Sherine Salama was the last person to interview Yasser Arafat, just a month before his death, but it took her a year to get the permission to do it. Her film “The Last Days of Yasser Arafat” was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this May where DOX met her.
“The Last Days of Yasser Arafat” chronicles director Sherine Salama’s struggle to get access to Arafat, the dramatic weeks leading up to his death, and the impact of his loss on the Palestinian people. Sherine Salama is Palestinian/Egyptian but grew up in Australia where she is based.
CS: “How did you get the idea for The Last Days of Arafat?”
SS: I woke up one morning with this premonition that Arafat was going to die soon. It’s not as if I spent that much time thinking about this man. I wasn’t really that interested in him and I never thought I would ever do a film about him. I just went with my instinct and it was my faith in that instinct that kept me going.
After I had the premonition, Ehud Olmert, the current Israeli prime minister, publicly declared that he wanted to assassinate Arafat or expel him from the compound. I saw dramatic television images when I was in Australia: the Israelis reoccupying the West Bank and holding Arafat captive in his headquarters; Palestinians flooding the compound to show solidarity; and the buildings in ruins. His story captured my imagination. It was like a king in his ruined castle, his dreams in tatters but still defiant. It was almost Shakespearean.
CS: “Your previous films (A “Wedding in Ram Allah” and “Australia Has No Winter”) are more cinéma vérité. In this film, you are very much a part of the film. What was that like?”
SS: It was a shift. I didn’t set out to include myself in the film. It’s just that I was seeking observational access to Arafat. Basically, I wanted to follow him around for at least a few days. But I soon realized there was no chance I was going to be able to do that. So I ended up inserting myself in the film to help tell the story.
I was a reluctant participant. I don’t feel comfortable about being in my own film. It’s not the sort of film I normally make. But you have to take it case by case. It depends on how the story unfolds. I’m a storyteller and the story demanded that I insert myself. Half the story is about my struggle and my frustration to get the interview, which revealed a lot about the Palestinian Authority at that time – the fact that they were very close-minded and didn’t have a strategy about anything, let alone a media strategy.
SS: As long as it took. Luckily I didn’t give it too much thought. But at one stage, I thought, this could take ten years. But I knew it wasn’t going to take long. After he fell dramatically sick two days after my interview, I thought, “My God, I was fated to do this.” It was so strange. Everything was coming true.
CS: “In the film, you mention that you gave Arafat a letter stating why you wanted to interview him. What did you say in the letter?”
SS: I set out why I was there and that I wanted to get to know something behind the man. We only get a one-dimensional portrait in the West even though he has done countless interviews with journalists in the West or they were only political questions. I wasn’t interested in doing that. For posterity’s sake I wanted to get more of an idea of how he felt about the last four years.
CS: “When you are finally able to interview Arafat, you ask questions such as “What have you personally sacrificed?” But he keeps answering your questions in terms of the Palestinian people, not himself. Did you feel that you should shift your line of questioning at some point?”
SS: I was in a corner anyway because I knew I had a very limited amount of time. He looked tired and he had hardly done any interviews during the entire time I was there. He was off the world stage. The peace process was completely derailed. I knew that this was an opportunity and I didn’t want them kicking me out of the room after two minutes.
I asked Arafat if we could do the interview in Arabic and he agreed. But my Arabic wasn’t that good, and I think they knew that. His advisor Nabil Abu Rudeineh interceded and made it take place in English. I told them that we could subtitle it and they weren’t comfortable with that. Nabil also translated the questions and then would partly prompt Arafat’s answer. He’d say, “Tell her it’s for the freedom of our people.” So he limited it, which was frustrating.
I was hoping Arafat would say something more and perhaps he would have. But who knows? The man was a political machine. I’d hoped he would be able to reflect a little on his life but I wasn’t expecting much really. The man from all accounts had no other dimension. He had no personal life. He wanted the world to see him in a certain way, the sacrificing stoic crusader devoted to the cause of his people. But the way he communicated with me showed a lot of warmth. Several Arab journalists who have interviewed him have told me, “He’s really warm with you like we’ve never seen him and giving a lot more than he normally would.”
SS: They’re overwhelming. It’s a study in grief. It’s a simple film but it has that emotional impact. And you’re just stuck by this incredible bond he had with the people and what he meant to them. When I ask a boy “What’s Palestine without Arafat?” his answer is so poignant: “What’s a home without a father?” That summed it up. A lot of Palestinians were criticizing him in those last years, but when he died all classes banded together. He put Palestine on the map and gave them an awareness of themselves, of their identity as Palestinians, and of their sovereign rights, which they hadn’t really had before. He’s sorely missed now.
CS: “Those crowd scenes at the end looked quite dangerous. Did you shoot that footage?”
SS: All the on-the-ground shots were my camera. I also had one or two local Palestinians who were shooting footage for me. It was really scary and overwhelming. You didn’t know what was going to happen. Soldiers with guns were desperately trying to control the crowds by shooting into the air. The majestic shots, which were done from a rooftop, were agency footage. You had to pay to get rooftop access, I heard something like $20,000. Each agency had ten cameramen. I couldn’t compete with that so I had to be very strategic about where I chose to put my camera. I think I made the right choice to be on the ground where the action was, capturing the immediacy.
And the most incredible thing happened, when I went into the compound to film. This Palestinian man came up to me saying that he was Intelligence and offered me protection. He knew the path of the helicopter and the coffin, and asked me if I wanted his help. I said, “Please!” He put his arms around me and manoeuvred me through the crowd as I was filming. It was quite amazing. He was like a guardian angel. So that’s how I got those shots of the helicopter landing. Nobody knew exactly where it was going to land but I was there in the front row getting that footage. He knew which side the coffin would come out of and where it would go. He was my other set of eyes so I could just focus on what I was doing. I didn’t have to worry about my personal safety.
CS: “Some people may feel that the title is misleading because it’s not just about Arafat.”
SS: I thought about the title carefully and even though the story does fall into two parts, it is simply about the last days of Arafat’s life in the compound. My intention was to capture his last days and that’s what I captured.
People have different expectations when they see a film about a political leader, particularly a controversial one like him. Normally, people would expect to see a talking-heads documentary about his performance and his good and bad points. But the way I chose to make this film was very different. It’s also through my eyes, through my lens as a woman and I think that makes a difference as well. But it’s an observational film so I got what unfolded in front of the camera. I wasn’t interested in making a biography, hagiography or history. Enough people were doing that at the time.