Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 22, 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors; A World Not Ours

Filed under: Film,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:01 pm

At this point any young independent filmmaker looking for funding would probably be advised to work with a screenplay that reflected what was fashionable in film festivals. Mumblecore with its deadpan fixation on the petty affairs of bored white middle-class youths is the most marketable genre, with “dark” narratives about sexual obsessions a close runner-up.

Given the market realities, it was extraordinary to see a film like “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” today that opens tomorrow, May 23rd, at the IFC in New York. As is the case with a number of indie films being made today, seed money came from Kickstarter ($35,000) rather than Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank. What is even more extraordinary was its defiant embrace of humanist values, a throwback to the golden age of film in the late 50s and early 60s when Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray saw fit to make films about society’s underdogs.

“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is about the two days spent in New York’s subways by a mildly autistic 13-year-old named Ricky from the poorer section of Rockaways whose Mexican immigrant mother cleans apartments for a living. The fact that the director and co-writers of the marvelous screenplay attended film school, including the dreaded NYU, indicates that there is hope for independent film.

The film begins just a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, with the most devastating damage to the Rockaways. (I made a 10 minute documentary a few days after the storm ended that you can watch here: https://vimeo.com/53102549.) When Ricky’s older sister fails to escort him home from school, he decides to take off on the subway—destination unknown. Problems at school and at home probably was a factor in his running off but as with the case of most autistic children, motivation is difficult to ascertain.

For those who live in New York or follow news stories there, the plot will obviously resonate with recent events. Last year Avonte Oquendo, an austistic 14-year-old wandered off from a special education school in Queens. His remains turned up in the East River a couple of months later. More recently, another autistic Latino 14-year-old wandered off as well, this time fortunately discovered after three days. But as it turns out director Sam Fleischner got the idea for the film in 2010 when previous such incidents had occurred. One can only conclude that cutbacks in health services have made such “accidents” possible.

The film cuts back and forth from Ricky’s mother trying desperately to find her son with the assistance of a Jamaican shoe-store owner who had grown used to the boy spending time in her store gazing at the sneakers. As is the case with many autistic children apparently, they become fixated on certain objects.

But most of the film consists of slices of life from New York’s subways: break dancers on a subway car with a captive audience (a scene I know only too well), people exchanging small talk on their way to and from work, mothers tending to their young, panhandlers, street preachers—in other words, a world onto itself. Director Sam Fleischner takes this material, which are commonplace to New Yorkers—at least those who take the subways—and transforms them into something quite magical, both threatening and transcendental at the same time. Although I am quite sure the young filmmakers did not have this in mind, I could not help but be reminded of “Black Orpheus”, the 1959 Brazilian film that has its musician lead character wandering through Rio De Janeiro’s slums in the dead of night in search of his beloved Eurydice.

The screenplay was co-written by Rose Lichter-Marck, who earned an MFA from Columbia University 4 years ago, and Micah Bloomberg who graduated from NYU in 2004 with a BFA.

Although the film has the look of something that had been gestating in the creative team’s minds for years, it actually verged on the improvisational, starting with the use of Sam Fleischner’s home in the Rockaways for some scenes. Considering the Hurricane Sandy element, one might conclude that the screenplay included it to ratchet up the dramatic tension. But in fact the intention was originally only to tell a story about a lost autistic child. Just by coincidence the storm hit during filming and Fleischner decided to incorporate scenes of the devastated peninsula at the conclusion.

At the risk of sounding like an establishment film critic, let me say that “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a stunning achievement. It is artistically accomplished as well as a testament to the social consciousness of young independent filmmakers today who care more about dramatizing the human condition rather than fame and fortune. Let’s hope that the filmmakers do eventually enjoy fame and fortune because they certainly deserve it and this will ensure that they have the clout to open up Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank rather than relying on Kickstarter next time.

The title of Mahdi Fleifel’s “A World Not Ours”, a powerful documentary opening at the Cinema Village on May 23rd as well, derives from a book with the same title written by PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. We see the book toward the end of the film when its chief subject, a bitter and disillusioned Fateh militant with the nom de guerre Abu Iyad, is deciding which books to keep and which to discard. Kanafani’s makes the cut but much else ends up in a bonfire.

If there is anything good that has come out of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, it is the body of film work—both documentary and narrative—that represent engaged art at its highest level, this film ranking at the apex.

