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What do you get when you force Palestinian nuns and Israeli Jews to work together? Well, as evident by Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, it’s just the right ingredients for a quirky comedy.

The 15-minute short follows a group of five Palestinian Carmelite nuns from the Sisters of Mercy convent who are forced to abandon their silent prayers after a bantering family of Israeli settlers accidentally crash into their property.

In spite of their religious differences, the nuns, who are forbidden to speak due to a vow of silence, and the Israeli family, whose own physical abilities are limited due to the Sabbath, must work together to find a solution.

A French/German/Palestinian co-production, Ave Maria marks the second short for the up-and-coming Palestinian director, who is not new to satirical or religious territory, either. Khalil’s previous short, 2005’s Ping Pong Revenge, was a musical comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The film, which has already won top prizes at film festivals in Grenoble, Montpellier and Dubai, is one 10 finalists vying for Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

I spoke to Khalil about developing a comedy with religious themes, depicting Israeli-Palestinian issues on the big screen, and his upcoming Jamie Oliver-inspired feature debut.

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ScreenPicks: Your film pokes fun at the physical challenges that both of these groups have on their followers. On one hand, you have the Israelis who are restricted from the Sabbath, and then the nuns with their vow of silence. As evident in your film, when you place them in this situation of a car crash, it’s a recipe for humorous possibilities. What was your inspiration behind this concept?

Khalil: “I was brought up in the city of Nazareth, and near our house was a Carmelite convent, a massive, huge palace of a building, with seven nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence. It’s like a fortress, so it’s kind of this — what struck my curiosity was how do they live under these strict rules and the modern world. These nuns are — some of them in their 70s and 80s — and they still use rotary phones and have never heard of a fax machine yet. So that’s what drew my attention.

“And then also being brought up as a Palestinian in Israel. Once you’re born, you’re instantly having to take sides — whatever religion you are. You don’t get to choose, and you have to live by those rules without even choosing them … I questioned the rules that were being imposed on you. It’s my message.”

ScreenPicks: Taking on a film that revolves around religion is already a risky endeavour, but when you add the element of comedy, it becomes even more so. When you wrote the script, was it a challenge to tread on something as sensitive as religion?

Khalil: “Yeah, absolutely. I got rejected everywhere — everyone thought I was crazy to make a film about nuns and Israeli settlers. It was, like, three years. We had half the money and three years to get the other half. In the end, my producer put in his own cash. But I was also a bit terrified ’cause writing comedy is very difficult. I thought, oh, it’s gonna be easy. And I had to work really hard on making the comedy not patronizing and not poking fun, but the situation is funny, because those two worlds on their own, they’re fine. But when they come together, things happen and that’s what I focused on.”

ScreenPicks: Filmmakers often find inspiration from their own lives. As you mentioned, you grew up in Nazareth. And your father — I also read — was an evangelist preacher. And in another interview I’ve read of yours, you talked about your upbringing, how you were limited in what films you were allowed to watch as a child. How has your own experience helped inform this film? Which is very much about being restricted by your traditions.

Khalil: “Well, I never thought about it that way. Now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense. I’m in a therapy session with you; I hope you don’t charge me for this. When you’re starting out, you make films that you can really tell authentically and properly, and I guess this was on my agenda, taking sides or not taking sides. What’s the word? You were born into a side, and you’re not allowed to question it, right? I guess as I grew older, I left home, and I began to question all these strict rules. This is maybe what I’m trying to say for this film.”

ScreenPicks: To even get a film to the principal photography stage is an accomplishment on its own. What was your biggest obstacle during the production, and how did you overcome that?

Khalil: “The biggest obstacle was — I had a few. One was finding an older actress, to act the mother superior, have natural eyebrows. Women in the Middle East, after a certain age, they laser their eyebrows and they tattoo them back on again. And nuns don’t do that, so I was, like, searching high and low for an actress with natural eyebrows. I found one, and when I went to meet her, she went and lasered them a few days ago without knowing. (laughs) So, in the end, she put on her mother’s reading glasses, and that’s why the nun has reading glasses in the film. That’s a funny obstacle, but that’s what it was, actually.”

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ScreenPicks: In a past interview, when you were asked if you were a spiritual person, you said, “I’ve become more cynical. I’m questioning the rules.” During the process of making this film, were your initial views about religion at all changed or challenged?

Khalil: “No, since from the beginning it was always about questioning the rules. I mean, I’ve been brought up in a country where you’re forced to take sides and you’re forced to follow the religion. You don’t have a choice. And so I’m still skeptical about organized religion.”

ScreenPicks: This is your second satirical short that takes on issues within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What advantages do you think film has over broadcast news media when it comes to telling these very personal stories?

Khalil: “The problem is [that] with broadcasters these days, everyone’s got an agenda. So you’ve got your Fox News, you’ve got your BBC — everyone’s using terminologies that the people haven’t chosen and they’re telling our stories within their own lens. So I’ve got a chance here to tell my story; nobody can come tell me, ‘that’s not true.’ It’s a fictional story, but it’s from true-life experience. I also think people are sick of the same news, miserable stuff coming out from there, and they want to see real life, real people, real stories, bit different from agenda-driven propaganda.”

ScreenPicks: Especially for those of us Western audiences, we’re not really accustomed to seeing these types of characters depicted with nuance and variation. What do you hope international audiences will take away from the characters in this story?

Khalil: Right. Well, I hope they sort of see that there are different layers, different religions, different layers of extremism, and different layers of kindness coming out of the Middle East. Let’s say, like, not a lot of people knew that there were Palestinian nuns in the first place and Christians out there. Also, people can get along. There is, you know, once you get on a humanistic level, people can get along at some level. And it’s just stubborn politics and maybe religion gets in the way.”

ScreenPicks: The definition of success is different for each individual. Some people would define it as critical acclaim, awards, financial success, or audience reception. How would you define your film’s success?

Khalil: Well, it depends when you ask me. This time last year, I was being rejected. I got rejected by five festivals. For me, success would’ve been to be accepted into any festival. And then we got Cannes, so that was beyond our expectations. Now, for me, success would be for the film to be seen by as many people as possible. So we were fortune with Ave Maria; it’s been to 56 festivals in seven months, which has been crazy. But I’ve done years and years of a short that’s not been successful in festivals, but it’s been successful on YouTube, and I’m just as proud of that as well. So I think you make a film for people to watch.”

ScreenPicks: And I know that next up you’re working on a feature that’s inspired by your time working on Jamie Oliver’s show. Can you tell us more about that and what we can expect?

Khalil: “Well, it’s a bit early at the moment because I’m still figuring out the story. But it’s a foodie comedy about a food critic who is forced to write bad reviews by the mafia owners of money laundering restaurants. That’s as much as I’ve got at the moment.”

ScreenPicks: No title yet?

Khalil: “It’s called The Critic.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Basil Khalil.)