The long journey of Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh’s ‘200 Meters’

The long journey of Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh’s ‘200 Meters’
Ameen Nayfeh is a Palestinian director. (Supplied)
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Updated 20 November 2020

The long journey of Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh’s ‘200 Meters’

The long journey of Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh’s ‘200 Meters’
  • The Palestinian director’s debut feature was in production for seven years, but is now wowing festivalgoers

BEIRUT: When Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh walked on stage at El Gouna Film Festival late last month, it was a moment of personal and professional triumph. It had taken him and producer May Odeh seven years to bring his debut feature, “200 Meters,” to life. And yet, here they were, collecting the first of three awards at the festival and basking in the cinematic spotlight.   

Odeh in particular was euphoric. Jumping around on stage at one point during the festival’s closing ceremony, she knew all too well the challenges they had both faced. Turned down for funding at what seemed like every turn, they had even considered throwing in the towel after failing to secure financing from Cairo Film Connection in 2016.  

“We were getting nowhere,” admits Nayfeh, who grew up near Tulkarm in the West Bank. “I was always receiving interest from people when I talked about the film — ‘It’s a nice story.’ ‘It’s important to tell’ et cetera — but maybe they didn’t think I was the right person to tell it. I’m at the beginning of my career, maybe they thought it’s too challenging for a first-time director, so it took us a long time to achieve the financing. To make people really believe and invest in this project and in myself.”




Palestinian producer May Odeh and Palestinian film director Ameen Nayfeh at El Gouna Film Festival. (AFP)

Then, following the advice of a friend, Nayfeh and Odeh took the decision to shoot “The Crossing,” a short film based on a similar theme to “200 Meters.” It was that short which brought the project to the attention of Francesco Melzi, their Italian co-producer, and enabled them to secure funding throughout 2017 and 2018.

Since then Nayfeh and Odeh haven’t looked back. The film had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September, where it won the BNL People’s Choice Award, and it landed both the critics award (Fipresci) and the audience award for ‘exemplifying humanitarian themes’ at El Gouna. The film’s lead, Ali Suliman, also won the El Gouna Star for Best Actor. Even prior to its regional premiere, Odeh picked up Variety magazine’s MENA Talent of the Year award for her role in the production.

“At the second screening in El Gouna I was standing at the back of the room for the last 15 minutes, just looking at the audience and thinking, ‘I can’t believe this,’” says Nayfeh, who originally trained to be a nurse. “In Venice, when the film finished, there was a very beautiful standing ovation and I was crying. I couldn’t hold it in. It was not just about the frustration of financing the film, but because everybody around me (my family and my friends)… nobody really understood what I had been going through or appreciated what this project could mean, or what it could become.”




The film tells the story of Mustafa (Suliman) and his wife Salwa (Lana Zreik), who come from two Palestinian villages separated by the West Bank Barrier. (Supplied)

Shot entirely in the West Bank, the film tells the story of Mustafa (Suliman) and his wife Salwa (Lana Zreik), who come from two Palestinian villages separated by the West Bank Barrier. Although they live only 200 meters apart, the fragility and absurdity of their situation is revealed when Mustafa is denied entry into Israel and forced to make a 200-kilometer journey in an attempt to reach his hospitalized son on the other side of the wall. It’s an experience that Nayfeh is all too familiar with.

“My mother comes from a Palestinian village that is now on the other side of the wall – the Israeli side,” he says. “So, since the wall was built, my mother, myself and my siblings have been cut from that side of our family. And we grew up there, you know? All of our good memories from our childhood were with our grandparents, with our uncles and cousins, and with our childhood friends. 

“Then suddenly as kids we were not allowed to go there anymore. And it’s only 20 minutes away. That left a big trauma that continues today. If I have to visit my family I have to do it illegally or I have to go through the same process as Mustafa, because I shot in the real locations. I have to go through the same images that you see in the film.”




The film is Shot entirely in the West Bank. (Supplied)

It’s easy to empathize with the softly spoken and unassuming Nayfeh, who has persevered with cinema despite his family’s initial reluctance to accept his filmmaking career. In person he is modest, but exudes a quiet determination.

