When a Danish Palestinian boy goes home with a girl he’s been flirting with, what should be a fun carefree hookup becomes mired in the resentments and societal boundaries of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict when he discovers her Jewish heritage. Safiyyah from Norwegian Director Mattis Ohana Goksøyr questions the automatic adoption of cultural baggage while also calling out our hypocritical use of selective anger. Joining us for Safiyyah’s online premiere today, Goksøyr discusses using handheld cinematography and improvisation to keep things natural and why we should all avoid the falling into the trap of polarized arguments.

What brought you to this story of inherited conflict?

This film is a result of me trying to explore the potential complexity of a romantic encounter between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman. How the big picture politics interfere with their small picture flirtation. With my Israeli-Jewish father and Norwegian left-wing mother, I have myself been personally involved in this conflict in some sense and my sisters have had experiences similar to the ones that the film portrays. I wanted to show that people are often quite alike but that our ‘applied’ values are what divides us.

When I wrote the script, I tried to include the arguments that are frequently used when the two sides are being discussed by laymen, to expose how we have learned to defend ourselves with standard sentences and childish arguments.

I wanted to show that people are often quite alike but that our ‘applied’ values are what divides us.

From their initial meeting through to the rising tensions of their argument the dialogue between your leads feels very natural. How strictly does that follow what was laid down in the script vs improvisation on set?

The flirt in the beginning where they misunderstand each other’s languages has a lot of improvisation in it because it came so natural to them. Other than that, most of their dialogue is straight from the script, but of course with minor, natural adjustments from the actors. I had less time with the actors on this film than I have had on earlier projects. The availability of the actors made it that way, but I had FaceTime-sessions with Arian Kashef (who lives in Denmark and later flew in to be able to film all we needed over our two and a half shooting days) and meetings with Ragnhild Enoksen where we talked about the Israel-Palestine conflict and how it affects individuals who are living far away from the conflict epicentre. The casting process was quite short. I knew more or less who I wanted to work with and asked them to be a part of the project. Luckily, they said yes.

Much of Safiyyah unfolds in low light environments, how much of a challenge was that from a production perspective and what effect did it have on the film’s handheld cinematography and overall shooting style?

We wanted the audience to get close to and follow Amir during his fling with Sarah so we needed to be able to make it seem natural. Choosing fast lenses (Cooke S41), shooting on the Alexa XT and going handheld enabled us to use available light on the street. Even when shooting in a live night club we only supplemented with a single, handheld lamp. That gave us that explorative, lively feel a night on the town can feel like. When Amir goes to borrow the charger, the tone changes, so then we changed approach and used a short Steadicam shot, following him as he enters a sort of ‘lion’s den’. Here the sofa also becomes a visual symbol of the wall separating the two sides.

Although they’re far from coming to any resolutions about what divides them, the film ends on an unknown, yet hopeful note.

This short is, in a way, a naive attempt to solve a global conflict in under ten minutes, and I think the ending is wrapping it all up nicely with a toast to the wrongdoings of the past and present.

Given the subjects of inherited hatred and selective values explored in Safiyyah what do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I hope the audience can learn to expose polarized arguments that lead nowhere and try not to be a part of them. There is no point in debating if you do not know how to listen. I also believe in not taking a definitive side in an already polarized conflict and instead express your opinion on individual cases. That way you make it easier to have a useful discussion on difficult topics.

There is no point in debating if you do not know how to listen.

What will we see from you next?

I have a new short film with the title Good luck, that premiered at the 31st Nordisk Panorama Film Festival in September and will screen next at the 62nd Nordische Filmtage Lübeck in November. The short deals with the grey areas in a potential sleep rape and the insecurities that arise between those involved.

I am also in post-production with another short film with the title The Art of Living where I try to explore the human feeling of insecurity in a humorous way. The film’s logline goes like this: “Anne experiences another woman’s orgasm and gets a new view on life.” It’s a visual short shot on 16mm film, where I try not to take the “voice-over short film”-format too serious. You can expect some peculiar, but relatable, thoughts on how it is to miss out on life.

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