An interview with actress Hana Chamoun from 3000 Nights
Hana Chamoun, a talented Lebanese-Palestinian actress, was in Rochester on September 18, 2016 to talk about 3000 Nights after it screened. Moderating the discussion was Linc Spaulding from Witness Palestine Rochester. This heart-rending and amazing feature film opened the Witness Palestine Film Series at The Little Theatre.
The Toronto Palestine Film Festival described 3000 Nights this way:
Layal, a young newlywed Palestinian schoolteacher is arrested after being falsely accused and sentenced to 8 years of prison. She is transferred to a high security Israeli women’s prison where she encounters a terrifying world in which Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated with Israeli criminal inmates. When she discovers she is pregnant, the prison director pressures her to abort the baby and spy on the Palestinian inmates. However, resilient and still in chains, she gives birth to a baby boy. Through her struggle to raise her son behind bars, and her relationship with the other prisoners, she manages to find a sense of hope and a meaning to her life. Prison conditions deteriorate and the Palestinian prisoners decide to strike. The prison director warns her against joining the rebellion and threatens to take her son away. In a moment of truth, Layal is forced to make a choice that will forever change her life.
Watch the trailer below:
Rochester Indymedia journalist T. Forsyth had the chance to meet Hana and was able to send her some questions via email that she happily agreed to answer.
1) Does the math work? Is 8 years actually 3000 Nights?
2) How did you get involved in acting? And this specific film project?
I was 5 years old when I acted in my Father’s film In The Shadows of the City (2000), and ever since then I knew I wanted to be an actress. I directed and acted in several short films and plays throughout my adult life. I was involved in this film project from the very beginning when my mother started working on it. She created a character just for me, but I still had to audition for the part.
3) Your mother directed the film and at the panel discussion I believe you said you were her personal aid. With regards to the film, what were your tasks? And what kinds of hurdles did you have to overcome in making the film?
I took a semester off from university in January 2014 and moved to Amman, Jordan with my mother where we started the casting and preproduction processes. I was my mother’s shadow for 6 months, learning everything I could from her and being involved in the creative process. One of the biggest obstacles we encountered was working with a two year old child, and one of my responsibilities was to keep him happy and ready for the shoot. Asking a two year old to memorize lines or deliver a performance when its needed, is a very difficult task.
4) Can you give me some history (and the location) of the prison used as the backdrop for the film in Jordan? What was the reaction of the Jordanian government when you went to make the film, if any? What about the locals? Did you hear anything in particular, stories, fragments, etc., about what happened in the prison you were shooting?
The location where we shot the film was in an abandoned military prison in Zarqa, Jordan. We had the cooperation of the Royal Film Commission and with their help we were able to get a special permit from the Jordanian army to film in the prison. We were lucky to be able to shoot the whole film in the prion and use it as our base.
5) What was your reaction to the prison on your first tour of it? How did the other cast members react?
Seeing the location for the first time was both moving and chilling. Since it was a real prison we could still see tallies and arabic writing carved into the walls by the former prisoners. There was a haunting atmosphere in that abandoned prison that gave a wonderful mood to the film. One of the actresses, got very emotional when she first arrived on set because she remembered her brother who was imprisoned for several years in an Israeli prison. She recounted to us the traumatic experiences she went through as a child visiting her brother in the prison. She is a Palestinian actress who played the role of Ze’eva, an Israeli inmate. After the shoot was over she shared that playing an opposing role from her reality was therapeutic.
6) Mara raised a great connection that the prison is a metaphor for the occupation. Was that intentionally built into the script? If so, could you tell me more about the connections between the occupation and the prison environment in general?
The oppressive prison system parallels the brutal occupation that dictates the lives of the Palestinian people on a daily basis. Gaza is a huge open air prison because of the blockade enforced on it, and the West Bank is under occupation with military checkpoints, settlements and an Apartheid wall confining people and limiting their freedom of movement. Families and loved ones are separated from each other and denied the resources of their land. Human rights violations such as forced evictions, demolition of homes, unwarranted arrests and torture are far too common. The mass incarceration technique has been used as a means to weaken and silence resistance, resulting in the imprisonment of over 1 million Palestinians over the years.
7) Last year's Witness Palestine Film Fest had the theme of connecting the dots, from Ferguson to Palestine. What connections do you see in the film? What stands out?
