Where do Palestinians — who inhabit a wretched world dominated by the rule of the gun, wielded by a callous, remorseless occupier — find the resources to produce important films? Yet, they somehow do. Is it because filmic art in our time is a necessary function of one’s cultural being and self-definition?
Cinema, you see, does more than translate ideas on the screen. Jean-Luc Godard, pioneer of the 1960s French New Wave, summed up for us what this art medium is all about: While sitting in a darkened movie theatre, watching actors play their roles in a cerebral movie, he declaimed, “We do not think, we are thought”.
You don’t have to subscribe to the highbrow pontifications found in Cahiers du Cinema to agree that serious cinema is serious business in the life of the mind. Note how, all the way from D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915), to Gillo Pontecorvo’s iconic The Battle of Algiers (1966) to Dennis Hopper’s independent Easy Rider (1969), film has explored not only the range in our cultural life, but also the rawness in our politico-historical experience.
The film [The Reports on Sarah and Saleem] seems to be telling us, even in the midst of conflict, surprising possibilities for human connectedness. For while the world we inhabit is poisoned by injustice, it can be sweetened by the antidote of love.
The latest Palestinian release, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, now being shown in predominantly art-house movie theatres across the United States, including the E Street Theatre in Washington, is a low-budget (can it be otherwise?) politico-romantic-thriller about what one may call forbidden love — love between putative enemies, in this case, Sarah, an Israeli woman who owns a cafe in West Jerusalem, and Saleem, a Palestinian man from occupied East Jerusalem, who delivers baked goods around town, including Sarah’s cafe. The film is directed by the young Palestinian filmmaker Muayed Alayan, whose first effort, in 2015, was the well-received Love, Theft and other Entanglements.
Please don’t yawn. This is more than an unlikely love affair — an extra-marital one, no less, on both sides — in an unlikely place, between an unlikely couple. It is an adroit film that evokes the lyrical theme of how, unable to defeat each other by force of arms, enemies find a way to accept each other through force of love. Moreover, far from preying on us via kitschy sentimentality, in order to gain our embrace — and this film, like Kramer vs Kramer (1979) could easily have strayed in that direction, but did not. Instead, it transports us from a world of acrimony to one of possibility. It is, certainly in the first half, sensitive, audacious and inspiring in the way it challenges us to discard long-held beliefs about the presumptive bestiality of “the other”, and invites us to do that though we are the product of a milieu that had socialised us, since childhood, to believe that the other is irrevocably bestial.
When Sarah, for example, confides in a colleague at her cafe about her love affair with Saleem, that colleague retorts: “There are millions of Jewish guys you could’ve chosen. Are you that desperate? With an Arab?” Oh, the horror, the horror!
The film seems to be telling us, even in the midst of conflict, surprising possibilities for human connectedness. For while the world we inhabit is poisoned by injustice, it can be sweetened by the antidote of love.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem had generally good reviews, exemplified by the one in the Los Angeles Times, whose critic wrote: “The film snaps, crackles and pops. A taught and compelling Jerusalem-set melodrama [that] effectively intertwines the personal with the political in a way that is only enhanced by that city’s fraught atmosphere and cultural dynamic”.
It is in the second half, or near the end of the movie, however, where things begin to fray at the edges, as the insufferable David, the character who plays Sarah’s cuckolded husband, and who happens to serve in the Israeli army, goes bananas when he discovers the truth about his wife’s infidelity. David here is shown as a cold-blooded brute in whom civilised behaviour, evinced earlier, had been the outward mask of cruelty. And, hey, was I, as I watched this movie at the E Street Theatre in downtown Washington last week, wrong to assume that the intention of the screenwriter (the director’s own brother, Rami) to present David as a metaphor for the excesses of the occupation? If so, that was thematically heavy-handed and cinematically jejune.
Still, It is clear that The Report ... does not revolve around the classic dynamic, evoked in countless movies in the past, of lovers trying to overcome a class dichotomy — that would’ve been relatively easy to handle — as in, say, Of Human Bondage (1946) or The Titanic (1997), but around a more deadly one — this being the plus-minus dichotomy that separates the occupier and the occupied.
What remains to be asked is this: How have Palestinians been able to maximise their meagre resources in order to survive and then create in an oppressive system that, for the last seven decades, has been determined to irreversibly bring them to their knees? Again, search me.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.