Filmmaker Amjad Al-Rasheed on ‘Inshallah a Boy’: ‘None of us are free until we are all free’

Being a widow can be hard, and being a widow with a young child presents even more challenges, but Nawal (Mouna Hawa), the protagonist of “Inshallah a Boy,” has the weight of the world on her shoulders in this riveting drama from Jordan. Because of a oppressive and sexist law, she finds herself being forced to give up half of what she has to her brother-in-law, Rifqi (Haitham Omari). It seems like her only savior would be a son, who could disinherit Rifqi, so she tells him she is pregnant to delay what could become the inevitable. However, she comes to realize that only she can truly save herself and her young daughter.

“Inshallah a Boy” is the feature debut from Amjad Al-Rasheed. The filmmaker, who is based in Amman, took some time during a recent trip to Paris to chat with Entertainment Voice. Al-Rasheed tells us his personal inspiration for the story, talks sexism in and outside of the Arab world, and why the success of “Inshallah a Boy” stresses him out.

What inspired you to tell this story for your first feature film?

A close relative of mine was almost in the same situation as my main character, Nawal, a woman who dedicated her life for the service of her family. And, when she bought a house, her husband forced her to transfer the house deed into his name, because it’s a shame for a man to live in a woman’s house. And, when he passed away, the family of her husband, they told her, “Because you have daughters, we have a share in the inheritance and in this house, but we will allow you to live in your house.”

The sentence “we will allow you,” it raised many questions in my head. What if they don’t? And, what are her options? And, is it possible for a woman to say no to all laws and traditions in the society? All these questions fueled the idea of “Inshallah a Boy.”

Mouna Hawa, the Palestinian actress who plays Nawal, gives an outstanding performance as this woman fighting for herself and her daughter. Tells us about how you came to cast her and working with her to bring this character to life.

I saw a previous work of hers, and I liked what I saw and thought she was a big talent. I felt like, also, she’s physically very close to the character that I was writing… We did Zoom sessions, and there was the Covid phase where we were not able to [meet in person]. Through these sessions, I started to know Mouna more as a human being. 

It was very important for me to understand all the actors not only as talents, but also as a human beings, to understand their points of view on different topics in life, and to understand their body language, how they move, how they talk, their voice tone, all of these things, all these small things were very important to me as much as their talent. I wanted to know how to motivate them during the rehearsals, during the shooting, and these were the keys I was able to find, these small details to be able to give them the direction, to give me the right beat at the right moment during the scene. 

There is also Yumna Marwan from Lebanon, who plays Lauren. Although she is of a different religion and her family appears outwardly more Western, she still has to abide by a lot of the same rules as Nawal. Tell us about her character.

 I was also raised in a family full of women, and I was also raised in a Christian school, College De La Salle Frères in Amman, a Christian French school, and Christian society is part of the Jordanian society… What I wanted to say was, whatever a woman’s background or religion, in our society, and in societies in general, it doesn’t matter from where they’re coming from, or their religion, or their background, or whatever, they always feel like they are the weakest link, and this is important. Something that I heard from a woman in Jordan, she told me, “You know, Amjad, whatever you do in this society, the law does not help you or back you, nor does society help you.” This is the main thing that I wanted to say, that it’s not the problem of religion, it’s a problem of society first, and how they’re dealing with the religion.

There’s another idea, we think that the more Western you go, the more freedom you get. This is the illusion of freedom, I believe. For Lauren, because I know these characters very well, also from a close circle of friends that I see each day, they give her the illusion of freedom, because she was able to go and study abroad and come back and maybe wear whatever she wants,… but this is basic stuff… This is not a privilege. This is not something extra. But at the end of the day, someone who thinks that she’s stronger and has more freedom in such a society, she will, at some point in her life when she decides to say no, she will most probably find herself in the same case as Nawal.

