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Film: ‘Bubble’ star crosses many borders in role as gay Palestinian

by Nick Street

September 8, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Yousef Sweid

Yousef Sweid

Yousef Sweid has worked as an actor, dancer, director, writer and puppeteer. To that list of talents one can add tightrope walking, a feat he accomplishes with considerable grace both in his life and in "The Bubble," a new film from Eytan Fox that opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 7.

"I see myself in Ashraf," Sweid says of the young gay Palestinian he plays in the film. "He just wants freedom, but he doesn't know how to get it."

For Sweid, an Arab Christian who grew up in Haifa and now lives in the thick of Tel Aviv's thriving arts scene, the search for freedom has meant navigating between a number of contending forces in the world he inhabits: He has won raves (and caused swoons) as Jalal, a sensitive soccer star on Israeli soap opera "The Champion," but his heart belongs to the stage at the Cameri Theater, where he got his start as an actor. He longs for the order and stability of Haifa's comfortable Arab Christian community, but he makes his home in Tel Aviv ("a city of too many choices," he laments) with Israeli director Yael Ronen.

And, like Ashraf, Sweid longs to be accepted by his fellow Arabs, even as his search for self-fulfillment continues to take him farther into uncharted territory.

"A lot of my Arab friends tell me I'm too mixed up in Jewish culture," he says. "I am a little uncomfortable with myself sometimes, but I have to keep exploring and learning."

Anyone who cares to cast more than a casual glance at Sweid's career will see that heeding the call of his muses has taken him well beyond modes of artistic expression that are traditionally either Arab or Jewish. In addition to "The Bubble," Sweid says his most satisfying recent work has been training in butoh -- an avant-garde dance form that originated in Japan -- and creating Mahboub, a bespectacled, drum-playing, Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking 5-year-old Muppet on "Rechov Sumsum," the Israeli version of "Sesame Street."

"Mahboub is very innocent," Sweid says. "But he's curious, and he wants to understand things."

Sweid says that, as an actor, he prefers "Rechov Sumsum" to soap operas because of the effect his puppetry has on Arab kids.

"I see the change right away," he says. "There's really nothing in Arabic for kids on Israeli TV, and when they watch Mahboub, they see him teaching the other Muppets to sing in Arabic. That's really profound."

Just as Sweid's work with Mahboub has given Arab kids a chance to see their own experiences reflected in the media they watch, his turn in "The Bubble," which played at Outfest in July, offers gay Palestinians a rare glimpse of themselves in a cultural mirror that tends to make them invisible.

In fact, during the writing process Fox shared drafts of the script with Sweid to get his input on Fox's depictions of life in the territories and to persuade the actor that the depictions of gay sex between Ashraf and Noam (played by Ohad Knoller) were the heart of the story.

"Eytan was very gentle," Sweid says. "He wanted to have a Jewish man and an Arab man making love, and I eventually came to see that those scenes brought the pieces of the story together."

Noam and Ashraf first meet at a border checkpoint, where Noam works as a volunteer in Israel's Civil Guard. As Ashraf and a group of other Palestinians are waiting to cross from the territories into Israel, a pregnant woman goes into labor. When it becomes clear that an ambulance isn't going to arrive before the woman gives birth, tension quickly polarizes the crowd of Arab civilians and Israeli soldiers.

"Noam is the only one who steps in to help," Sweid says. "Then Ashraf is there with him."

The scene ends grimly -- any other note could easily have sounded false, given the current state of affairs in the Middle East -- but it provides the crucible in which the spark of connection between Noam and Ashraf first ignites.

"It seems strange to say," Sweid admits, "but that's the moment when Ashraf falls in love with Noam."

For an artist who has spun an impressive career for himself out of the threads of improbability, finding a source of illumination in the darkest of places is only the latest trick in a life that is certain to be filled with even greater wonders.
Subtitled American trailer for 'The Bubble'

"The Bubble" opens Sept. 7 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Town Center 5 in Encino. http://www.laemmle.com/viewmovie.php?mid=3209


For previous JewishJournal.com coverage of this film, click here.

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