INTERVIEW: Roshmia, a magical story of love and separation in a doomed iron shack

Lina El-Wardani from London, Tuesday 28 Mar 2017

Director Salim Abu Jabal talks about his journey as a first-time filmmaker. The fly-on-the-wall documentary Roshmia was shown during the BBC Arabic film festival in London

Roshmia (Photo: courtesy of DIFF)

Roshmia (2015), a documentary that looks inside the intimate and simple life of an elderly Palestinian couple, Youssef and Amna, was shown at the BBC Arabic documentary film festival, which takes place between 24 and 30 March in London, UK.

Since 1956, Youssef and Amna have lived a life of serenity, inhabiting a corrugated-iron shack in Haifa's environmentally rich Roshmia valley.

Disconnected from any signs of modernity, the couple are happy with their homegrown spring onions and tangerines – and the kindness of neighbours who sometimes bring food or other goods.

They have no water or electricity, relying on their wood fire for warmth and some tea or coffee.

Nothing much happens in their life, a fact that the film skillfully captures, with the couple oblivious to the camera. They go on with their lives, rolling tobacco or cleaning their house or listening to the radio.

The film focuses on the last three precious years of the couple's life in the last Palestinian shack in Haifa before the authorities confiscate the land and evacuate the couple from their happy home.

Entertaining yet sad, full of love and hope, Roshmia captures real feelings and leaves one speechless and meditative for hours after watching it.

Ahram Online met the filmmaker, Salim Abu Jabal, to discuss his choice of material and his experience in filming his first documentary.

Salim Abu Jabal
Director Salim Abu Jabal (Photo: courtesy of Salim Abu Jabal)

Ahram Online (AO): This is your first documentary film. How did the idea come to you?

Salim Abu Jabal (SAJ): I was working as a journalist for the local newspaper Al-Madina, and I did a story on this couple for the paper. Then I decided I needed to do a small film on them to document their story so that people would know about this last shack in Haifa – and probably in all Palestine.

AO: Though you have some experience in film, as a producer, director of photography and in casting, Roshmia is your directorial debut. Tell us more about your journey to directing this film.

SAJ: I used to like taking photos with my camera and some family videos with my nieces, but I never did any work with the camera. I taught myself and learned by trial and error that the fixed scenes are better than moving ones. So I borrowed a camera from a friend and bought a tripod, and I set it up in the house and just let them be.

I was so lucky; they were welcoming and helpful. They got used to me and forgot about me and the camera and went on with their lives.

I used to go three days a week: two days in the middle of the week and I had to go every Saturday because it was the only quiet day with no trucks going up and down the main road.

AO: One of the particularily interesting elements of the film is its natural soundscape. The couple wake up in the morning to the humming of birds, and at night we could hear the cockroaches and all sorts of natural voices. Why was this your choice, rather than any music?

SAJ: Music tells you how to feel, and I didn't want to interfere in how the audience feels. I used the camera mic just to capture their voices and the surrounding voices. I was lucky, I filmed in a valley, and this encircles the voices and protects them.

AO: The film's pace is very quiet. You chose long shots and kept the tempo quiet and relaxed. Why this choice for this story?

SAJ: I wanted to keep the element of time. I wanted the spectator to feel the time; they take their time and we take our time watching them telling their story. And it was very important to me to show how time moves on for them. It's a story that takes us back to Palestine 100 years ago.

Very often during the shoot I would question my life and ask myself how different it would be if, instead of being my consumerist self, I could be happy with this simple life staring into the beautiful valley.

Also, you feel that you are spying on their lives, or taking a sneak peak into their very intimate life, so you have to be quiet. I was so lucky that the camera loves the couple. They are photogenic, or else we might have been bored.

AO: What did you learn from this film, apart from filmmaking, of course?

SAJ: On the personal note, I learned that life can be very simple and one can make do without many luxuries and eat very little food and enjoy life as simple and raw as it can get. On a professional note, I learned that to make a good film you need to tell the story, and the story is more important than the technicalities and equipment.

AO: How did you fund your film?

SAJ: I didn't apply for any funding, because I wasn't sure if I had a film. I was obsessed with the need to document this story no matter what happened. During the last two months of the shooting, I had no job and no money. I even had no money to go to the house of the couple or to buy tapes for the camera. But I had to do it. 

AO: I know that you did a lot of work by yourself. Bearing in mind that this was the first time you had worked on a film, how did you deal with all the material?

SAJ: For four years, I had the material, not knowing what to do with it. I didn't know how to edit, yet I couldn't give it to someone else. I had to sit down myself. I started working for a TV channel and started learning to edit from colleagues. Then I bought a laptop, and in 2012 I finally applied for funding so I could take time off work and focus on editing and post-production.

I got the funding, took six months leave and did extensive editing. It was so difficult because I filmed a lot and I didn't have a script. Cutting things out was like cutting my own flesh, but I managed because I had distanced myself and edited years after shooting.

AO: And it was all so worth it! The film won an award at Dubai Film Festival this year. It must have come as a great surprise, hasn't it?

SAJ: Yes, indeed. I did my best and I just wanted to tell the world the couple's story, but I didn't think that it would be a movie and would go to the film festivals. 

AO: The film has many layers; it's not just the simple story of eviction. Both characters look simple, but they really are complex. Without revealing too much from the plot, the problems that emerge between the spouses are, in a way, unexpected. Did you see it coming as you were shooting?

SAJ: No, and this is why I intended to make a short film. Suddenly, while shooting they started arguing and the film took a different turn with the woman getting more and more resilient. This woman, who appeared to be very kind and loving, turns out to be a strong and formidable character.

AO: We see many times during the film, a truck on the road. Why is that?

SAJ: It is the only element of civilization going on in their otherwise forgotten life, and it's an element of threat, because this is what will come and bring down their house at the end of the film. But I didn't impose it; I just captured it.

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