Whatever background, religion or financial status you’re coming from as a woman, you almost always will face the same destiny unless you decide to fight. I wanted to talk to the Western audience, to be honest with you. I know that I’m talking about a very specific law in my country, in the Arab world, but this is what I felt from the screenings at festivals that I have been to. I’ve been traveling since May, presenting the film in different European countries, in Canada… I saw there are still women struggling, [losing] their rights. 

Something that always comes to my mind is salary inequality between men and women, a man and a woman working the same job, working the same hours, working from the same level, but still the man gets more than the woman. So, there is still fighting to do… I believe that none of us are free until we are all free.

Let’s talk about the male characters too. Rifqi is the “villain,” but he seems sincere in his belief that his actions are justified. Meanwhile, Ahmad is also traditional, but wants to help his sister out of her predicament. Hassan is the “good guy,” but Nawal is iffy about jumping into something.

What I tried to do with all the characters was to put them in a gray zone. There’s no black, there is no white. I don’t believe in black and white. I believe we all can have good manners and bad manners. And, it’s just the circumstances that will allow us to show who we really are. And, this is the kind of moral question that I’m trying to ask through Rivki’s character, the brother-in-law. He’s the villain, but for me, he’s not a typical villain because at the end of the day, he’s not coming to steal from her. He’s following the law. I wanted to raise a moral question: Even if you have the law [behind you], would you do it? Even though you have the right to do it, what do you have to do as a human being?

He really cares about his niece and he wants [what’s best] for her, but still he’s acting from a selfish point of view. As for Ahmad, he’s a victim of society at the end of the day, because the society is asking him to act that way. Society expects men to act a certain way to the women in their lives, and he is this for his sister. It becomes a burden that he did not expect. At first, we were trying to portray him as an ally, but towards the end, he does what society is expecting from him. He’s doing his job as a man in this society. This is what he knows. And, for the physical therapist, Hassan… [he is] written the same way. Even Nawal, she was written in a gray zone.

In the midst of all of this, Nawal discovers that her husband was possibly living a double life, but at a certain point, she decides not to continue digging into this. Deep down, does she really does not want to know the truth, or do her present-day issues distract her?

Nawal, like many women in the society, they don’t know the men that they’re living with, because in this society, a woman is always asked where she’s going, when she’s coming back, what she’s doing, what she’s wearing. I don’t think there are as many rules for men. You can’t ask a man when he’s coming back. I’m speaking generally here, of course. There are some situations where a woman can know everything about her husband… But mainly, women start to discover their husbands maybe after they die, and this is the case for Nawal. She starts to discover stuff about him she never knew, but at a certain point she decides that she didn’t know him alive. She doesn’t want to know about him in his death. That is the change in her character.

Let’s talk about the pick-up truck that Adnan bought from his brother and was in the process of paying off when he died. Nawal refuses to hand it back to Rifqi, even though she does not know how to drive. What would you say is the significance of this?

If someone can drive, symbolically, she can drive her life. Now she’s more in control. She is steering her life. She [has choices]. Everybody is asking her, “Why don’t you sell the truck?” It’s a question that is repeated, because I also wanted the audience to ask themselves, “Why doesn’t she want to sell the truck?” It might solve many of her problems. But again, it’s not us who decides that. She has to decide… If [she were] a man, would anyone ask why he wants to keep that truck? And, then this eureka moment for, for [the viewer]. She wants to keep the truck to be more in control of what she owns. It’s her choice to sell it, to keep it, to learn how to drive.

“Inshallah a Boy” is Jordan’s selection for the Best International Film Academy Award. Talk about what that means for you to have this honor bestowed upon your first feature. 

I’m very proud, to be honest. It means a lot for me to represent Jordan, and for Jordan to feel that this is a film that represents them. I’m very happy with this honor, and also for this to be the first film [selected for] Cannes from Jordan. It’s a big responsibility, to be honest. It stresses me out, because of [the pressure regarding] what I am going to do next, what kind of topics I want to talk about next. It brings much honor, but it also brings a lot of stress

Inshallah a Boy” releases Jan. 12 in select theaters.