Susan Youssef’s Habibi, a Gaza feature film a decade in the making, wins major award

Susan Youssef’s new feature film Habibi has won the award for Best Arab Feature Film at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival.

This achievement comes after a decade-long struggle by Youssef to make the film. Last year she wrote for The Electronic Intifada about the trials of making a feature film set in Gaza and what inspired it:

I first visited Gaza in 2002 when I was shooting my documentary Forbidden to Wander. It was then I saw children acting out the romance of Majnun Layla, a classical narrative recorded by the writer Ibn Qutayba in ninth century Iraq. It tells the story of Qays, who is driven mad by his love for Layla. Sufis later adapted the story, taking Layla as a metaphor for God.

Over the following years, Youssef attempted to shoot the film in Gaza, but faced sometimes insurmountable obstacles, eventually shooting parts of it in the West Bank and 1948 Palestine.

Here is Youssef’s modern interpretation of the story:

Habibi, a story of forbidden love, is the first fiction feature set in Gaza in over 15 years. The film is a modern re-telling of the legendary tragic romance ‘Majnun Layla’, which was set in seventh century Arabia, when a poet named Qays fell in love with Layla. Driven by the intensity of his passion, Qays was known as ‘Majnun Layla’, which translates as ‘madman for Layla’. In the contemporary setting, two students in the West Bank are forced to return home to Gaza, where their love defies tradition. To reach his lover, Qays graffiti’s poetry across town.

Youssef speaks about making Habibi

Youssef spoke about making Habibi at the Toronto International Film Festival in September