Border Cinema: New, Vibrant Middle Eastern Cinema

Over the past few years, a new vibrant cinema has evolved in the Middle East, one that confronts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly and unabashedly. Indeed, the long, endlessly violent strife has led to a new type of film, a provocative, politically charged yet humanistic and even entertaining.

As film scholars, we concern ourselves with such definitional issues as what constitutes a national cinema, what are the differences between a film genre and a cycle Id like to propose that there is justification to talk about the new Palestinian cinema as a distinct entity, and about new cycle of critical, personal, and self-reflexive Israeli and Palestinian films set in and around borders.

While Israel has always had a steady film production, the major surprise is the emergence of a respectable Palestinian cinema against all odds since the region has been under Israel’s military occupation since the 1967 War. Though Israel’s cinema doesn’t operate under the same impossible conditions of its Palestinian counterpart, it shares with it thematic issues, ideological approach, and tone. Most of the new Israeli films exhibit left-of-center tendencies and are critical of the government line. Moreover, they tackle issues in a fresh way by either collaborating with Palestinian artists, such as “The Syrian Bride,” or by looking at borders from a different angle, such as “Free Zone.”

International Recognition

These days, Palestinian and Israeli directors are invited to showcase their works in such prestigious festivals as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto, which not only elevate the visibility of their films but also lends them a certain cache and increases their chances to get theatrical distribution.

Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” won an important award in Cannes where it world-premiered to great acclaim. Timely and relevant, Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” is expected to become a breakthrough film, now that it’s been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the official 2005 Oscar entry from Palestine. Its distributor, Warner Independent Picture, plans to platform the film beyond the big cities, based on the positive responses in the Berlin Festival, where it won awards, and at the prestigious Telluride and N.Y. Festivals.

“The Syrian Bride” has been touring the global festival circuit for over a year, winning more awards than any previous Israeli movie. The film won the Locarno Festival’s Audience Award and the Jury Prize at Montreal’s World Cinema Festival. Avi Mograbi’s controversial documentary, “Avenge but One of My Eyes,” world-premiered in Cannes out of competition, and was shown at the N.Y. Festival.

Thematic Paradigms: Weddings and Borders

By now, the “wedding” film has become a genre onto itself. Though “Syrian Bride” and “Rana’s Wedding” are historically and politically most particular, they share elements with other noted wedding films, from Altman’s “A Wedding” to Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter.” All of these films use a single dramatic event, a wedding, to introduce a large gallery of characters whose lives are immediately affected and changed by that ritual.

“Syrian Bride” is about physical, mental, and emotional borders, and the risk in crossing them, but it’s also a melodrama about one family’s struggles with boundaries. Set on the Israeli-Syrian border in 2000, the film uses a wedding as a strategic event to depict a complex political situation. The film’s ideological elements are unmistakable, but the humanism that informs it is ultimately more important than its didactic aspects.

Set in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, occupied by Israel, the film depicts the Salm family’s preparations for the wedding of their second-eldest daughter, Mona (Clara Khoury) to Tallel (Derar Sliman), a Syrian TV star. The two have never met; it’s an arranged marriage. Ironically, Mona’s wedding is the saddest day of her life, realizing that once she crosses the border shell never be allowed back to her family.

The film deals with political unrest, sexual repression, and patriarchal domination, underlined by the tension between a restrictive tradition and the power of personal realization. The strains of this particular family serve as a microcosm of larger identity and political crisis facing the Druze and the Middle East at large. Hammed, the clan’s patriarch, risks arrest if he goes to the border to see Mona off. Conservative and authoritarian, he’s never forgiven his son Hattem for marrying a Russian; when the couple arrives from Moscow, he refuses to speak to them. The small family is spread all over the globe. Marwan, Hammed’s other son, a merchant in Italy, is arrested and interrogated at Israel’s airport for his wheeling and dealing, and his girlfriend Jeanne is a French working for the U.N. Then there’s the Jewish notary, who must stamp Mona’s papers, and the Syrian guard, who would rather watch TV than do his job.

