Mars at Sunrise is a film that was inspired by the life of Hani Zurob. I met Hani years ago while making my film Meet Me Out of the Siege. He spoke to me about the torture he endured. He described the perverse relationship between himself and his jailor. Hani’s interrogator asked him to collaborate with Israeli Intelligence and disclose which artists in Ramallah had connections to the various “terrorist” organizations. The officer asked Hani to sketch his portrait, and when Hani refused to sign the sketch, his hands all the time-bound with plastic handcuffs, the officer broke the hand he believed was the artist’s drawing hand. I began to ask myself what interest did this military man have in a painter? I became very curious about the inner world of these two men. Could it be that within the interrogator lay deep creativity akin to that within Hani? When the screenplay was finally finished I sent Hani the text. We shared great trust, affection, and friendship between us. I told him I would not make a film that was harmful to Palestine in any way. I promised I would not simplify his story and juxtapose it unfairly against the pain of his jailor, or make another problematic stereotypical film about the occupation. But these are just words. When he read the script, he saw that the interrogator in my film was an artist like himself, and he felt this pushed the limit too far. Could I dare to imagine that the man who tortured him was an artist? We had planned to use his paintings in the film as the body of work for the character of Khaled. He said we could not use them.
Eventually, I accepted the reality that I might never please my friend. I understood that it would be nearly impossible to make a film about a torture victim’s experience that the victim would not feel deceived by. The film became a rich tapestry of hundreds of people’s testimonies, filtered through the witness of my imagination. Mars at Sunrise developed a truly universal language, even as many of the scenes remained written word for word from Hani’s original testimony.
I recently traveled to Paris to visit Hani. I prepared myself for what could be one of the hardest days of my life. I told myself when he says “I never want to see this film again” or “you have betrayed me” I would have to be strong and understand it’s bigger than him or me now. There are great truths in this film and I know it’s a powerful work made by many talented, dedicated people. But I was scared.
We were alone when we watched the film. His eight-month pregnant wife was stuck in Jerusalem, fighting the bureaucracy of the occupation. She was unable to leave the country without losing her Jerusalem ID and the right to live in the home where she was born because she had been living in Paris for the last years. Nevertheless, she needed to leave immediately to deliver the child on French soil so her otherwise stateless Gazan child could have a chance at a French passport. Hani was deep in the thick net of the occupation, although we sat in a small painting studio in Paris.
I trembled with nerves, drinking the tiny cup of strong Arabic coffee in front of me. As the credit sequence appeared on the screen I knew he would soon turn and look me in the eyes. I held my breath until he said “Mabrouk” and a smile spread wide across his face. A soft smile, a reflective smile. A genuine smile full of stirred up memories. Congratulations he said again, and I released tension in my body that I had been holding for five years.
Hani said that it was difficult that in many ways Khaled and Eyal’s stories parallel, but ultimately he felt the work was strong, sophisticated, and intelligent. From his point of view, Khaled’s character is the one that allows Eyal to look into the mirror and see for himself whom he has become. At that moment I felt deep gratitude to all who have trusted me with their stories, and a great hope that we will transcend the many walls we have built between us on Earth, one story at a time.
Photography by Xavier Cunilleras