Inshallah a Boy, screening soon Cannes Film Festival, is a movie years in the making—and the first Jordanian film to ever screen at the renowned international event. It tells the story of a recent widow, Nawal, on the brink of losing her husband’s home because she has no son to inherit it. To secure her future, and her daughter’s, Nawal must battle against convention and outdated codes of behavior for Arab women.
Director Amjad Al Rasheed, who started writing the script six years ago, is not a film festival first-timer, having won awards for his short pieces at Arab and international film festivals. Last year, Inshallah a Boy was awarded La Biennale di Venezia Prize at Final Cut. Cannes is a hard-won coup, though.
“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 wasn’t telling the story I want.”
It is mid-morning in Amman when we discuss the upcoming screening, Al Rasheed’s early love of film and how he came to make this particular movie. With Nasser’s support, Al Rasheed reworked Inshallah a Boy (which translates to “God willing, a boy”) to be more realistic and dramatic in its telling of a story loosely based on the real experiences of a widowed relative.
The comedic route he initially pursued 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 changed my mind. I worked closely with Rula on adding scenes to the script while researching and doing interviews with people in Jordanian society in the same situation.”
Al Rasheed’s wanted to capture authenticity. He recalls how his relative’s late husband’s family told her they’d allow her to continue living in her own house—a house bought with her own money but not in her name because her husband insisted on transferring the deed to avoid shame. He wondered what might have happened if things had turned out differently, and asking ‘What if?’ let him ponder several alternative outcomes.
“What if they didn’t allow her to live in the house? What if she’d said no? What if they’d insisted on having their part of the inheritance?” he asks, adding: “Is it logical to be ruled by laws created 1,400 years ago?”
Casting the film’s leads took time
Inshallah a Boy is about survival and empowerment. Upon her husband’s death, Nawa (played by Mouna Hawa, the actress and director known for In Between) realizes that all of their shared belongings, including the home she paid for, will become the possessions of his family owing to Jordan’s inheritance law. The only way to ensure that she and her daughter still have a home is to pretend she is pregnant.
Al Rasheed tells me that it took almost two years to find the right people to play the film’s mother and daughter. He looked, as one might expect, for actors with talent and range, but he also wanted to understand those he’d direct on a deeper emotional and physical level. During auditions, he looked at their body language, how they moved—even how they sat.
“I saw Mouna Hawa’s previous work and felt she was a very good talent, but I wanted more than talent,” he explains. “I wanted someone smart who could understand what the character was going through. Mouna is very strong as a human being, very smart, and for two years [we sat] for long Zoom sessions talking about life and everything because she lives in Palestine and I live in Jordan. I understood her background as a human being, and I found the keys to motivate her during roundtables 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,” Al Rasheed says. “She’s very focused. She’s six years old and she knows what she wants, and I hope she’ll have a great career because she’s very talented and smart, with a strong personality.”
Like Rabab’a, Al Rasheed fell in love with film at an early age. Though the Jordanian film industry was nascent only two decades ago, Rasheed grew up watching black and white movies from Egypt on the family TV. To his mother’s delight, he told his parents and their friends that he would be a director when he grew up.
“I was watching black and white films 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 in Business Administration, he took directing and writing workshops through the Royal Film Commission, then enrolled in the MFA in Cinematic Arts program at the now-shuttered Red Sea Film Institute. However, he tells me he never really had a concrete plan. He just had stories to tell and film let him do it through characters, images and vivid details.
Inshallah a Boy received multinational backing
Shot over 30 days between February and March of 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 prizes, Al Rasheed took the film to the Atlas Workshops at the Marrakech Film Festival, where the film won the $25,000 post-production prize.
“We worked hard on this film,” he says. “There was love and passion from every single member of the cast and crew. To have this recognition assured me we were on the right track.”
That track has led to the French Riviera, and Al Rasheed’s demeanor brightens at the mention of Cannes. While other film festivals have committed to showing Inshallah a Boy, having the film screen at what is arguably the crème de la crème of festivals feels like an epic win.
“Cannes is Cannes—it’s a big deal by itself,” he says, before admitting that his excitement has been tempered by thoughts of the future. “It comes with big responsibilities, in the sense of what I’m going to do next, ensuring it will be at the same level and hopefully better.”
Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16 to May 27.