Tarzan and Arab Come to Austin

The Gaza film makers see their first film in the perfect cinema

Ahmed 'Tarzan' and Mohamed 'Arab' Abu Nasser: "Only one in a hundred people are going to try to make their own movie. We're hoping to maybe in the bottom one percent of these people that make movies." (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

It's a cool fall morning in Central Austin. Out on the porch, film making twins Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser – now known internationally as Tarzan and Arab – are deep in interviews. In the kitchen, Alamo Drafthouse supremo Tim League is making espresso. But this is no regular press junket.

In between running the Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest and becoming a father for the first time, League and his staff have done the seemingly impossible – brought two film makers from Gaza to Austin. Not just to show their short film, Colourful Journey, and not just to see it in a cinema for the first time, but to see any film in a cinema for the first time. Literally. The last cinema in Gaza was bombed out in 1987. The brothers were born in 1988, and had never left Gaza.

Think about that for a second. Their whole movie making and movie viewing experience has been from TV and smuggled DVDs. Then the Guardian did a short video package on them, and Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News saw that and showed it to League, and then, because madcap ideas are their stock-in trade, they decided to fly these two guys who have never left Gaza to the Alamo Ritz, to see whatever film they wanted. League said, "You see their eyes light up when they start talking about cinema, and you see how crestfallen they are when they feel like they have a long road ahead of them to see anything in a movie theater. Obviously I'm one of the people that's going to deeply resonate with, to go, 'You know, I have the power to fix that for these guys.'"

When League and Knowles asked them for a short list of films that they would want to see, they did not go for some multiplex fluff: They picked Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. After some frantic phone calls and a last-minute shipment, last Wednesday the twins and an Austin audience got to share Bergman's visually stunning and emotionally harrowing Cries and Whispers. And now they were out on the porch, talking about Gaza and film theory and optimism. League said, "When they came down the escalator at the airport in Austin, they were just grinning ear to ear, trying to absorb everything. I remember them saying that the thing that was most staggering to them flying in over the city that it was a grid, that it was organized. Even the farm plots are organized. Then we drove in through Sixth Street and up Congress, and they were just like, 'Look how neatly the cars are parked.' I'd never even thought about that."

The relationship does not stop there. League and Knowles have already started a Kickstarter campaign and are hoping to raise $20,000 so the brothers can make their first feature, a longer version of Colourful Journey.

Interviewing the twins is a wild ride. Burly, friendly, loquacious, they talk over and around each other, sometimes pushing their translators to the limit before sheepishly realizing they needed time to catch up. Tarzan, more methodical and measured in his answers; Arab, the philosopher king of the two, gregarious and abstract. Yet interviewing the two is like watching their film: An insight into a shared artistic vision. As Tarzan said, "He talked about it. You can be sure we have the same perspective."

Ahmed 'Tarzan' and Mohamed 'Arab' Abu Nasser with Tim League and their translator at the screening of Colourful Journey : "we were overjoyed that there's a message coming the land of cinema, saying we want you to come and watch your film in America." (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

On Coming to America

"We're so crazy about movies, we saw this environment and American characters so much that we felt like we knew the people we were coming across here before we got here. So this might help us to acclimate easier, even though our language is weak.

"It's hard for somebody to move from place to place, even if it's within the same country. Because every place is different, every place has its own characteristics, its own culture, its own heritage. So you need time to acclimate. We came from Gaza to Egypt to Austin. We passed through three cultures.

"Here there's something we really enjoyed, that there's a rule here that you follow for everything. People's respect for law here is really nice, and people here, they're on their own, but if you say 'hi,' they say 'hi' right back. In Egypt and Gaza, everyone's jammed together all the time. In Egypt, we would come across somebody just by coincidence and start talking to them, and become friends instantly. But here, people are on their own and you say hi to each other but it doesn't go beyond that. It's a bigger challenge for us, because we're just used to talking to everybody and getting to know everybody."

The Guardian article and getting to know Tim and Harry

"That article, it's been in the works for a year but they didn't record it. They got interested after we got an award from the Qattan Foundation, and they're saying there's the two guys who live in Gaza, but they're different. They love movies, but they live in a place where there's no movie theaters. So The Guardian newspaper decided, 'We want to see what their story is, and how are they able to keep this dream alive when they are staying in Gaza.' Tim and Harry saw the article, got our email address and got a hold of us. I didn't respond to that email, because I didn't see it. So they sent another email, and I still didn't see it. Finally an email came from Carrie [League's assistant], and after that I dug back and found the old messages. We were very surprised, we were overjoyed that there's a message coming the land of cinema, saying we want you to come and watch your film in America.

"Before we got the invitation to America we got an invitation to England because our film was going to be shown in London, but we weren't able to leave Gaza because of the circumstances. So after that, we lost hope of traveling, but in Carrie's email we felt there was a real hope, and now we're in Texas."