The film opens on an understated note, with director Mahdi Fleifel introducing us to his family through decades old home movies. It turns out that his father was a compulsive Super-8 guy who filmed birthdays, holidays and all the other events such cameras were meant to record. Since the Fleifels were denizens of Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, some of the footage was also about the living struggle that almost every Palestinian supported passively or actively.

Fleifel refers to David Ben-Gurion’s observation that after the old Palestinians die off, the young ones will forget. “A World Not Ours” is about as good a refutation of that as can be imagined. No matter how demoralized the denizens of Ain al-Hilweh have become, they will never relinquish the dream of regaining their homeland.

As grim as all this sounds, the film is actually a celebration of Palestinian daily life with weddings, celebration of World Cup victories (the camp dwellers adopt foreign teams in the competition, about as close as they come to identifying with a state power), raising pigeons, and hanging out on the street shooting the breeze.

Abu Iyad might seem like an exception to the rule of Palestinian national aspirations since he repeatedly refers to being conned by the likes of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. At one point, he states that he wishes the Israelis would come and kill us all since there is no point in going on living. But in a way his nihilistic rage is a sign that the ember of the nationalist dream remains burning since someone who has given up hope entirely would probably not be given to fits of rage.

Mahdi Fleifel left Ain al-Hilweh at a young age and went with his family to Dubai where his father tried to make a living. When that hope failed, the family returned to Ain al-Hilweh for a few years more until they relocated to Denmark. Fleifel made regular trips back to Ain al-Hilweh to reconnect with Abu Iyad, his crusty grandfather who dreams of returning to Palestine, and his uncle Said who has been driven a bit mad by living as a refugee. Said’s brother Jamil was a celebrated fighter whose participation in the resistance to Israel was so celebrated that they made a comic book about him. At the age of 23, he was shot in the throat by an Israeli sniper and finally died after convalescing in a hospital for 16 months.

I urge you to read the interview with Mahdi Fleifel and his co-producer Patrick Campbell on the World Socialist Website (the only thing reliable there are the film articles). Here is an excerpt that should whet your appetite to see this stirring film. David Walsh, who sadly appears to have retired from reviewing films there, conducted the interview. I don’t admire his politics but his film mastery is obvious in everything he writes:

DW: The third personality, and in some ways the most complex, is Abu Iyad, the former Palestinian militant. His situation speaks most directly to some of the present-day difficulties.

MF: He’s very smart, he has a sixth sense. From a very young age, he became involved in intelligence work, they would send him out to sniff out this or tell them about that.

DW: His disillusionment is not simply a personal discouragement, something is at a dead end there. There is a Palestinian elite that wants to get rich. They are envious of the Saudis and others, they want to have their own country so they can exploit the population and make lots of money.

MF: Exactly. When the PLO left Lebanon in ’82, then went to Tunisia, and eventually found themselves settling back in Ramallah, everyone forgot the people in Lebanon. The expatriates, the ones who accumulated a lot of money in exile, doing whatever they did, whether it was in Tunisia or Eastern Europe, or wherever, found their way back and now they’re opening hotels and bars, and sending their kids off to study in the US.

PC: The diaspora became a bargaining chip. With the Oslo agreement in 1993, it became “I’ll give you this for that.” The “right of return”—we were just speaking about the suspended reality of the older generation—is a bargaining chip between the Palestinian elite and the Israelis, or the US, or whoever. That’s part of the reason for Abu Iyad’s disillusionment. He’s essentially been betrayed.

MF: His whole history, his sacrifices have made him feel, “Hang on, I’m genuinely interested in going all the way, and everywhere I look, I see leaders and people chickening out. My god, I’ve given everything for this. I dropped out of school, because I really believe in this, and yet no one is actually doing it. Where do I go from here?” That’s essentially how I see it.…

1 Comment »

  1. I’m incredibly suspicious of this “autism” thing. How come I never heard of it for decades but now 5% of kids have it? How come it’s now more prominent and more discussed than malaria — a fatal disease that kills millions of children each year? How come it has no identifiable pathological cause? How can a group of “at least seven out of ten” symptoms be a “disease” without a known or common cause? Sounds to me like they’re grouping together large numbers of kids with personality quarks and calling it a disease so they can medicate it with costly pharmaceuticals. I’m at the point where anything involving “autism” has me immediately reaching for the remote.

    Comment by Steve — May 23, 2014 @ 5:33 am

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