Hany Abu-Assad: A Life With Direction


Recently in town to be part of the panel of judges at the 39th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, with his acclaimed film “The Mountain Between Us” also being selected to open this major event on the industry calendar, filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad graciously agreed to share a personal insight into his road to success with Cairo West Magazine.

Born in Nazareth, Palestine in 1961, Abu-Assad spent his childhood years there until completing high school. He then went to Holland, where he studied airplane engineering. Upon graduation he went on to work successfully in this field for two years, before returning to his birthplace. Then, serendipity struck. A chance encounter steered his life onto a totally new course, one that has unfolded into a formidable creative output through his role as a film director. Has his ability to create Oscar Best Foreign Language nominated films like Paradise Now and Omar, that resonate so well with an audience, been rooted in his own personal journey we wondered?

CWM: Hany, you have had a fascinating path in your career, how did it come about?

H.A.: Even though I was successful in my work as an engineer in Holland, I wasn’t happy and didn’t feel fulfilled. I went back to Palestine and upon my return, purely by chance, met Palestinian film director, Rashid Masharawi. One thing led to another and I became his assistant. Through this, I realized that I was happier working in art than in engineering. Both lines of work require imagination, but in art you never know if it’s going to work. The element of risk is always high, and you can’t take such risks in engineering. It appeals more to my nature to work in a field that has certain risks, and because I have a great need for expression, I decided to become a filmmaker. It seems that I have found my niche, with a lot of my movies receiving awards in high profile festivals, especially Paradise Now and Omar. I have been nominated twice for Oscars and have also won a Golden Globe. After that recognition, things gathered momentum and 20th Century Fox came knocking on my door, asking me to do The Mountain Between Us. I read the script, fell in love with it and now here we are. The movie was released in the Middle East on November 29th.

The Mountain Between Us has garnered a lot of praise, but it must have been a challenge to film. What can you tell us about the locations selected and special moments that will stay with you?

We had to shoot the movie in remote locations up in the snow-covered mountains of British Columbia. It was extremely cold, sometimes minus 38 degrees and also at such a high altitude there is a lack of oxygen, so you must constantly struggle to breathe. Working long hours in these circumstances is brutal, though we were super motivated because we realized we were making a picture that people would really want to watch on the big screen.

We also heard that one cast member had very special privileges, tell us more!

The film’s two leading actors Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are huge stars and usually will be treated as such on movie sets. They have their own luxury trailers and will be attended to in order to make them comfortable. In the filming of our movie we couldn’t have this, so we all worked hard and sacrificed any indulgences in order to get the picture made. The real diva was our dog, he is the third cast member and for the most part he refused to come out of his warm tent to do the scene. The crew and our stars often had to wait for hours in the cold snow for the dog to come out. So we had a very different problem from most movie sets. Usually actors can be hard to budge from their trailers, but for us, the dog was acting like a big star. But I have to say, he did a nice job in the end and you can’t feel his “diva-ness” on the screen. He is cute and you can’t help but love him.

Can you tell us what you currently have in the pipeline?

I truly don’t speak about my future. I have a lot of projects cooking, but I have no idea which one is going to happen!

On another note, what advice would you give to young directors struggling to make a mark in a competitive industry?  

Work on your talent, this is your only ticket to recognition. The more you understand filmmaking, the more you practice filmmaking, the more you will be recognized. Don’t chase people, let people chase you and they will chase you when you become a better filmmaker. One of the key needs for becoming a better filmmaker is that you have a genuine interest in human stories and human issues. This is key to all artists.

Quick-fire round:

Favorite filming location so far?
Gwendolyn Mountain in British Columbia, Canada. It has stunning beauty and we were so privileged to visit this place and film there.

Best advice you have been given?
Success comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.

Food that reminds you of home?

Music on your playlist? 
Coldplay X&Y, Bach, Abu and Yousra, Julia Botros.

Best book you have read in 2017?
The Third Dog’s War by Ibrahim Nasrallah. The book is coming out next year, but I read the manuscript.

Time to relax?
It is crucial to happiness.

Someone who always brings a smile to your face?
My wife, Amira Diab.

Habit you would like to break?
Eating too much.

Your getaway holiday spot?
Anywhere in Italy.

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