Susan Youssef

Keeping it reel: a busy filmmaker finds the time to indulge in all things normal

Susan Youssef is, in her own words, an ‘ordinary- looking Arab lady in her 30s.’ She lives in Amsterdam with her husband and describes her relatively normal days: in the morning, she’ll do a little light meditation. Come afternoon, she’ll likely go for a jog in the nearby park and by evening time, she’ll cook dinner.

‘Have you ever read “Our Town”?’ she asks, likening herself to Emily Webb, the Thornton Wilder character told by her mother that she is but ‘pretty enough for normal purposes.’

Apart from the three basic exercises around which she anchors her day, most would consider Youssef’s intents and purposes far from normal: all other hours are spent making films. ‘The park is the best part of my day,’ she says of the brief respite it offers her busy schedule.

Lebanese-American filmmaker Susan Youssef on a walk in Amsterdam
Lebanese-American filmmaker Susan Youssef on a walk in Amsterdam

Youssef is embarking on her second feature- length film, ‘Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf’, having just endured a 45-day Kickstarter campaign to secure its funding. It’s been a gruelling six weeks. ‘I thought that after the campaign, I’d sleep for three days,’ she says. ‘But we found that several of the pledges had “errored”, so I couldn’t.’

Portraying the trials and tribulations of a Lebanese family living in Arkansas, the film draws heavily upon Youssef’s own childhood in the US. ‘There’s a character who’s about 10 years old and looks like I did as a kid – brown, chubby, with a big personality and a lot of ideas,’ she says. ‘In film and TV, there was no place for me. In bringing forward these characters, I hope to empower young women.’

Youssef, the daughter of Lebanese-American parents, grew up in Brooklyn. It was a ‘strict upbringing,’ she says, remarking on her lack of access to films as a child. ‘To be honest,’ she confides, ‘I’m not a huge cinephile. I’m far more obsessed with books and paintings.’

‘To this day,’ she adds, ‘the muscle of watching movies is not as strong as that of visiting a museum or reading a novel.’ Fortunately for Youssef, she lives close to Amsterdam’s Het Schip Museum in the city’s Spaarndammerbuurt district. ‘We’re never in Amsterdam year-round,’ she says. ‘In fact, I have never gone longer than eight months outside of New York.’

Although she was accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, Youssef instead enrolled in film school at the University of Texas at Austin. ‘I think I’m really meant to write and direct,’ she says. ‘I adore cameras, but I’m a bit terrified of being in front of them.’

While at school, Youssef travelled to Gaza with the intention of shooting a short student film. The experience impacted her greatly, however, and eventually led to her first feature-length film, ‘Habibi’.

A modern retelling of the ancient Sufi parable Majnun Layla, ‘Habibi’ follows the story of two students forced to return home to Gaza, where their love defies tradition. In its stark beauty and realism, it was considered a daring debut.

For Youssef, the film was semi-autobiographical: ‘At 25, in Gaza, I fell in love.’

‘There’s a lot of us in “Habibi”,’ she says of her lost Gazan love – a theater director who first introduced her to Majnun Layla. ‘Now, we’re both long married, and he has children, so there’s no need to say more.’ Youssef left Gaza for Amsterdam, but she’s still there in spirit. ‘I keep some tokens from Gaza in my wallet. I see them every time I open it,’ she says.

Youssef has been directing films for over a decade (her shorts have been screened at Sundance and MoMA) and, although her strength lies in writing (‘writing is the easiest thing in the world for me – I do it quickly and copiously’), she is still learning the ropes when it comes to feature- length films.

Youssef says she would rather tuck into a good book than watch a film
Youssef has collected a number of tokens from her trips to Lebanon and Palestine
I adore cameras, but I’m a
bit terrified of being in
front of them

‘I’m not a natural commercial director – I watched other material to get a real sense of where I needed to go, beat-wise, with “Marjoun” – a more traditionally narrative film.’

It’s an act that offers Youssef a small and meticulous professional pleasure. ‘I like watching movies on repeat and dissecting them for beats,’ she says. ‘I once watched “Moneyball” about five times on a long plane ride to South Korea. I wrote down the scenes for action minute by minute,’ she says, before adding that she also watched George Clooney’s rom-com, ‘The Descendants’ with the same diligence.

Even so, she describes the art of directing with certain spirituality – particularly her first experience. ‘My regular focus and ideas left my body and something else guided me,’ she recalls. ‘What I mean is that I forgot myself, my ego and my inhibitions. That was the most wonderful creative moment of my life.’

I adore cameras, but I’m a
bit terrified of being in front of them

سوزان يوسف
A poster of her film ‘Habibi’ hangs on the wall of her apartment
Youssef lives near a park, which she enjoys jogging through every morning

Youssef’s schedule shows no signs of slowing down over the next couple of months. After the Kickstarter hiccup and the payment trails that followed, she’s now set to start shooting ‘Marjoun and The Flying Headscarf’.

Even at her busiest, however, Youssef always makes time for her daily rituals. ‘If I don’t have time to read these days, I listen to audiobooks. I got “1001 Nights” as an audiobook and listened to it while I was jogging. I can’t tell you how much creative joy that brought me – I could activate my imagination in the one free hour I had.’

Of her career’s future path, she hopes to explore how she can ‘be of a higher service.’ ‘I have to get cracking,’ she says. ‘When I’m working efficiently is when I am happiest.

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