Monday, March 7, 2011

International: Views from Israeli and Palestinian Cinemas

I should say from the outset that I'd like to recommend a balance of Israeli and Palestinian films available on Netflix Watch Instantly, but this is difficult for various reasons beyond current Netflix listings.  Perhaps most obviously, since the statehood of Palestine is in question, it is equally hard to clearly define what constitutes a Palestinian film. (International co-productions make the question of national cinemas problematic even outside of this context.)

Before going to the list below, let me mention additional Palestinian filmmaker whose films you should be familiar with if you are not already.  You can find Elia Suleiman's Mubi entry here; I highly recommend both Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996) and Divine Intervention (2002) which are available on DVD [Update 4/6/11: Divine Intervention is now available on Netflix Watch Instantly, see below.].  His most recent film, The Time That Remains, is currently in limited theatrical release and you should catch it if you get a chance. While clearly identifying himself as Palestinian, he received funding from the "Fund for the Promotion of Israeli Quality Film" for Chronicle of a Disappearance on the grounds that taxpaying Palestinians in Israel in part helped supply those funds in the first place. Does that make it an Israeli film?  (It also received funding from ITVS in America...does that make it an American film, for that matter?)  Also, his Divine Intervention was deemed ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award on the grounds that Palestine was not an official autonomous country. (This rule was changed by the time Paradise Now was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, not without its own controversy.)

So, setting aside the issue the definitions of national cinemas for now, here are some interesting recent films with Israeli and/or Palestinian origins.

Laila's Birthday (Rashid Masharawi, Palestine, 2010, 69 minutes)
Netflix: Caught up in a morass of red tape while trying to work in Palestine, judge Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri) resorts to driving a taxi to make a living. On his daughter Laila's seventh birthday, his only goal is to get home early with a present and a cake. But he's confronted with numerous difficulties as he navigates passengers through the occupied territory. Filmmaker Rashid Masharawi grew up in the Gaza Strip's Shati refugee camp. Netflix link.

This is a mostly quiet, gentle, observational comedy about the oppressive conditions within Ramallah in the West Bank (not the Gaza Strip, as you might infer from the Netflix description).  The premise and plot reminded me of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene's classic short film Barom Sarret.  In both films, the protagonist's job as a taxi driver (or cart driver, in Barom Sarret) allows us to quickly see a cross-section of the city in short vignettes and episodes.  In Laila's Birthday, some of these episodes are more effective than others, but the cumulative effect of what Abu Laila sees and hears during this day does help us understand the constant threat and stress of life in the West Bank.  While the film does deal with the consequences of an Israeli helicopter attack, for the most part it concentrates on the internal conflicts between Abu Laila and other countrymen who are trying to create and sustain an infrastructure for a country whose official status is unclear.  In the end, Abu Laila is almost as frustrated with his countrymen, who do not seem to grasp a basic sense of the rule of law, as he is with the Israeli helicopters that we can hear but cannot see throughout the whole film.  

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, Palestine, 2005, 91 minutes)
Netflix: Hany Abu-Assad's disturbing yet moving tale examines two young Palestinians who are drafted as suicide bombers for an assignment in Tel Aviv. Both commit to their mission, but have second thoughts after spending a final night with friends and family. Instead of portraying the men as soulless monsters, Abu-Assad attempts to humanize them and find reasons why they would accept such a drastic, tragic fate. The film was shot on location in the West Bank. Netflix link.

A very intense film that almost always results in a silent auditorium on the occasions when I've seen it with an audience.  Like Laila's Birthday, however, much of the film concentrates on debates from within the Palestinian community about how to respond to their situation, rather than simply propagandizing one position or another.  Paradise Now also does a good job at addressing the economic factors in the conflict, namely that high unemployment and lack of opportunities feeds the violence just as much if not more than religion and ideology.  For more about the film and its production, see B. Ruby Rich's article in Sight and Sound.

Free Zone (Amos Gitai, Israel, 2005, 90 minutes)
Netflix: Hana Laszlo won a Cannes Best Actress award for her portrayal of Hanna, an Israeli taxi driver, in this drama. Headed to the Free Zone to collect money owed to her husband, Hanna picks up Rebecca (Natalie Portman), a frazzled American who begs to come along. But retrieving the money won't be easy; the two wind up on a strange journey with a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) who reveals that Hanna's debtor has vanished, along with all of his loot. Netflix link.

Amos Gitai is a divisive figure in Israeli cinema, and people tend to love him or hate him; he definitely has a more positive following within the international film festival circuit than he does at home. Free Zone is not without some stylistic indulgences, including lengthy double exposures for extended sequences and scenes. But the film is at its best when the three lead actresses are allowed to interact and try to figure out for themselves how to function within their current situation. Interestingly, as with Leila's Birthday, we once again have the figure of the cab driver, this time serving the purpose of crossing boundaries that usually are not crossed.

I have not seen the following films, but I have put them in my queue and I hope to report back to you in the near future.  (Two of them were nominated for Best Foreign Language Flim Oscars.)  Meanwhile, if you have seen these films and and you would like to share your thoughts before I get a chance to do so, please leave your responses in the comments section below.

Lemon Tree (Eran Riklis, Israel, 2008, 106 minutes)
Netflix: A Palestinian widow (Hiam Abbass) fights to keep her lemon grove from being uprooted when Israeli security forces declare it a threat to the Israeli defense minister living next door (Doron Tavory) in this foreign-language drama. Teaming with a young lawyer (Ali Suliman), the widow takes her case to the Israeli Supreme Court. But in the process of seeking justice, she's forced to hide the forbidden bond growing between them. Netflix link.

Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2007, 126 minutes)
Netflix: In the final days of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, a band of soldiers prepares for the evacuation of a mountain stronghold called Beaufort. Their leader is 22-year-old Liberti (Oshri Cohen), whose strict adherence to the rules puts the men in harm's way. As the evacuation draws near, Hezbollah steps up its attack, testing Liberti's mettle and the men's allegiance to him. Eli Altonio co-stars in director Joseph Cedar's Oscar-nominated film. Netflix link.

Ajami (Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani, Israel, 2009, 125 minutes)
Netflix: When their uncle wounds an important clan member, 13-year-old Nasri (Fouad Habash) and his older brother, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), fear he has put their whole family in terrible danger in this moving, Oscar-nominated drama set on the West Bank. A truce is arranged, but Omar must start selling drugs to pay the fine he now owes. Meanwhile, a number of other locals struggle to negotiate the political and social tinderbox of Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Netflix link.

Update 4/6/11: Divine Intervention is now available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, Palestine, 2002, 89 minutes)
Netflix: In this comedy tinged with pathos, love blossoms amid the confusion and despair of Nazareth, a city caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Elia Suleiman (who directed the film) stars as E.S., a man who observes the ravages of war alongside his girlfriend (Manal Khader). Surreal vignettes underscore the war's ability to erode this city's sense of community and its residents' ability to coexist. Netflix link.

I look forward to your feedback and comments.  --JLK

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