Inshallah a boysoon to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, is a year in the making of cinema – and the first Jordanian film ever to be screened at the renowned international event. It tells the story of a recent widow, Nawal, who is about to lose her husband’s house as she has no son to inherit it. To secure her future and that of her daughter, Nawal must fight against conventions and outdated codes of conduct for Arab women.
Director Amjad Al Rasheed, who started writing the script six years ago, is not a film festival first-timer as he has won awards for his short pieces at Arab and international film festivals. Last year, Inshallah a boy was awarded the La Biennale di Venezia prize at Final Cut. However, Cannes is a hard-fought coup.
“At first I had the idea of a dark comedy,” he explains. “I pitched the idea to Rula Nasser, my producer, and she told me she loved the idea, but not the genre. The tone didn’t tell the story I want.”
It’s mid-morning in Amman as we talk about the upcoming screening, Al Rasheed’s early love of film and how he came to make this particular film. With Nasser’s support, Al Rasheed reworked Inshallah a boy (which translates to “God willing, a boy”) to be more realistic and dramatic in telling a story loosely based on the real experiences of a widowed relative.
The comedic route he initially took was inspired by the painfully ridiculous nature of Jordan’s cultural inheritance laws.
“I thought maybe I could [tell this story] with absurdity,” he says, “but I’ve changed my mind. I worked closely with Rula to add scenes to the script while doing research and interviews with people in Jordanian society who were in the same situation.”
Al Rasheed wanted to capture authenticity. He recalls how the family of his relative’s late husband told her she was going to let her live in her own house – a house bought with her own money but not in her name because her husband insisted on handing over the deed to shame to prevent. He wondered what would have happened if things had turned out differently, and asked, “What if?” get him to think about several alternative outcomes.
“What if they didn’t allow her to live in the house? What if she had said no? What if they had insisted on getting their share of the inheritance? he asks, adding, “Does it make sense to be governed by laws made 1,400 years ago?”
Casting the main characters of the film took time
Inshallah a boy is about survival and empowerment. After the death of her husband, Nawa (played by Mouna Hawa, the actress and director known for In between) realizes that all of their shared assets, including the house she paid for, will become the property of his family due to Jordanian inheritance law. The only way to make sure she and her daughter still have a home is to pretend she’s pregnant.
Al Rasheed tells me it took almost two years to find the right people to play the film’s mother and daughter. He looked, as you might expect, for actors with talent and range, but he also wanted to understand those he directed on a deeper emotional and physical level. During auditions, he watched their body language, how they moved, even how they sat.
“I saw Mouna Hawa’s previous work and thought she was a really good talent, but I wanted more than just talent,” he explains. “I wanted someone who was smart and understood what the character was going through. Mouna is very strong as a person, very smart, and has been for two years [we sat] talking about life and everything for long Zoom sessions because she lives in Palestine and I live in Jordan. I understood her background as a human being and found the keys to motivating her during round tables and on set.”
Young Celina Rabab’a plays the role of Nawa’s daughter Nora.
“Celina is very special, very smart and she reminds me of myself when I was young,” says Al Rasheed. “She’s very focused. She is six years old and she knows what she wants, and I hope she will have a great career because she is very talented and smart, with a strong personality.”
Like Rabab’a, Al Rasheed fell in love with film at an early age. Although the Jordanian film industry was only emerging two decades ago, Rasheed grew up watching black and white films from Egypt on the family TV. Much to his mother’s delight, he told his parents and their friends that he would be a director when he grew up.
“I watched black and white movies starring Omar Sharif and Faten Hamamah,” he says. “I was so obsessed with this dream. I didn’t even know what a director was when I told people I wanted to be one.”
While completing his bachelor’s degree in business administration, he took directing and writing workshops through the Royal Film Commission, after which he enrolled in the MFA in Cinematic Arts program at the now-closed Red Sea Film Institute. However, he tells me that he never really had a concrete plan. He simply had stories to tell and film allowed him to do so through characters, images and vivid details.
Inshallah a boy received support from multinationals
Shot over 30 days between February and March 2022 with a mostly Jordanian crew, the film is a collaboration between The Imaginarium Films and Lagoonie Film Production, made with support from Egypt, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. After the Venice Film Festival, where Inshallah a boy won several awards, Al Rasheed took the film to the Atlas Workshops at the Marrakech Film Festival where the film won the $25,000 post-production award.
“We worked hard on this movie,” he says. “There was love and passion from every member of the cast and crew. This recognition assured me that we were on the right track.”
That trail has led to the French Riviera, and Al Rasheed’s attitude brightens at the mention of Cannes. While other film festivals have committed to screening Inshallah a boyhaving the movie screen at what is arguably the crème de la crème of festivals feels like an epic victory.
“Cannes is Cannes – it’s a big deal in itself,” he says, before admitting his excitement has been tempered by thoughts of the future. “It comes with great responsibilities, in terms of what I’m going to do next, making sure it’s on the same level and hopefully better.”
Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16 to May 27.