Reviewed in this article:
1. “Omar” – a Palestinian narrative film nominated for best foreign film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
2. “Mars at Sunrise” – an art film about the suffering and resistance of a Palestinian artist.
3. “Zaytoun” – an Israeli narrative film written by a Palestinian-American about the unlikely alliance between a captured Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy in 1982.
4. “It’s Better to Jump” – a documentary about the Palestinians living in Akka, just north of Haifa, trying to preserve their culture in the face of a cold-blooded gentrification onslaught.
Was it a coincidence that I received invitations to review these four films over the past few weeks? It is just as likely that the same forces driving the BDS movement forward explain their appearance. Despite the absence of a powerful Palestinian movement of the kind that was seen in the various intifadas of years past, there is more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than ever before. Filmmakers make such films as a way of rallying public opinion. As I have stated in the past, film is very much an expression of an informal “vanguard” that has as much power in its way as Lenin’s Iskra.
The eponymous Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young man living in the West Bank who toils by day in a low-tech bakery making pita bread and by night plots armed resistance against the occupying IDF forces that make his life and those of his brethren miserable.
In order to visit the young woman he loves, he must each time scale the monstrous wall erected by the Israelis and risk being shot at or picked up by an IDF patrol. When he is at one point, the soldiers torment him in a way that dramatizes the brutality and the racism of the occupation better than a thousand articles. They order him to stand on top of a roadside boulder in the midday heat while they make small talk nearby. When exhaustion makes it impossible to balance himself on the top of the rock any longer, they smash a rifle butt against his face.
A few days later, Omar and two comrades draw close to an IDF outpost in the dead of night armed with a sniper’s rifle and take down a guard. Before long, Omar is arrested and put in an Israel jail where he is tortured in order to provide the names of the men who were with him. He refuses to name names.
At lunch, an older man representing himself as a member of an Islamic resistance organization joins him. He warns Omar to not divulge any information about his activities since there are spies everywhere in jail who work with the Israelis. Don’t worry, Omar tells him, I will never confess.
A day later, he is brought into the office of Rami, a top Israeli intelligence officer who turns out to be the Islamic radical he had lunch with—a guise aided by his fluency in the Arabic language. Omar is also dismayed to learn that in Israeli courts, the statement that “I will never confess” is tantamount to a confession that will result in a decades-long imprisonment. Rami tells him that the only way out is to become a snitch.
“Omar” is not only filmmaking of the highest order; it is by far the most frontal assault on Israeli savagery that I have ever seen in a movie theater. The Palestinians are caught in a spider’s web that makes their fate almost inescapable. There is a sense of futility about the attempt to free the West Bank of the occupying forces but it would be impossible for a Palestinian filmmaker like Hany Abu-Assad to represent things otherwise.
Abu-Assad’s last film was the 2005 “Paradise Now” about suicide bombers that like “Omar” mixes a sense of futility with a burning desire to overcome Zionist oppression. In an interview with the Electronic Intifada, Abu-Assad articulates the contradictory feelings of artists as an expression of the general mood of the population they speak for:
The mood among the general population and Palestinian filmmakers was [the same]. What the general population went through, we went through too. You feel angry and impotent. You feel you can’t do anything against this heartless operation going on. … I always tell the same story at festivals, but the difference is that you can be at a festival and be celebrated and you are treated as very important person, but when you go back to your homeland you are treated as non-human. I could be in Rome at a festival and be celebrated and the same day I can go back and be treated as a criminal. This contrast is amazing. The mood is the same among all Palestinians under occupation — you are the same as anyone else and are not protected.
“Omar” opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Theater in New York on February 21 and is simply not to be missed. Nationwide showtimes are here: http://www.adoptfilms.com/omar
“Mars at Sunrise” opened yesterday at the Quad in New York. Like “Omar”, its protagonist is arrested and tortured by Israeli soldiers who are trying to force him into naming names and becoming an informer. Unlike “Omar”, it is not a conventional narrative film and employs many techniques that would identify it as an experimental film.
It has a dream-like quality that utilizes the canvases of its artist lead character to create a visual and psychological canvas of Palestinian hopes and frustration. There is not a conventional plot, only a stream of vignettes that depict Palestinian experience under conditions of occupation and loss.
Jessica Habie, a Mizrahi Jew who went to NYU film school, directed the film. Her lead character is based on Palestinian artist in exile Hani Zurob who spent the late 1990s studying art at An-Najah University in Nablus as an “illegal,” constantly under threat of being discovered and deported. A visit to Zurob’s website will give you an idea of how a painter expresses the beating heart of the Palestinian people.