On Film Culture in Gaza

"In the past there were eight movie cinemas in Gaza but they were destroyed. Extremist parties burned them. The culture is there, but it's very weak. It suffers from an embargo that's imposed upon it, and so most people are thinking about the embargo and hunger and the wars. They don't really think about cinema. There are people who maybe studied film in Egypt, but they come back and they have to work in another field in order to live their lives. There's just one guy, our friend Khalil al-Muzzayen, he studied film in Russia and he's just insistent on working in film. So we started working together.

"There's another problem when you talk about cinema in Gaza and the film culture is very simple. When you work in that field, you need resources, and there's aren't resources like cameras. There's no production capability. Everything that we make, we have to produce ourselves. The cameras we use to make our films are really just modest cameras, there're the ones that are used to make news. But we insisted on doing something. We're not going to say it's impossible to do it. Like he says, Gaza is a movie theatre. You've got the screen of the sky and the ground and everything that happens there, and the people who live in Gaza, they're the actors, they're the directors and they're the audience, because there's always something going on. There's always action, there's always romance, there's always horror. Gaza is always fluctuating, it's always changing, there's always something new.

"The beautiful thing about Gaza that we live is that there's no routine. In Austin, every day is kind of the same. The streets are empty in the day, and then there's a few people out in the streets at night. In Gaza, every day is different, every minute is different from the one that went before. Maybe we're walking around the street, something explodes, three of my friends are gone, normal. Maybe walking down the street, and a car comes along and crushes one of your friends. You never knows what's going to come the next day. So this gives you a larger place to imagine in."

'Colourful Journey' by Tarzan and Arab: "Gaza is a movie theatre. You've got the screen of the sky and the ground and everything that happens there, and the people who live in Gaza, they're the actors, they're the directors and they're the audience, because there's always something going on."

On the Film Makers That Influence Them

"Both of us, we want our work to lean towards art, in life and even in film. Like Tarkovsky especially, art is very present in his movies, Bergman has a very strong script, and Kieslowski has really strong music in his film. Every director who picks up a camera has his own style and his own spirit and you can't deny. Even if you're small and you pick up a camera for the first time, you can't deny this. He has his own spirit, he has his own style, he has his own method of film making. Whenever somebody asks me, 'Have you seen this film?' I hate to say, 'No, I haven't seen it.' Because in order to create your own style and your own cinematic spirit, you have to watch the other films that came before you, and to see what they did and to see the cinematic development. Not to take the movie itself. Like civilizations: Every one is built on what came before, but each of them is different and has their own viewpoint. You see things from other civilizations, but it has been developed. It's not wrong to take something from something that's been done before you, but you don't just take it is as it is. You work on it. Where's your take, as a film maker? Where's your take as an artist? That's what you have to do.

"We're always trying to combine the visual arts and cinema in our works. Maybe we'll create our own style, but we're always constantly thinking, how will we benefit from visual arts and put them into our movies? We don't want to say that this scene will look like this painting, but every time we scout a location or set up a scene, we're always leaning towards visual arts. Our style is just what we dream of.

"Only one in a hundred people are going to try to make their own movie. We're hoping to maybe in the bottom one percent of these people that make movies."

On Making Films

"Artists in Gaza are walking along a tight rope. On one side you have the Israeli occupation, and on the other you have the division of the Palestinian people. And you have a tiny little rope you're standing on, and either side there's trouble. It's like there's two monsters. If you just give up, you're going to get eaten by one or the other, but if you stay in place, you're going to stay in your place the entire time.

"People try as much as they can to resist. So from a cinematic perspective, if we were just sitting in Gaza waiting for something to fall into our laps, that's never going to happen. So what happened yesterday is compensation for that. All of the success we have achieved is compensation, because in Gaza we created the resources that we need and we found the things we needed to work with. We want to give our picture and show our suffering to the world. Equipment is important, lighting is important, but it's not as important as who's using this equipment.

"We love the cinema, we're interested in cinema, and we want to prove ourselves as real film makers, even with the most simple equipment. Today you're going to struggle, tomorrow you're going to struggle, the next day you're going to struggle, but eventually you won't. You just need to keep working and tiring yourself until the day you can relax and be comfortable. But before that comes, you're going to be tired. You can't think you're going to make money. It should be art for art's sake, and maybe in the future art is going to feed you. But if your goal in art is money, then you're never going to succeed. Even if you do make some money off art, you're never going to be comfortable with yourself, because that's not art. If you do work that satisfies you, you don't need anything else.

"Working in film in Gaza is a huge adventure. Everybody's going to be looking at you and wondering what's going on. It's enough that we had an experience like yesterday. All that trouble, all those people not knowing what's going on, it's all worth it for something like yesterday when you see someone in the street and they say, 'Oh, I saw your movie.' This creates an impetus inside you to keep you going forward. 'We love you, we trust you, we believe in you.'"

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Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, Tarzan and Arab, Colourful Journey, Cries and Whispers, Igmat Bergman, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Gaza, Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser, Ahmed M. Abu Nasser, Mohamed M. Abu Nasser

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