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?”
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