to keep his son on the straight and narrow.

If Tamer (Bakri) is drawn into a risky act of political subterfuge, it’s for the same reason as so many leading men before him: He does it for a girl, played by Sereen Khass.

Khoury cast non-professional actors for the lead roles in his feature debut “Alam.” Courtesy of Cairo Film Festival

That Khoury’s script should in some ways turn on a popular Hollywood trope is no coincidence. “I grew up on Hollywood cinema,” said the director. “We didn’t have anything but Hollywood in our video stores.” Both in his short films and “Alam” — as well as the various projects he’s developing — Khoury is drawn to “classical narration” and “mainstream genres.”

For “Alam,” “I just kept the core, the essence [of] the story of a boy who wants to get close to a girl. To impress her, he gets involved in a dangerous operation,” said the director. “It’s a story that was told a lot of times. But what I do with it is totally different.”

While the day-to-day life of the film’s protagonists turns on the same axis as that of teenagers the world over — cramming for exams, arguing with parents, trying to scrape together money for cigarettes and weed — Khoury’s script reflects how they “live a very political reality,” one that has catalyzed a younger generation of Palestinians fighting for their rights.

“I’m sure the situation will not continue,” he said. “I’m not hopeful. I’m sure. When, I don’t know. But I know this new generation will not accept occupation anymore. I accepted occupation when I was their age. I felt inferior to the Jews. They told me to be inferior, and when I was their age, I felt inferior. But they don’t feel inferior anymore.”

Khoury, who recently played a bit role in a Tunis-lensed historical drama series from Dubai’s Saudi-owned MBC, has three new scripts ready to shoot: “Dear Tarkovsky,” a romantic comedy set in Ramallah about the unexpected love that blossoms when a Palestinian filmmaker courts a rich woman with designs on her father’s wealth; “Your Father’s Friend,” a Tunisian comedy about a man who reluctantly begins to peddle narcotics to pay off the debts of his drug-dealing dad; and “Retention,” a feature film set in Palestine’s queer community based on Khoury’s short-story collection “The Notes of a Phantom Sperm Flying in the Sky of Galilee.”

After struggling for the better part of a decade to finance “Alam,” Khoury hoped that the film’s success would smooth the path for his off-beat follow-up projects. “My films are not really politically correct,” he said. “I hope some will believe that I’m free to say whatever I wish and [will want] to support these films.”