Palestinian director Basil Khalil, whose short film Ave Maria is nominated for an Oscar this year, cautioned that the Academy’s effort to diversify its membership could fall short of achieving the intended goals. “Civil rights are human rights, which every person deserves. I welcome the changes, but the Academy isn’t the only body in Hollywood. Change needs to start in the minds of individuals. New and inclusive policies are useless unless there are people willing to see it happen. The most patronizing thing for a minority is to be a ‘tick-box’ case,” said Khalil. “As a Palestinian who was brought up in Israel, I know all too well about discrimination. The solution starts from the bottom. Producers, agents, film executives need to hire a diverse range of actors in their films, production staff in their companies, and finance diverse films,” he continued.
This year’s controversial Oscars triggered a wide reaching conversation about the Academy’s role in perpetuating racially-charged stereotypes, prompting boycotts by some celebrities. Hispanics, African-Americans, native Americans, Arabs and Muslims have all been portrayed in gruesome manner at one point or another in Hollywood’s history. One documentary, Real Bad Arabs, revealed that the vast majority of films produced between 1986 and 2004 portray Arabs in negative stereotypical fashion.
While Ave Maria is decidedly a comedic work, its basic message parallels the outcry around the Academy’s rules which fuel discrimination and racism. Set against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, the synopsis of the film revolves around five Palestinian nuns whose routine vow of silence is interrupted by an unusual encounter with Israeli settlers who seek help after they crashed their car. Because of Sabbath law, they cannot use a phone. Both groups have to come up with a solution without violating the rules they chose to live by. Khalil explains,
From the moment you’re born in Israel/Palestine or in any conflict region, your birth determines what side you’re on. I was born into a Christian-Palestinian family, and from that day my “enemy” was assigned to me, and so was my allegiance. I didn’t choose it. But what people do choose is the level of extreme rules they live by as adults. In this film we see settlers and nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence, both live on one extreme, abiding by rules they took upon themselves to live by. However when these two opposing sides meet, and they have to get along, not because they love each other, the comedy plays itself. They’re in a tough spot, they want to get out of it, its not funny for them, but for most people, living outside of that absurd bubble, it would be hilarious.
A native of Nazareth, Khalil expressed excitement for his work’s nomination, “Words cannot express our excitement. Furthermore, this year we have two Arab films nominated (the other being Jordan’s best foreign film nominee Theeb). History is being made. The fact that the Academy has given us this platform to share our stories with the world, is a huge deal. Now because of this nomination, more people are wanting to see the film, this enables us to share our stories with the wider public, and not just cinephiles.”
Nonetheless, perhaps equally significant for many Palestinians, civil rights, and solidarity activists is that this year’s Palestinian nomination coincides with another controversy: a swag bag awarded to select nominees featuring a trip to Israel in conjunction with its Ministry of Tourism. While this award is not organized by the Academy, it has raised eyebrows, not least because of a whooping cost of $55,000 USD for this trip alone — nearly a third of which is reportedly subsided by the Israeli government. The total value of the gift bag is upward of $200,000 USD.
Drawing a Hunger Games analogy, Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian BDS movement, urged Oscar nominees to take “the moral path of rejecting this free propaganda gift from Capitol while its brutal troops and settlers burn and colonize our District 12.”
Director Khalil did not comment on these developments.
Director Basil Khalil sent the following comment on the question of free trip offered to Oscar nominees and the surrounding boycott calls:
“I am a filmmaker who makes movies for a living, I can discuss film until you’re blue in the face. I’ll leave the politicians to discuss boycotts. I don’t owe anyone an explanation nor do I have to prove anything with statements.”