Mona’s sister, Amal (Hiam Abbass), is the exception, a modern woman who in defiance of her husband applies to study social work at the university. Though trapped in an old tradition, she challenges the status quo. At the end, the family, the government, and all those gathered on both sides of the border, face an uncertain future in No-Man’s Land between Israel and Syria. Yet, there’s a ray of hope, and the final image shows Amal as she walks proudly toward an unknown yet promising future.

In “Paradise Now,” Hany Abu-Assad meets the impossible challenge of giving human faces to suicide bombers. That attractive actors play them makes the movie more engaging, bringing them closer to audiences that have never encountered such screen characters before. It’s a testament to the film’s balanced tone that, no matter what your politics are, youll be absorbed in a tale that walks a fine line between a political thriller and a psychological melodrama.

“Paradise Now” follows two childhood friends who have been recruited for a terrorist strike on Tel Aviv, thus embarking upon what may be their last 48 hours. Set in the West Bank city of Nablus, where daily life grinds on amidst crushing poverty and rocket blasts, it concerns Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), auto mechanics stuck in dead-end jobs. They have been chosen for this mission as a team, based on their conviction and loyalty to each other. A meeting with Suha, a progressive woman with moderate political views, serves as the story’s catalyst. Upon discovery of their plan, which goes terribly awry, Shua precipitates a moral crisis that forces each man to reconsider his action and its implications for those around him.

In Abu-Assad’s former film, “Rana’s Wedding,” Rana (Clara Khoury) is running across Jerusalem trying to hook up with her boyfriend, Khalil, a theater director loathed by her conservative father, who wants her to marry one of his men. Old-fashioned dad gives Rana a deadline; she needs to decide by 4 pm, when he leaves for Egypt. Bottlenecked streets, armed soldiers and a funeral impede her journey. No matter which way she turns, Rana runs into brute reality, whether at her aunt’s, where her uncle suffers from an injury in a riot, or at a friend’s, where Jewish squatters point their guns at her.

Rana’s journey makes it clear that life for ordinary Palestinians has become a welter of pain and dehumanizing violence. What remains unsaid is that the same holds true for those ordinary Israelis, dreading that their next bus ride will go up in flames. It’s a bittersweet film about Palestinian life suffocated by Israeli checkpoints and restrictions, which doesn’t stop them from trying to lead “normal lives,” including the universal rituals of weddings. Though her family is Muslim, Rana (Clara Khoury) seems secular, preferring to wear Western clothing. Unlike her lover Khalil, who works in Ramallah, where roadblocks pose a daily hardship, she lives a relatively sheltered life in Jerusalem. Her father’s ultimatum makes her more defiant and conscious of the deep quagmire that defines Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“Rana’s Wedding” bears resemblance to Elia Suleiman’s serio comedy about modern Palestinian life, “Divine Intervention.” Although it lacks the artistry and relieving humor of Suleiman’s feature, it conveys the fears and frustrations of Palestinians struggling in a country that treats them as the enemy.

“Divine Intervention is a political allegory unfolding in deadpan sketches that recall the Theater of the Absurd. The anecdotes are loosely hung on the story of a Jerusalem filmmaker (Suleiman), who visits his dying father in a Nazareth hospital on his way to Ramallah to meet his lover (Manal Khader) at the Al-Ram checkpoint that separates them. Sitting in their car, they hold hands and watch the frustrated travelers and soldiers play out the comedy-tragedy of occupation. With blank expression, Suleiman observes the craziness around him, and he shoots his film, a series of border disputes and confrontations between belligerent neighbors, with the same attitude. The camera uses static long shots to view silent movie gags in the modern world, abstract moments of slapstick that build to punch lines.