I can see a lot of connections between the Black struggle against police brutality in the US and the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli Occupation. The same oppression techniques (which can be seen in the film) are used by the US police force and the Israeli military against their respective civilian population, including shooting of unarmed protesters, indiscriminate beating and use of tear gas. This connection is directly linked to the training of US police officers by IDF soldiers in Israel.
8) Watching the film I had an incredible emotional reaction. As an actor, watching yourself in Rochester on the big screen, I was curious what you felt and does your impression of the film change? If so, how?
Every time I see the film on the big screen I feel like I am watching it for the first time, crying and laughing with the audience. But I also remember the funny, frustrating and difficult moments the cast an crew went through while shooting the scenes. I always tear up in the scene where my sister dies in the film (I’m not sure if it’s because I give a truthful performance or because I remember how hard it was experiencing that - I think it’s a combination of both).
9) How has the film been received by Jewish audiences in Europe, America, and Israel?
The film has had a positive reception by audiences all over the world. It has created discussions among everyone and been an eye opener for some Israelis who are sheltered from or chose to ignore this reality.
10) At the panel discussion you spoke about the relationships between cast and crew. How did folks nurture those connections after acting out such violent and ugly scenes? Did everyone participate in any rituals together?
My mother comes from a documentary background so she is not used to interfering with the performance. She relies on capturing the truth of the moment and the true essence of characters she films, so she gave us a lot of freedom to explore and improvise on set. We were able to do that successfully and create beautiful spontaneous moments because we built strong relationships in the rehearsal period two weeks prior to the shoot.
11) How did you decompress at the end of a shoot?
I definitely experience PPD (post production depression) after the shoot was over. I missed everyone I worked with, but more importantly I missed having such an active role in the creative processes of the work. I felt all along as though the film was my baby and having to depart from the people, location and routine was sad. Working on the film was a very fulfilling and life changing experience for me.
12) (spoiler alert) You also mentioned you had no professional acting experience before the film. Your character's reaction to seeing her sister shot and killed was chilling and felt raw and authentic. How do you think that scene would have played out had you been professionally trained? (Personally, I thought you were fucking amazing. Chills.)
I think even if I had acting training before the film I still would have done the scene the same way. The way I act hasn't changed since I began training, the only difference is that now I am more aware of myself and the process I have to go through to prepare for a role. Acting for me is, and has always been, about believing in and living through the circumstances of the film/play. When I can’t truthfully do that then I can’t truthfully act.
13) Last question. Audience members referenced a certain feminist quality in the characters and their decisions throughout the film. How do you define feminism? Is that a word you identify with? How is your feminism different from, say, American, white, liberal feminism? Or your mother's feminism, for that matter?
Feminism to me is when women can stand up against oppression, subjugation, and in solidarity with other struggles for equality. In this film the women’s struggles are against the oppressive prison system and the injustice of the occupation. Another important struggle and strong feminist message in the film, is motherhood and how the protagonist, Layal, has to deal with that in the context of the prison.
14) Bonus question(s): I know the script was based on true stories from women inside of these prisons. I'm not sure if you know, but was the portrayal of the prison a portrayal of the absolute worst prison or just your average prison at that time? Have you heard of audience members writing the film off as being too harsh or too radical a portrayal of prisons at that time? Or, instead of being written off, has the film brought a kind of reckoning with a reality many perhaps refused to acknowledge or were ignorant of?
The prison experience portrayed in this film is an average one compared to other experiences. There are some elements that my mother chose not to put in the film for various reasons, for example the extreme and brutal torture techniques that were used on the women, especially the rape of the women by Israeli soldiers, which was very common.
Thank you so much!
Related: Miko Peled interview by Witness Palestine Rochester | What Islam means to the White Male- Through the lens of a Bullet Covered in Bacon Grease | After the Requiem, Chomsky answers questions | The Apocalypse’s Apocalypse and Post-Apocalyptic Visions of Sunshine and Blessings | Rev. Hagler's U of R speech and an interview with student organizer Hijazi | Rochester Rally for Palestine | From Ferguson to Palestine to Rochester: the truth perseveres! Rev. Hagler speaks! | New venue found for Palestinian rights speaker after divinity school rescinds invite