From Nazareth to Hollywood: Why Palestinian actress Leem Lubany is the real star in ‘Rock the Kasbah’
“Safe as milk.”
The same words used by doofus American arms dealers to describe a seemingly fool-proof delivery to a Pashtun chief could just as easily capture Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson’s new war comedy ‘Rock the Kasbah’ in one succinct sentence.
The reviews are in and they’re not pretty.
Known for telling political stories like “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Wag the Dog,” Levinson missed the mark in this poor attempt at a war-comedy that failed to live up to one’s great expectations. Even beloved funny man Bill Murray and a star-studded cast failed to impress in this confusing story with too many cameo characters and not enough time to develop and earn its feel-good climax.
Director Levinson said he was looking to create “a humanistic, dramatic comedy that dealt with the Muslim world in Afghanistan.” He does do that, to some degree, by depicting Muslim-society in a non-Hollywood fashion by placing the American stars as the bumbling characters and most of the Afghan characters as the good guys.
But as a few critics pointed out, the real heart of the story lies in the simple dream of young Pashtun Salima Khan played by 19-year-old Palestinian teen Leem Lubany.
Barely seen in the trailers and only introduced about half-way through the movie, the Nazareth-born actress shines in her too-short English debut role with her grace and fearlessness. Salima’s story – that of a young Afghan teen with a dream to sing and the gumption to do anything to make that happen – was what drew Lubany to the role.
“For me, I can sing in the shower, the car, in front of family and friends; but for her, her dream is to sing and let her voice come out,” said Lubany. “It may not seem like that big of a dream. But what I love about Salima is that she wasn’t looking for fame or wealth. She just wanted to let her voice out. And when she saw the opportunity, she took it and that takes courage.”
The plot of the story is distantly inspired by Setera Hussainzada, an Afghan female vocalist who received death threats after her headscarf slipped during her performance on the real-life Afghan Star in Kabul.
From Nazareth to Hollywood
Coming from a creative and open-minded family, Lubany says she was always interested in becoming an actress. Given her quick rise to the international stage, she now seems destined to do so.
Best known for her debut role in ‘Omar,’ little did she know that just a year and a half later, she would be posing for photos on the red carpet for the 2014 Academy Awards when the film was nominated for Best Foreign Language feature. That same week, then 16-year-old Lubany put in her audition tape for the role of Salima and a short Skype call later, she landed the part.
“I wasn’t expecting my first film to get to the red carpet or the Academy Awards,” said Lubany. “Things happened so quickly that I didn’t have the time to realize it. But now that I think about it more, I’m very blessed to get where I am today in such a short time.”
Nervous and excited to work on her first big production film, Lubany says it was intimidating at first, but gradually fit in to the role by focusing on what she loved most – acting. Her chemistry with Bill, however, was instant.
“Leem and I did a scene that was the climax of the movie — perhaps 10 or 12 takes,” said Bill Murray. “Barry Levinson said would you mind doing one more and I said, ‘I could do this scene with her all day long.’”
Fahim Fazli, the actor who plays Salima’s father, mentioned in an earlier interview that this was the first time he wasn’t cast as a terrorist in his 25-year-acting career.
Now playing the role of a father who breaks away from local patriarchal traditions, he says he hopes both his and Leem’s characters help “blaze a new path for women to stand up for their rights to express themselves and share their gifts with the world.”
A modern Arab pioneer for regional creatives
Although many critics were quick to point out the ‘absurdity’ of an Pashtun girl singing Cats Stevens covers on an Afghan talent show, Lubany says she was relieved to hear she would be singing songs she was familiar with which brought back fond memories of listening to Father and son with her own father in Nazareth.
“For me and my character, I want [people] to take away the fact that it doesn’t matter where you live or how small of a town you live in or you don’t feel you can achieve what you want,” said Lubany. “Always have your eyes open to opportunities coming your way that you need to just grab on to and go with it.”
Quick to admit that she is still very young and has a lot to learn in the industry, Lubany is humbled and inspired by the fact that many aspiring actors in the Middle East now look to her as a role model and a modern pioneer. When asked what advice she would give them, her answer is simple: always remember where you came from.
“I remember when I did my first film in Nazareth, some actresses said to me, “If you can make then we can make it,”” said Lubany. “It’s very inspiring to hear that people can take you as a role model, coming from a small town called Nazareth and to go from there to Hollywood. If you want to reach higher, aim higher. I’m happy to be that person that inspires people. Be open to new suggestions, ideas and opportunities, but never, ever, ever forget where you came from.”
By Hyacinth Mascarenhas