“For me, it’s important to talk about our situation. But how? You cannot just say: ‘I want to talk about this, I want to discuss this subject with the audience.’ What I was trying in the film was to make it as natural as possible. That’s why I wanted the images of the wall and of the checkpoints. I wanted to shoot next to it because I wanted this image in the film.”

Filming in such locations, however, is not easy and carries a certain degree of risk. “We were always very careful and very fast when we were in these locations because we didn’t have permits to shoot there,” he says. “And luckily — really luckily, because many Palestinian productions had this problem — we didn’t have any problems with the Israeli army.” He pauses and reconsiders. “Only one. We were travelling with the camera from one location to the other (it was rigged in the car) and we were stopped at a checkpoint. They saw this weird installation and said ‘What are you doing? Where are you going with this camera?’ We told them we were making a documentary and going to Bethlehem to shoot something.




Turned down for funding at what seemed like every turn, Ameen Nayfeh and May Odeh had even considered throwing in the towel after failing to secure financing from Cairo Film Connection in 2016. (Supplied)  

“Then May, who was following us in the next car, stopped at the checkpoint, left her car, and started walking towards us. It was dark, so a person walking to the checkpoint at night towards the soldiers is not a very smart thing to do, and someone was shouting and pointing their guns towards her. We began shouting ‘She’s our producer! She’s working with us!’ and they shouted at her to go back to her car. My heart rate was, like 3,000 beats per second.”

In total, the shoot covered 35 locations in 22 days, including several checkpoints and the West Bank Barrier. The film not only reveals the dangers and frustrations faced by Palestinians attempting to cross into Israel, but the profiteering that enables it to happen. In one scene, Mostafa and two of his fellow passengers are forced by smugglers to hide in the trunk of a car. Trapped inside for a considerable amount of time, the youngest, Rami (Mahmoud Abu Eita), begins to panic and has to fight to catch his breath.  

“What could be more absurd than a kid who, like every other kid around the world, is a big fan of Liverpool and Mo Salah and is going to work to make some money, but has to go through this life-threatening experience?” says Nayfeh. “And it could happen again and again and again. It’s not just this one time. It’s an ongoing situation. This is what I would like audiences to see. The reality in which we live.”


Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Updated 04 December 2020

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

AMSTERDAM: In May 2019, life was looking good for Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas. She had begun to establish herself in Berlin — having moved there from her hometown of Haifa in 2017; her debut album — wrapped in 2018 — was just weeks away from being released; and she had a prospective tour of the Middle East and Europe lined up. 

“I feel like a lot of exciting things are happening and hopefully the album will bring more,” she told me then. “I’m not in a hurry, but I’m going full-power with all of my will and passion.”

Fast-forward to today and that debut album is still just weeks away from release. Not long after we spoke last year, Nahas began to experience pain in her wrists and hands. It quickly became serious enough that she went to see a doctor who diagnosed her with repetitive strain injury. 

Her debut album (cover pictured) is just weeks away from release. Supplied

“It was really hardcore,” she says. “Both my hands and wrists had very, very bad inflammation. I couldn’t type emails or hold my phone or carry groceries and stuff. It was basically from overplaying. It had been a very busy time with shows and traveling, and a lot of stress. That was good, in some ways, because it meant things were happening for me, but the mental stress also wasn’t good for my body. I just had to stop everything, take a break and focus on getting better.”

Having psyched herself up for the release of her album, the necessary postponement — and cancellation of her tour plans — was something of a comedown. 

“Everything was a big frustration,” she says. “And I couldn’t really let that energy out in music, because I wasn’t able to (play).”

That last part, especially, was a huge blow to someone for whom music has been “a place of escape and expression and dealing with things and understanding myself” since her early teens and has become the thing from which she makes her living — an impressive feat for any artist, but particularly an independent musician from the Middle East. 

Nahas first picked up a guitar – which actually belonged to her sister – when she was a kid. Supplied

Nahas first picked up a guitar when she was a kid. It actually belonged to her sister, who “took a few lessons then stopped.” 

