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6Qs with Filmmaker Ziad Hamzeh //

byAhmad Khodr Minkara

ziadNarrative Filmmaker Ziad Hamzeh moved from Syria to the United States in 1979, when he was 20-years-old. Since then, he has won a raft of accolades at international film festivals—over 40 awards so far, including the Kennedy Center Achievement Award. He has written, directed and produced films such as The Letter: An American Town and the ‘Somali Invasion’, Shadow Glories, Woman, Henry O!, and Bleacher Boys. Here, he discusses his latest work Asmahan, his latest award and founding his first theatre company.
Damascus, Syria
Sun Sign:
Causes: Children of the Night, Big Brothers Big Sisters

1. I understand you were just in Tunisia. What took you there?
Every year, the Tunisian Spring Film and Arts festival chooses distinguished artists to recognize their contribution to the worlds of cinema and art.

This year, I got the spotlight. It’s not for one specific work, but in recognition of the collective works of my whole career.

2. That’s quite an accomplishment. I also understand that the Atrash family sold you the rights to tell the story of  singer and actress Asmahan. How did that feel?
In 2001, I returned to my homeland for the first time since leaving in the early seventies to attend the Damascus International Film Festival as an honoree. While I was there, Mamdoh Al Atrash and his brother approached me and asked me to help the production of the series Asmahan. I was not available, and also had some reservations about doing Asmahan as a TV series — she has such an overwhelming personality that I wasn’t sure the small screen could really hold her powerful presence. But when I was in Damascus filming Women, Mamdoh approached me again, giving me nearly 80 signatures from the Al Atrash family asking me to create a work that would do justice to this great woman.

The need to find the balance in this story while not defeating the very essence of being asked to direct this film presented me with one of the most challenging feats I have faced. The script is finally finished and I feel very good about the outcome. Now, the next task of development seems even more challenging as I try to assemble an international cast and crew who will be as dedicated to this story as I am!

3. How do you think a Western audience will react to an English movie about Asmahan?

The prevailing idea of Arab women ignores that we have our own share of brilliant, history-making women. Asmahan can rattle those old ideas and help shape new ones. Presenting a dynamic Arab woman character in a dazzling cinematic production could be the perfect way to take ownership of our own image.

4. What made her such a legend, particularly considering how young she was when she died?
Asmahan possessed a courage that other women were afraid to seek but were desperate to know. She rebelled against anyone who attempted to dominate her. By being a real woman — of substance, of nobility, of character — Asmahan paved a path of promise for the generations of women who came after her.

5. What is different about your version of the Asmahan story than others that have been told before?
I was given more private information than any story could hold. More importantly, I wanted to be as courageous as Asmahan herself and not shy away from events that might be deemed controversial. Yet I am not giving her entire biography, after all

I have 90 minutes to tell her life, so my choice of the events will focus the story on the extraordinary rather than a comprehensive play-by-play of her life.

6. You founded the Open Fist Theatre Company in LA. It’s been very successful — what do you think has made it so?
I created the company with a group of artists shortly after finishing my MFA in 1989. I made the decision to build the company in the midst of Hollywood despite the outcries that we would not survive for one month in that environment. I took a closed building that used to belong to Bob Hope and Houdini and renovated the entire Quonset hut, and we worked 18-hour days as we prepared for our first production, Sam Shepard’s True West. Now, the company is celebrating its 20th anniversary — it’s a visionary organization.

For more on Hamzeh, visit >>


About the Author: Ahmad Khodr Minkara is a U.S.-based writer and physician. This piece was originally published on Dia Magazine.

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