Filmmaker Rakan Mayasi on Palestinian Cinema After Hamas’ Oct. 7 Attack on Israel

The Key, a historical symbol used by the Palestinian people to represent their diaspora from 1948 until today, is the title given by Rakan Mayasi to his short film presented at the 29th Medfilm Festival. The celebration of Middle Eastern cinema wrapped up in Rome on Sunday, Nov. 19.

In a twist on the home invasion genre, Mayasi’s drama, adapted from a short story by Anwar Hamed, sees an Israeli family tormented by a mysterious and disturbing sound that slowly reveals itself to the audience as the sound of a key in a lock. It’s as if someone outside, who has a key to the house, is trying to return. It’s a clear political metaphor, especially for those, like director Mayasi, who are among more than seven million Palestinians living in the diaspora.

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Mayasi spoke to The Hollywood Reporter Roma about The Key and the role of Palestinian cinema in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and the ongoing war in Gaza.

In The Key, your perspective as a director is Palestinian, but the characters are Israeli. Where did this choice of perspective come from?

The characters who react to the sound are Israeli, but the real protagonist is invisible. And it’s the sound behind the door, the sound of the key in the lock: The right of the Palestinians to return home. I felt very inspired by this aspect of the story because its elements are a means to play with sound and image.

Your short film is based on the short story of the same name by Anwar Hamed. What attracted you to this subject?

I was already working on a science fiction short when I came across this story and was fascinated by it. Many things caught my attention, including the fantasy-thriller genre, the Palestinian perspective on Israeli characters, the fact that the off-screen sound is the driving dynamic of the narrative, the subtlety of the entire plot, and above all, the main message. The right of Palestinians to return home, to their land, is told in a new and creative way. All these elements convinced me to contact Anwar Hamed immediately to adapt his text. It’s a bold story that I wanted to turn into a bold short film.

Violence in the short film is implied but not shown, at most it is heard in the sound of gunshots. What were your aesthetic references in constructing it?

It was in the original story. Guns are widespread in Israeli society, so it is not a surprising element. The violence in the story and in the movie is built up gradually, in accordance with the dramatic need for increasing tension.

Considering that The Key belongs to a sub-genre of horror, that of the home invasion, which is often linked to political themes, was the aesthetic of the film guided by the nature of its message?

For me and the other seven million Palestinians in the diaspora, Israel does not allow us to return to our land. There seems to be a deep fear of our return. So, I wouldn’t call it a home invasion but rather a return of the original inhabitants. The very idea of putting a key in the lock, turning it and trying to open a passage is an act of return, not an invasion. There is no violence in returning home. On the contrary, it is a way of invading the consciousness of the settlers. Let’s not forget that the key is already a historical Palestinian symbol, the symbol of a right we have been claiming since 1948.

The Israeli family takes tranquilizers to try and sleep, and to ignore the sound of the key. It’s another powerful metaphor.

One of the main themes of the movie is forgetting. Israeli society has no memory of the suffering and rights of the Palestinians. This is also understood as the plot of The Key unfolds. The sedatives are added to reinforce this idea, while the sound of the night comes to tear through the unconscious conscience.

As a Palestinian director, do you think anything has changed since Oct. 7 in terms of how you can express your experience?

The priority now is the ceasefire. I and all the Palestinians I know, have been so emotionally and mentally immersed in what has happened since Oct. 7 that I have not had a chance to reflect on it. Certainly, the voice of Palestine has not been given space to be heard in the mainstream media for a long time. And we fear that even in independent spaces, on artistic platforms, at festivals, this voice will be silenced, censored or deprived of the right to speak in public and in institutional contexts. I hope that does not happen. On the other hand, there seems to be more awareness. More and more people are interested in the Palestinian cause, interested in supporting our rights.

What do you think is the role of cinema in telling the story of Palestine and Palestinians today?

Cinema is powerful. It transcends many arts because it brings a stronger and more complete audiovisual experience. Movies are made to last, and cinema has the ability to record our present for the future. We Palestinians are no exception in this sense. There are very important Palestinian films that have given our voice to the world because cinema is not a news item on television. It is much more metaphysical and certainly of greater creative and emotional impact.

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