Today someone named Doug complained on my blog about the 2008 movie consumer guide. Apparently I was shirking my responsibilities to the Palestinians:
Yes, let’s discuss films. Meanwhile, Mr Marxist, no-one would know from this web-site that the Israelis have been committing war crimes in Gaza.
At the risk of angering my sectarian critic even further, I am going to review two more films today. One is titled “Making Of” and was made in Tunisia in 2006. The director is Nouri Bouzid, who has explored issues of Islam and politics over a 30 year career.
“Making Of” tells the story of Bahta, a 25 year old break dancer who falls in with jihadists who plan to turn him into a suicide bomber. The other is a documentary titled “9 Star Hotel” that features a group of Palestinian undocumented construction workers who live in packing crates in the hills overlooking the fancy hotel they are working on.
Perhaps I am a sybaritic sell-out, but I always thought that I had an obligation to alert the left to such movies, which constitute the overwhelming majority that I write about. If the left has an obligation to tell the true story about what is going in Gaza, it also has a similar obligation to make as many people as possible aware of movies that present an alternative to the mind-numbing, reactionary junk coming out of Hollywood. For as long as I have been a member of New York Film Critics Online, I have always seen my role as ferreting out and calling attention to movies like “Making Of” and “9 Star Hotel”. My colleagues, who mostly do not share my politics, appreciate that I have made this my calling even if some dogmatic Marxists do not.
As many of you are aware, hip-hop culture has diffused all over the world, including Tunisia apparently. When the movie begins, we see Bahta (played brilliantly by Lotfi Abdelli who has a passing resemblance to the young Eric Bosogian as well as his feral energy) leading his crew to their destination, a large tunnel that is ideal for break dancing. On their way there, they spray-paint their “tags” on fences and walls. Just as Bahta is in the middle of a dance routine, the cops raid the tunnel and haul everybody off to jail. This is not the first time that Bahta has been arrested, as the cops remind him.
Bahta’s dream is to go to Europe, where he can make it as professional dancer. A Tunisian “coyote” warns him that since it is much more difficult to get into Europe after September 11th, the costs of transit have gone up considerably. The movie takes place during the fall of Baghdad in 2003, when the “war on terror” has made the trip even more difficult. Since Bahta is virtually penniless to start with, his chances are dim at best.
After his father catches Bahta in the act of stealing from an elderly relative who lives with the family, he whips him with a belt. Without income, it is impossible for him to sustain a relationship with his girlfriend Souad (Afef Ben Mahmoud), who is also tired of his hip-hop life-style and run-in’s with the law. After Bahta and his crew confront Souad’s new boy-friend, the cops come and run him in once again. His cousin, who works as a cop, has a soft spot and invites him to crash at his place until his parents are no longer steamed at him.
The next day Bahta is inspired to don his cousin’s uniform and bursts into a local coffee shop filled with card playing, hookah-smoking regulars. Now it is Bahta’s turn to play the role of a cop after the fashion of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”. It is the most powerful scene in the movie and is played to the hilt by Lotfi Abdelli as a kind of wild postcolonial soliloquy.
After getting himself worked up into a kind of cold frenzy, Bahta tells the men (and more importantly himself) how things work in modern Tunisia:
The rule of law reigns in this country.
We give you a bit of democracy and what have you done with it?
We’re watching you.
I’ll give you all a passport. No more illegal immigration.
Tomorrow you can pick up your visas, go to the embassy. They’ll welcome you with open arms. And pick up your visas, go to Europe. There you’ll find a rich blond and marry her. Marry, sort out your papers, but no naughty stuff.
Two of the men turn out to be members of a jihadist cell who are impressed with Bahta’s performance, so much so that they decide to introduce him to their leader, an avuncular stonemason who takes Bahta into his household in an attempt to purify him, which first of all means no more break dancing. It helps the stonemason make his case when he begins to put substantial amounts of money in Bahta’s hands.
At various moments in the movie, Bahta breaks out of character and becomes an actor named Lotfi who argues with a director named Nouri (played by director Nouri Bouzid) who has cast him in the main role in “Making Of”. This 4th wall type stratagem appears frequently in French New Wave film, an obvious influence on Nouri Bouzid. At first I found it jarring, but soon grew accustomed to it, so much so that it almost became incidental to the main narrative. The main purpose of these interludes is to allow director Nouri Bouzoud and Lotfi Abdelli to argue about what kind of impact the movie will have on Islam and Arab society. You can see them wrestle with this question in an interview that comes with the DVD:
“9 Star Hotel” could be the definitive documentary on undocumented workers even though it involves Israelis and Palestinians rather than Mexicans in California or Texas. This should not come as a big surprise since in many ways Israel is a homunculus for the United States, creating a hell on earth for the displaced aboriginal people. When asked by Ha’aretz, whether the expulsion of Palestinians was necessary, ex-leftist historian Benny Morris answered:
That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.
The Palestinians in “9 Star Hotel” are constantly being hounded by the Israeli cops even as the capitalist class finds their low-wage labor essential to its expansionary plans. The hotel is being built in Modi’in, a planned city with sterile-looking buildings that seemed dropped on the hilly location as if from flying saucers. It is a perfect metaphor for the Zionist project.
The Palestinian construction workers trod up the side of a steep hill overlooking Modi’in each night to cook and eat dinner communally and make small talk about the lives they have left behind. For entertainment (there is obviously no electricity or running water), they play tunes on their cell phone or sing to each other, sometimes with a fellow worker playing the flute. One of the high points of the documentary is an improvised poetry/song recitation which involves the universal questions of love, life, and loss.
In one scene, they study the goods that one of the workers has retrieved from a nearby garbage dump that he plans to bring back to his village in the occupied West Bank. He has found a toy truck that his younger brother will play with. Other than such scavenging, the only thing that they take from Israel is their meager wage that will help keep a family from starving. In most cases, they are the only breadwinner.
“9 Star Hotel” showed on PBS last July and you can watch the entire movie on their website. Included on the website is an interview with the director Ido Haar, who like just about everybody involved with the production is Israeli. PBS describes the documentary as “non-political” but I would say that it will leave the viewer with one and only one conclusion, namely that Israel is making life hell for the Palestinian workers-no matter the original intention of the director.
(These movies were released by Koch-Lorber and are available from Netflix.)