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10/28/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Saleh Bakri at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival: 'Nothing Is Impossible'

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"They want to erase Palestine from the memory of the new generation, and anything I can do to fight that, I will be more than happy." -- Shafiq Al-Hout 1999

Three years ago I watched Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea, a poignant film about a strong Palestinian heroine and her brooding companion on a journey to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. It was the first time I caught Saleh Bakri on the big screen and his performance left me wanting for more. Bakri had a wonderful way about him, a vulnerability but also could convey the pent-up anger of an entire nation, through his very still, nearly silent performance.

Since then, I've enjoyed watching his career blossom, but in perhaps typical Bakri manner, that has also been a quiet ascend. If anyone represents the elegance and pride of the Palestinians, it's the Bakri family. Saleh's father Mohammed, both a prolific actor and filmmaker and now his younger brother Adam, who stars in Hany Abu-Assad's Omar.

What Saleh Bakri also does really well is inspire and instruct. Through his art, the "seventh art": Cinema. If you want to learn about the Palestinian Nakba (meaning the "Disaster"), turn to Bakri's performance in Elia Suleiman's masterpiece The Time that Remains. If you wish to know more about the Fedayeen in 1967 Palestine, you can watch Bakri in Jacir's poetic second feature When I Saw You.

And in his latest performance in Rani Massalha's moving film Giraffada, Bakri helps the younger generation understand the current situation, living within the Palestinian territories, divided by walls -- weapons of mass separation. Of course, Bakri is just as sought after by world filmmakers for his talent and on-screen magnetism and so in the Italian film Salvo, directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, he brings new emotional depth to a favorite cinematic character, that of the gangster with a heart. Both these films played in the latest edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

I caught up with the intense, charismatic Bakri and his honesty left me spellbound.

You are an actor first but you are also a Palestinian, and what you stand for is clearly important to you. How do you represent that?

Saleh Bakri: I think the fact that I am a Palestinian makes me represent not only the Palestinians but all the weak people. The weak are not weak in the sense of weakness, but in the sense of being abused. And being occupied and forbidden from practicing their own freedom, this is what I mean in the sense of weak. Of course the occupied people are not weak, they have more strength, their screams are much more powerful than any other scream.

Can someone who has not physically been to Palestine understand what the Palestinian people are going through?

SB: I think that the Northern part of the world should identify with the Palestinians not as someone who is above, or someone who feels pity but as someone who feels like a partner. Who feels equal, who feels the same struggle as any other human being. Not looking to the oppressed people, whether they are Palestinian or Africans or Latin Americans, as someone who is living on the moon and looks down at us from above. I believe in films because I believe that this art, this seventh art cinema is the most powerful in influencing people and changing them. For example, making a historical film is putting the history in front of you. So instead of reading about history, which nobody learns much from, when you do a movie about history or history through film, then people see it and might really learn about history.

Scorsese says that when you sit in a theater and watch a film, as an audience member you are being active, not passive at all.

SB: Acting, cinema is the weapon that I like to use. I know how to use it well and I don't know how to use any other kind of weapons. So this is the only weapon I really know how to use and I use it.

So you choose what you work on according to how you want to "fire" that weapon?

SB: Of course! The choices you make are saying a lot about you. Because I think art is the most truthful thing, the stage, the theater, is the most truthful, for me. There you can be totally naked. Politics are all lies, media are all lies. Mostly, lets not say all.

Have you watched any film that you believe changed your life, lately?

SB: I saw a Mexican film, here in the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, it's called Potosi. A very powerful film that left me devastated and it's in me now, cannot leave me anymore. There are scenes in the film and situations that are inside me, cannot go away anymore. This is real art, real art stays, remains. This beautiful Mexican film, melancholic but so powerful taught me a lot about Mexico, taught me a lot about the people in Mexico. I've never been in Mexico but I've been in Mexico when I was there, now. So of course it affects me, now if I go to Mexico I have a different perception.

But then there is negative cinema, films that inspire violence. Are there things we shouldn't see in movies?

SB: Yes of course. There is a lot of use of this instrument, cinema, since it was created actually. The first beginning of the creation of cinema was propaganda. Propaganda for war, so this propaganda of the powerful, especially of the powerful countries, the countries that have power and control of the world, they use films as a propaganda of their politics. And these films, I wish they could be burned. Because they lie and they influence people and brainwash them and are continuing the ignorance and making it wider. They are using the ignorance of people and pushing them to dark places. I feel that a lot of Hollywood movies are writing the rules for the fanatics.

How important is it for you to be here in Abu Dhabi?

SB: As a Palestinian holding an Israeli passport, I'm not allowed to travel to the Arab world. And the fact that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival invited me here and allowed me to participate in this festival is very important because now I can see my colleagues, the other artists. I feel I am part of my other parts, of my culture, that I'm forbidden from being a part of because of the apartheid regime I live in. For me this invitation is breaking this apartheid, this is a change also, maybe little, but it's a change. I think the Arabs should be more aware about their people's needs, and I feel that up to now, the Arab citizen is like a man standing on a beach, but when you ask him where the sea is, he doesn't know.

Is there a solution to the Palestinians struggle?

SB: Yes of course. The solution is the right to return. To our homeland and to be a nation again. Because now we are a separated nation. I've never been in Gaza in my life, I've never been in the refugee camps in Syria in my life. A nation cannot be a nation while it's separated and so keeping the nation separated means the nonexistence of the nation. Also we don't have a city and in a city there is the creation of a nation, and a culture, with theater and cinema. Our cities are destroyed completely. Haifaa, Yaffa, so we have the Palestinians in Israel living in the ghettos. We are in the ghettos. It's a long way to go but we should keep our strength and the belief because there is nothing impossible. Nothing is impossible, you can really do what you really believe you can fulfill. I believe in the right to return like a blind belief. You know, it's gonna happen, in one year, two years, three years, one hundred years, I don't know. It's gonna happen. And when it happens then we also have a long way to go, we will still be a separated nation that had to come back and learn how to create our life again, which is not easy. It's a big, big, big responsibility. We have a big responsibility.

Image from When I Saw You, courtesy of Philistine Films, used with permission

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