Saleh Bakri doesn’t mind being compared to his father, the veteran actor Mohammed Bakri. “I got used to it,” he says softly adding that he’s been blessed with having a talented family. He’s younger brother Adam stars in Hany Abu-Assad's award-winning “Omar”.
I meet Bakri at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace on the sidelines of the sixth edition of Abu Dhabi Film Festival, in which two of his most recent films “Giraffada” and “Salvo” are being screened. With his riotous curly hair, piercing green eyes, black t-shirt and greenish jeans, it won’t take long to realize that Bakri’s character on and off screen shares an equal charm.
Since his epic’s performance in Annemarie Jacir’s “Salt of This Sea” (2008), Bakri has captured the Palestinians’ hearts and minds. He continues to do so through his brilliant choices of films including Elia Suleiman’s “The Time that Remains”, Radu Mihaileanu's “La Source des Femmes”, Rashid Masharawi’s “Laila's Birthday”, and Jacir’s “When I Saw You”.
In his latest performance, in Rani Massalha’s “Giraffada”, the 36-year-old Bakri plays Yacine, a young Palestinian widower and the local vet. In this heartrending film, Yacine and his ten-year-old son Ziad are doing the impossible to keep Rita, a giraffe who lost her mate in an Israeli air raid, from dying of loneliness. In another excellent act, Bakri plays a Sicilian hitman who becomes emotionally entangled with his enemy’s blind younger sister in the Italian mafia thriller “Salvo” – which won the Grand Prix at Cannes Critics' Week this year.
This is your first time at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, how important is it for you to be here?
“As a Palestinian (holding an Israeli passport), I’m not allowed to travel to the Arab world. So, I’m grateful for this opportunity to meet my fellow Arab artists, whom I consider part of me, my culture, and my story. This invitation also helps in breaking the Israeli siege on the Palestinian artists. Abu Dhabi Film Festival is doing a good job promoting Arab films and supporting Arab talent, this is why I’m here.”
Why did you sign up for Giraffada?
“I simply liked the idea of having a giraffe on the Palestinian screen, to see it wandering around the Palestinian streets. For me, this was enough to sign up for the movie; I just really liked the idea.”
Your father, Mohammed Bakri, plays an amusing character in Giraffada, do you worry about being compared to him, or overshadowed by his presence?
“This is not the first time we play in a film together; we took part in “Laila's Birthday” before. Being compared to my father was something I had to deal with since I was a little boy, so I’m very used to it. You know, people will always compare me to him, because comparing is part of how people understand things, it’s easier for someone to understand what’s bad when he/she sees what’s good. So, it’s part of how we see and value things. Now, I understand the logic behind comparison, and once I understood it, I started to take things much easier.”
Your brothers are getting into acting as well. It must be challenging?
“Yes, I have two actor brothers Ziad and Adam, they’re both talented actors. I really feel blessed to have such talents around me, because I believe you must challenge yourself, as an actor, as a creator or as an artist. Challenges give you more energy and nourish your art, challenge is a good thing. And it’s good to have it at home, makes it easier to deal with it (laughs).”
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Let’s talk about Salvo, how did you get into the character of an Italian hitman?
“Salvo was a whole new experience for me; it’s different from anything I’ve done before. In the movie I’m playing a Sicilian henchman, whose destiny changes the moment he meets his enemy’s blind sister. The directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza were great. I liked Salvo the moment I read the script, it’s a masterpiece. I actually kept a copy of the script; it’s like a novel, very beautiful.”
“After we finished shooting the film in Italy, they called me up saying that they’re going to dub me, but I said no way, I couldn’t imagine myself being dubbed by an Italian actor. So, I packed my stuff and returned to Rome. I had 25 sentences in the film needed dubbing, so I had to work on my dubbing every day for two months, on my own account, because the production couldn’t pay for my stay. I also had to work hard on my body to get more muscles, and gain more weight.”
You do have strong political views. Most recently, you voiced your rejection of the Israeli state’s use of cinema as a propaganda tool. Do politics play a big part when deciding your roles?
“I take politics and art into consideration when choosing my characters, so I’ll refuse to take part in a good artistic movie with a viewpoint I don’t agree with. Equally, I refuse to take part in bad artistic movies, even if I agree with the film’s stance. I received a lot of offers from Hollywood, and I rejected them for those reasons. One of these offers was to take part in one of the James Bond movies, but when I discovered that the film was promoting some Israeli weapons, I decided not to do it.”
“As for Israeli cinema, as I said, I refuse to take part in any movie funded by the Israeli government, but if there’s an Israeli artist who declares that he’s not going to get any funding from Israeli institutes, and doesn’t want his/her film to be presented by the Israeli apartheid regime, then I’d work with him/her. For me, this director is taking part in my struggle, I can’t say no to them because they’re Israelis, it’s not just, and I’m looking for justice. My justice as a Palestinian is my issue, so if they accept my terms, and they’re against the Israeli apartheid state, then I’m willing to work with them.”
Do you worry about being harassed by the Israeli media after this statement?
“I don’t really care; I’m already harassed because I’m Palestinian. So, no, I’m not worried.”
So, you do think films can actually make a difference?
“Certainly. I think cinema can change people and change realities, and that is one of the reasons I do cinema. The fact that films raise people’s awareness on different issues is important, awareness is the opposite of ignorance and when you’re aware then you can change. It takes time. But bit by bit, slowly slowly, or ‘piano piano’ as they say in Italy, the Palestinian films are making a difference, and reaching out to more people. Good cinema and good art stay with the audience.”
When I Saw You was the Palestinian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, but it didn’t make the final shortlist. What does winning an Oscar mean for you?
“Well, politically speaking, for Hollywood to give an Oscar to a Palestinian movie would be a great change of heart, it would mean that Hollywood is not a Zionist entity anymore. It’s a big change that I don’t think will happen anytime soon. Artistically, winning an Oscar would have given the film the opportunity to be widely seen and known. Hollywood, the industry, needs to change, but I think it’s a lost case.”