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Q+A with Oscar Nominee: What’s So Funny About the West Bank?

The plot to Ave Maria is as improbable as it is provocative. A Jewish settler family crashes their car into a statue of the Virgin Mary at a Palestinian Carmelite monastery in the West Bank.

Bound by the onset of Sabbath, the Jews can do little to get home. Bound by a vow of silence, the nuns can do little to help. Bound by mutual distrust and annoyance, the odd couple pairing can do little but bicker. Fortunately, spellbound by the comedic touch of 34-year-old producer Basil Khalil, critics around the world can do little but laugh.

This 14-minute short (trailer below) already won top prizes at film festivals in Grenoble, Montpellier, and Dubai before securing a nomination for best live-action short film at this year’s 88th Academy Awards.

Ave Maria is Khalil’s second comedic venture into the deeply divisive and often somber portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His 2005 Ping Pong Revenge illustrated the cycles of misery each side inflicts on the other, but in the style of a satirical musical.

Khalil’s short film is not the only recent cinematic foray into the lives of Middle East Christians. The widely acclaimed documentary Open Bethlehem is a passionate account of efforts to intervene in the city’s tragic decline. May in the Summer mirrors Ave Maria‘s mix of religious tension and comedic drama as a successful Jordanian Christian author returns home to marry her Muslim fiancée and runs headlong into deep-seated cultural taboos.

Basil Khalil

Basil Khalil

Khalil knows them well. The son of a Palestinian-Israeli father and British mother, he grew up in Nazareth, near a Carmelite monastery not unlike the one in his film. Oddly enough, he was not allowed to watch movies as a child, developing a love of storytelling from his mother’s reading classic tales to him instead. His father is an evangelist in the Brethren church and runs the well-known Emmaus Bible School in Arab Galilee.

The London-based director developed an international perspective after studying filmmaking in Scotland and living in Italy and Spain. Though his upbringing was fused by faith, Khalil confesses to growing more cynical toward organized religion. CT interviewed him about regional issues, his religious motivations, and the film TheNew York Timescalled "the Middle Eastern answer to ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’”

In the United States the conversation about the Arab-Israeli issue is usually in terms of politics, tension, and conflict. What led you to produce a comedy?

I wanted to make a film that’s entertaining, approachable, and that people would come out with some new information. Through comedy, people are more likely willing to sit through it than a heavy preachy political drama.

As I watched the film, though I appreciated the humor and humanness of the characters I also sensed their deep frustration. Is such frustration inescapable given social and political realities?

There is frustration for sure. The man-made rules these two sides have taken upon themselves get in the way of the most basic tasks, talk. On the other hand you have the issue of the master and the servant, where the occupiers and master of the land now needs help and is at the mercy of the people they are used to be in control of. I can’t imagine a more awkward situation for someone to be in.

Given the critical acclaim for Ave Maria, do you think the audience is clamoring for a different take than the typical Hollywood approach to Middle Eastern issues?

I didn’t set out to patronize or criticize, but just display realities, as absurd as they may be. I let the situation play out in front of an audience who identify with the issues the nuns and settlers face because they are also universal issues—lack of communication and extreme religious rules.

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Q+A with Oscar Nominee: What’s So Funny About the West Bank?
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