I also recommend a visit to the “Mars at Sunrise” website, where you will learn about the Fajr Falistine Film Collective that helped to make it possible. They describe themselves as “a group of artists who want to create experimental, absurdist and alternative narratives about the realities of life in the Middle East. We seek to find new ways to fund and share stories from the Arab world.” I would say that they have made an auspicious debut with this, their first work.
“Zaytoun” is an Israeli film that is the counterpart of Peace Now type liberalism in which Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation is based on anything except an abolition of the existing asymmetric power relationships. Not surprisingly, the film is seemingly inspired by Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” that brought together Black and white racist prison escapees who are forced to cooperate even though they would kill each other given the chance. Chained at their wrists, they are one step ahead of the law and an even smaller step ahead of sticking a knife into each other.
In “Zaytoun”, the shotgun marriage is between Fahed, a young Palestinian boy who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, and Yoni, an Israeli pilot whose jet has been shot down in the skies over Beirut during the chaotic civil war of 1982. Fahed dreams of visiting his ancestral village in Israel and eventually decides to help lead Yoni to the Israeli border in exchange for helping him visit his family’s long-abandoned house. He wears a key to its door around his neck during the long trek there, as well as a potted olive tree that he hopes to plant in the fields surrounding his village. The relationship between the two is strained from the outset, all the more so since Fahed’s father has been killed in an Israeli bomb strike just days earlier. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of such a pairing in real-life Lebanon in 1982 was less than zero. It is just a device of director Eran Riklis to make the kind of points he has made before in films such as the 2008 “Lemon Tree” in which goodhearted Israelis come to the aid of a Palestinian woman trying to protect her modest grove against an IDF threat to cut it down.
Despite its liberal pretensions, the film is still worth watching for its ability to tell an old-fashioned dramatic tale made all the more worthwhile by a stellar performance by Abdallah El Akal, a 15-year-old actor who lives in Tel Aviv and who has been a professional actor since the age of 7. I was surprised to discover that he was a professional since he comes across as exactly the same sort of person who he plays, a street urchin scrambling to survive.
The film is also probably made more tolerable because the screenwriter Nader Rizq is Palestinian and manages to convey some of the realities of his people despite the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers.
Strand Releasing informed me that this film that premiered in New York last September would be available as a DVD on February 18th. Look for it in the usual places like Netflix and Amazon.com. You can also purchase it from the Strand website for $20.99.
Finally, there is a truly remarkable documentary titled “It’s Better to Jump” that to my knowledge is the first that focuses on the plight of Israeli Palestinians, those people who one of the interviewees refers to as the “pre-1948” Palestinians.
Co-director Mouna Stewart, who is presumably married to fellow director Patrick Stewart (not the Star Trek commander but someone far more noteworthy!), gathered together a group of Palestinians living in the old city of Akka to talk about the challenges they face from encroaching Zionist real estate magnates who are trying to buy the ancient homes of their impoverished dwellers, demolish them, and then erect huge eye-sores that will become part of an ethnically cleansed and utterly sterile and vulgar Acre—as the Israelis call it. It is nakba style gentrification.
Akka is an ancient city that was home to different cultures that co-existed peacefully. It remained sheltered from crusader type conquests because of an immense wall that faced the city’s coastline. The wall was first created at the beginning of the crusades and was built even higher under Ottoman rule.
After 1948, the city began to lose what would eventually amount to half of its Arab population. Those who remained, however, are committed to preserve their homes and their identity against what seems like insurmountable odds. They lack leverage because they have become so weakened economically. Under Zionist control, the city has been divested of its fishing industry through two different processes: one, the IDF’s refusal to allow fishing boats in much of the surrounding waters because they supposedly threaten military security; two, the pollution of the waters that Israeli authorities cannot care less about. As one interviewee put it, the Israelis get their seafood from fish farms (an environmental disaster) or import it.
In a declining economy, there’s little to sustain the Palestinian youth who resort to petty crime like selling drugs. One of the few things they can do is jump from the top of the walls into the Mediterranean even if it means risking serious injury. It is, however, a way for them to feel that they have transcended their dismal environment.
The film is a microcosm of the ongoing Palestinian struggle and a beautifully made film. It can be purchased from Cinema Libre, the distributor, for $19.95 and is worth every penny. Nay, it would be a bargain at twice the price.
I was also informed by Beth Portello, an executive at Cinema Libre, of two other resources of interest to those who would find such a film valuable. The first is a list of films they have published with the help of the “It’s Better to Jump” filmmakers that examine Palestine/Israel relations.
The other is Tips on Filming a Documentary in Israel. Who knows, maybe I’ll make good use of it one of these days!