Past and present, history and myth collide in Avi Mograbi’s provocative documentary, “Avenge but One of My Eyes,” which draws controversial parallels between Jewish historical tales and the plight of Palestinian under Israeli occupation. Mograbi shows how Israel has taken episodes from its history and reconstructed them as potent myths in its secular ideology. Specifically, the docu explores Israel’s rituals dedicated to the memory of its national heroes, the Masada zealots who committed suicide rather than live under Roman occupation, and Samson, who asked God to let him avenge but one of his two eyes by bringing down the Philistine temple on himself and the jeering crowds who had imprisoned and blinded him.

The narrative is framed by one long phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian friend who complains about the mistreatment of his people. Mograbi’s unblinking cameras follow the inhuman treatment of Palestinian peasants by the Israeli military, suggesting they are driven to the kind of despair in which no act of protest is too radical. Scenes of Israeli soldiers preventing Palestinian passage to Jerusalem illustrate the callousness of Sharon’s policies: an injured woman is refused access to a hospital. Mograbi presents his homeland’s treatment of its Muslim neighbors at border checkpoints as oppressive acts of subjugation comparable to the Romans’ strategy to enclose the Jews within a high wall on the Massada hilltop, just as he depicts their exaltation of Samson’s martyrdom as similar to Palestinians’ belief in suicide bombing as a reasonable means of revolt.

Ideological Approach

Whereas the new Israeli films are critical of their government line, the new Palestinian ones are more subtle and realistic, situating themselves between melancholic resignation and invigorated resilience.

Though not an overtly message film, “Syrian Bride” does have a political agenda. Riklis hopes that his film will contribute towards a greater understanding and tolerance of the Middle East conflict. “I always say that I live in Israel, but I am a filmmaker who doesn’t believe in borders,” says Riklis. A poli-lingual venture, “Syrian Bride” boasts a dialogue in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and even French. Some of the actors are Palestinian-Israelis, one is a Druze (the Druze don’t have a tradition of cinema), one French, and one (Abbass) is Palestinian weho lives in Frane.

We often read about suicide attacks in newspapers, but Abu-Assad succeeds in dramatizing this complex situation in a realistic and emotionally satisfying way. Though fictional, the script, co-written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, is based on interrogation transcripts of suicide bombers who had failed, various official reports, and interviews with people who knew bombers, like friends and families, particularly mothers.

There’s a danger that opposition to “Paradise Now” will be based not on reaction to the movie, but on the very idea of the film. Nonetheless, Abu-Assad hopes that his film would lead to an open, stimulating dialogue about issues of real politics. Some may find the juxtaposition of Israel’s myths of suicides with its current secular ideology in “Avenge” as self-serving, while others may see the film as one-sided treatise in which the Israelis are the brutish villains and the Palestinians the innocent victims.

Anger and frustration underline the comedy “Divine Intervention,” but Suleiman never divides his characters into heroes and villains. The decades-long antagonism has become a status quo to be accepted or rejected. The title, “Divine Intervention,” signals the line between hope and fantasy.

Finding Humor in Tragedy

In the climax of “Divine Intervention,” a balloon bearing Yasser Arafat’s grinning mug floats past an Israeli checkpoint and over Jerusalem. “There’s a balloon trying to get through. Can we shoot it down” a soldier asks his officer. The lyrical moment is graceful and unsettling in its ambiguous juxtaposition of images. Even more unsettling is a choreographed chorus line of Israeli gunmen whose paper target becomes a flying Ninja warrior in the mold of “Crouching Tiger, Hideen Dragon,” in a strange David and Goliath showdown.

In “Syrian Bride,” politics moves from the background into the foreground in the last act, which in tone approximates the comedy of the absurd. The conflict’s banality and the mindless bureaucracy are depicted by the farcical attempts of a Red Cross worker to gain Israeli and Syrian co-operation for Mona’s wedding day passage from the Israeli side of the border to the Syrian side.