“I would tune it in very weird ways and strum it and sing out of tune,” she says. “Then I decided to study guitar. The only available option that my parents liked was classical music. So for nine years I did classical guitar and theory. I wanted to drop it (often), but I’m glad I didn’t.”

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists including Fayrouz (“My mother’s a big fan”) to Western artists. Nahas chose to listen mostly to the latter. “We had a massive collection of CDs in the car and every Saturday we’d drive to the Galilee with the windows open and very fresh air and listen to John Lennon. That’s my main memory of music from my childhood,” she says. As a teenager she branched out into hard rock, pop, jazz and more. Oh, and Avril Lavigne (“That’s a bit embarrassing now,” she admits). 

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists to Western artists. Supplied

She estimates she wrote her first original song around the age of 15. “It probably sounded like a normal indie-rock song, but I think the (lyrical) content was quite different,” she says. “It was about life as a Palestinian girl understanding her identity, and asking questions — about the political situation too. Looking at it now, I think, ‘Woah! That’s what I was dealing with at the age of 15?’”

It took a few years before she felt she was developing her own identity as an artist, though. She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. 

It makes sense that Nahas had classical training and listened to a wide variety of genres growing up — and that she composes music for the theater professionally. Her songs, and particularly her vocal delivery, have a definite theatrical vibe, and there are hints of several influences — pop, indie rock, jazz, rockabilly, surrealism, punk, spoken-word, and more. The result is something that seems entirely organic and entirely honest. It’s not necessarily easily accessible, but it’s certainly some of the most interesting work you’ll hear from a contemporary Middle Eastern artist, at least in the English language. 

A still from the “Desert” music video. Supplied

The two singles released from the album so far — “The Clown” and title track “Desert” — are good examples; both showcasing her distinctive style. The former was written a month after Nahas moved to Berlin, aged 21 (because “I just needed to be away, make music and take time to just be and understand things”). “It came from a few days of thoughts that were gathering and piling up — about being away from home, about artists getting on stage and getting labeled as Palestinian or as Israeli, about the political situation that never really leaves you.”

The latter, released in November, was written around the same time. “It’s a very personal song talking about searching and the things that are changing around us,” Nahas explains. “In the video (shot in Haifa), we played a lot with metaphors and images — we have kids with guns, we have a dancer crucified on an olive tree to symbolize the ties to the land. We have an old, abandoned building in Haifa contrasted with the big glass buildings to ask ourselves where our identity — as Palestinian 48ers — fits between tradition and modern colonialism.”

“The Clown” is the first single from her debut album. Supplied

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. “It was very influenced by the relocation from Palestine to Germany,” she says. “So it deals with questions of identity and of what our responsibility to our identity is. I come from this place that has a certain political weight, traditionally. So how do I deal with that weight? How do I sing about it? Who am I in it?”

The end to the record’s long delay will doubtless come as a huge relief to Nahas, after what she describes as “one of the heaviest years for me.” Her almost-complete recovery from injury all but coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the year also included the death of a close friend — one of the dancers in the “Desert” video. 

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. Supplied

“That challenged my relationship with the (record). He was part of the creation, in a way. And the release was postponed because of the injury and the pandemic. I wished it had been finished and that he could have seen it, because he really put everything into it. So it just added another layer to everything.”

That heavy year hasn’t been entirely without positives though, she stresses. “Even though it’s been very unsettling, with my injury and the pandemic, it did ground something in me. It forced me to look inward more, but also to look at what’s around me and appreciate it and grow from it.”

She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. Supplied

Given the years between the album’s completion and release, I wonder if Nahas still feels as connected to the work. Her answer is a definite yes. 

“It captures a period in my life that I needed to capture and I’m really happy I did that. The songs came from a very honest place. That’s the most important thing — I feel like that doesn’t get old,” she says. “ So, it doesn’t matter when it comes out, because it’s real and it’s truthful — and I’m sure that will be reflected in the interaction with the people who are going to listen to it.”