Themes that inspire Middle Eastern film also emerge in the making of it.
To understand the filming of religious sites and locations in the Holy Land, one needs to understand the nuances and political influences that dominate the region. Ironically, the oppressive forces of day-to-day life in the Holy Land that inspired the film also emerge in the making Holy Air—it is exactly what the film is all about.
When you watch the film Holy Air you go for a biblical trip but might not realize it. Most of the shooting locations are mentioned in the bible and part of the rich heritage of the region. While the film is not blatantly about politics and religion, it is written and made from a unique perspective. Three cultures collide (and often come together) in the region: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and among them, a small minority: Christian Arabs. I was raised in the city of Nazareth by Christian Arab parents, and while this is not a film based in religion, it certainly explores religious themes, such as the commercialization of religion and spirituality.
There is much more to securing religious sites for filming than paying a fee and putting it on the schedule like you might do in America. To fully understand the challenges, you also need an understanding of the region and its politics—the hands of it are in everything. Holy Air is the story of Adam, an Arab trying to beat the oppression inherent to his culture in the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine). While I relate deeply to the character and my experiences are reflected through him, I never could have guessed how much I would have to think like him in order to secure my locations and get my film made. Indeed, I would have to be a little bit like Adam to manipulate a system that was inherently stacked against me.
There are two factions that dominate Christianity in the Holy Land—and people may be surprised to learn that Christianity is also an oppressive force in the Holy Land. It’s complicated. The Vatican represents the Catholic Church, and then there is the Greek Orthodox Church. Both have churches in Nazareth and each believes that their site is the true location of the annunciation (the immaculate conception of Jesus). As a filmmaker, it was important to me to film in both these places, because in many ways, Holy Air is really an allegory—a modern day version of the annunciation.
While they used to flourish in the area, Christian Arabs are now a small and diminishing minority in the Holy Land. They live on the fringes of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures that dominate the area, and due to a general mistrust of Arabs in the region, Christianity keeps them at a distance too. While Arabs are allowed to serve in the church, overall, they are viewed through a lens of mistrust—an Arab could never advance to a high position such as Custody of the Holy Land or a Pope. This is symbolic of the entire problem of Arabs in the Holy Land. What is true in the church is true with just about anything—something stands between Arabs and every dream of achieving anything significant.
There is an important and emotional scene in the film when Adam’s dying father insists on an underground burial plot, which is no longer available to him. The reason stems from corruption, as the church has sold off land that be provided to the people for burial sites, but the Bishop of the church, the head bishop of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who is Greek and not Arab and is motivated by profit, has sold off the land, causing Christian Arabs to have to be buried above ground. In frustration and anger, Adam’s father attacks the Priest and cuts off his beard—a symbol of humility and dedication to God. The scene shines a spotlight on the bigotry of Christians when confronted with Arab existence. As an Arab wanting to shoot movie scenes inside the churches, I was met with the same religious hypocrisy.
Before we could shoot at the St. Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church and the Basilica of the Annunciation we had to meet with the Custody of the Holy Land and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. You have to understand that these are very important and powerful individuals in the Holy Land. Any Christian would have to pull rabbits out of hats to make this happen—securing a meeting with them is tantamount to getting a meeting with the Pope or the President of the United States. An Arab has what you call a snowball’s chance in hell to make that happen.
In the end, we would owe thanks to our producer, Ilan Moskovitch, and his wife, Arpi Shotigian, who would ultimately get us the meeting with The Custody of the Holy Land. The meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was arranged by Efaf Touma, the head of the Community Counsel of Nazareth. She played a crucial part in helping us to get an interview.
The meeting with the Custody of the Holy Land was a very positive experience. Other than being extremely nervous to meet him (he is the highest priest in the Holy Land under the Pope), the Custody turned out to be a fresh face to the traditionally conservative church. He is young, highly intellectual, speaks many languages, and is humble, clever, and wise. To our astonishment, he promised to his best to help us and gave us the green light to shoot inside the Basilica of Annunciation for one hour, making Holy Air the first fiction film to ever shoot in the church.
When we finally met with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, we were met with doors that threatened to slam in our faces within seconds. It’s not an intimate situation where you get to talk person-to-person to plead your case. There are many requests being presented and considered. When our turn came to talk about what we wanted, I was barely through my first sentence when the “no” answer was thrown down.
My request—to film a scene where the priest is giving the communion—caused a hush to fall over the room and everyone was looking at me like I just threw a bomb. It turns out that my idea was an unspeakable one—it is forbidden to film a priest who is giving the communion—it is a moment between a person and Holy God. I argued that this would be different because it would be actors, but the hammer had been thrown down and we were expected to leave, and this is when I had to put myself in Adam’s shoes and do what needed to be done—a quick edit in my head of the scene to make it conform to the rules.
I asked if we would be permitted to shoot a scene of a mother pushing her wheelchair bound and dying husband into an empty church where they would light candles and pray, where the man would die listening to the sound of the water from the well of Mary. We were asked if the actors were Greek Orthodox and I said, yes. This is the scene that ultimately made it into the film.
This is the situation of an Arab in the Holy Land, whether it be securing a location for a film shoot, or trying to accomplish anything of significance. You have to be quick on your feet, flexible and adaptable, and constantly prepared to adapt to someone else’s vision of life and the accompanying rules. Holy Air is a very controversial film that highly criticizes the commercialization of religion, and out of respect and in gratitude to the Custody of the Holy Land, certain scenes were ultimately omitted from the film.
I feel the need to mention here that it is not all infighting among the various factions in the Holy Land; in fact, there are many times when everyone comes together. Humanity is everywhere in the Holy Land—many of us are friends. Many people came through to make this film a reality. In fact it was almost mission impossible to bring hope into the screen when hope is dying in this area. The point of the film is not to point the finger at any one, but to highlight the barriers between us that are inherent in living in a religiously and politically charged land. This is symbolized in the film with characters from different backgrounds talking through glass windows, over tables—something is always between them—these barriers are the metaphors in the film. Something will always come between an Arab and his highest dreams, even his own religion.
Holy Air is a film about a couple’s everyday lives and problems, set against a backdrop of a deeply entrenched system of political, religious and regional unrest. You can’t talk about shooting locations without understanding the political, religious and opposition that is ever present in everyday life—it flows out and touches everything.
Ultimately, the biblical locations—Basilica of the Annunciation, St. Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church, Mount Precipice, the Synagogue, Our Lady of the Fright, Notre Dame de l’Effroiare— are at the heart of the film and intended to reflect the conflict, oppression, commercialization and hypocrisy that Christianity presents for all religious and political factions of the region, particularly those who identify as Christian Arabs. What I couldn’t have anticipated was how these themes would present themselves in the act of making the film, and how they would ultimately influence and shape the film even after its writing. The locations and the themes are ever present in the Holy Land, infiltrating everything.
In the end, it’s a Waiting for Godot situation. The culture of oppression and the lack of hope often leaves Arabs with thoughts of hanging themselves, but ultimately, they wait for Godot. Does God exist and does he give one human power over another? These are all themes in the film, and the forces that ultimately affected the film, it’s shooting, and my vision. MM
Holy Air opens in theaters on November 17, 2017, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.