Though “Paradise Now” is mostly grim and somber, it also displays poignant humor. The martyrs shoot their video statement, while holding guns and pausing for the camera. Abu-Assad captures the irony of that situation by simultaneously deconstructing the act’s martyrdom-heroism and the monstrous-evil dimensions. During the shoot, the recruiter happily munches on a sandwich as the martyrs passionately declare their wish to die for freedom. The director finds irony in the most tragic moments, observing a dead-serious martyr who fumbles his lines time and again, and a crewmember that forgets to turn on the camera, forcing the martyrs to do take after take of their fervent speeches. Personal Movies

“Syrian Bride” is Riklis’ most ambitious film to date. Born in 1954, Riklis has been making films since 1975, including the political thriller “On a Clear Day Yu Can See Damascus,” and the acclaimed “Cup Final.” Based on years of traveling to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, “Syrian Bride” benefits from Riklis’ meeting the people, learning the history and politics of the Druze culture. His film takes a deeper look into a region haunted by hostility, indifference, and bureaucracy. To explore the complex story of women torn between tradition and borders, Riklis chose as collaborator Palestinian writer Suha Arraf, who’s well versed in the Arabic world. This professional union has resulted in a film that crisscrosses the boundary between unwarranted optimism and painful pessimism, what Palestinian writer Emile Habibi’s has described as “pessoptimism.”

Born and educated in Israel, Mograbi studied philosophy and art before pursuing a film career. Mograbi’s work is reflexive and polemical in the way that Godard’s film-essays were during his Mao era. A peace activist, Mograbi was sent to jail by the army in 1982, when he refused to serve in Lebanon.

Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” is an allegory about crossing borders, both physical and mental. Structurally, it’s a road film since most of the “action” is set within a car driving from Jerusalem to Jordan. Innovative stylistically, “Free Zone” shows women’s subjective memories through layers of images, instead of the more conventional flashbacks, suggesting that the women’s past is integral to the way they perceive the present.

The three women represent national types that embody different political and personal values. Hanna (Hanna Laslo), the Israeli, is strong, charismatic, and a bit of a bully. Gitai holds that these are “characteristics of Israelis, who are overbearing, but sincere, and it also sums up everything that I like and resent about Israelis.” “Free Zone” is a personal work: “The film is a portrait of myself, Im not different from my people.” In the film, Hanna travels to the Jordan’s Free Zone to collect money owed to her husband Moshe, who is wounded and stranded in Jerusalem. This situation puts her face to face with Leila (Hiam Abbas), a Palestinian who’s reserved, elegant, and respectful.

The film’s most conflicted persona is Rebecca (Natalie Portman), a young American with an Israeli father and non-Jewish mother, which according to Jewish law makes her non-Jewish, but she feels Jewish. The first scene is audacious: a long close-up of Rebecca sobbing in Hanna’s car. She has just broken up with her Israeli soldier-boyfriend and has no place to go. To begin a film in Jerusalem in front of the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the scared shrine of the ancient temple, is a bold decision.

Rest of the tale is set in Eastern Jordan, an area designated as an economic free zone, a kind of a no man’s land with no customs or taxes. People from Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Israel come here to sell and buy cars, which is strange since these are countries that don’t have diplomatic relations since they are officially in a state of war.

In the Middle East, physical, political, and mental borders are a real issue. As bleak as the film is, it also points to the direction of female empowerment and camaraderie. At one point, the women, despite divergent interests and personalities, sit together in Hanna’s car and sing the melody that’s played on the radio. While men conduct the military conflict, women are the real heroines since theyre the victims’ wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Disenchanted with governmental politics, Gitai explores in “Free Zone” sectors that create a meeting point. Trade is a common ground, with people opening their borders to cooperate on economic projects. Gitai is interested in these pockets of freedom, where people of different origins connect through routine, not political activities.

It’s impossible for any film, as good and responsible as it might be, to do full justice to such weighty and complex issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We don’t expect solutions from any film to such inflammatory conflicts as the endlessly violent conflict. What we expect are provocative ideas and new ways of looking at such conflict, and singly and jointly, the new cycle of movies provide those elements with subtlety, poignancy, and even humor.