Saturday, November 09, 2013

Israel and Palestine in two films

Omar (Hany Abu Al-Assad – Palestine) 96 minutes

Common State – Potential Conversation 1 (État commun – Conversation potentielle 1) (Eyal Sivan – France) 124 minutes

Hany Abu Al-Assad’s Omar, which won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes this year, is probably the first film to use Israel’s ‘separation barrier’ in the West Bank (also known, with some justification, as the apartheid wall) as a prop. The eponymous hero, Omar, a young baker (Adam Bakri), scales it daily, to visit his friends Tarek and Amjad, who live just the other side but whom the wall has placed at an improbable distance. Omar runs the risk of being shot by the Israeli Defence Force and on one occasion is routinely humiliated by a patrol, once they are satisfied he is not carrying any weapon or explosives.

Omar joins Tarek and Amjad in a nocturnal sortie against the IDF in which Tarek shoots a soldier at a posting, fatally wounding him. Omar is then swept up in an Israeli raid and he disappears into the sprawling black site that is the Israeli prison system. A pair of cops – both, oddly, played by actors of Palestinian origin – try to wheedle the name of the gunman out of them; one (Joe Sweid) tortures him in scenes remarkably similar to those in Zero Dark Thirty but filmed with far less ambiguity, the other, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) is more in the ‘good’ vein, and is able to half-coax an admission of guilt from Omar by passing as a Palestinian prisoner. Rami tries to get Omar to work as an informer and, when Omar resists, he turns him out into the world, figuring that the suspicion he has ratted out his comrades will be punishment enough (a similar plot device was used in Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog). Omar strikes a deal, promising to deliver the gunman to Rami within thirty days but he is only buying himself time, as he hopes to marry Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany).

Omar is a militant, fast-paced thriller, that is notable for the way it constantly refers to a world outside the decreasing parcels of land Palestinians live on in the Occupied Territories. Omar and Nadia talk about fleeing the place, about going to Paris for their honeymoon, even though they each know it is unlikely. Jokes refer to distant lands, Omar’s younger sister excitedly criticises José Mourinho’s benching of Karim Benzema at the dinner table, an informer pleads for his life, saying he only informed for money to visit New Zealand, because he has never seen the sea. Hanging behind the desk in Rami’s office is a large-format high definition photograph of a beach, clearly intended to tantalise young Palestinians who have never seen the Mediterranean, which lies only twenty miles or so to the west. And as if the eating away of the Palestinian homeland were not bad enough, our hero is subject to even more claustrophobic closure, hemmed in by the suspicions of those in his own community and the demands of the Occupier. Al-Assad, who won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Paradise Now, chooses a radical move to cut through the Gordian Knot. It’s a bold move and one unlikely to win him a second Oscar for its disavowal of a fictitious peace process.

That fictitious peace process has also led to the death of the two-state solution. Twenty years on, the Oslo Accords are in tatters, as Israel continued to violate international law by colonising the West Bank, and discontent with Fatah led to a hardening Islamisation of Palestinian society. The one-state solution has gained increasing ground over the past decade, championed by the late Edward Said and theorised by the likes of Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti. The main reason for its appeal is an acceptance that settlement building is so total now that a territorial Palestinian state, as envisaged by Oslo, is an impossibility. This was acknowledged by Tony Judt following visits to the West Bank in 2004, something which did not go down well in the West, where support for the charade that is the peace process remains a strategic imperative. Even sectors of the Israeli right, such as former Knesset Speaker Abrum Burg, are recognising the reality that Israelis and Palestinians may one day have to share the same binational state.

French-based Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan gathers together a number of people from both the Jewish and Palestinian camps and has them give their views on the possibility of a single state. These range from Omar Barghouti, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, Palestino-Israeli Knesset Member Haneen Zouabi, Israeli academics Ilan Pappe and Ariella Azoulay, Arab rights lawyer Hassan Jabareen, Jewish poet Eliaz Cohen, Palestinian economist Leila Farsakh, Hadash party member Yael Lerer (who also has a cameo role as a lawyer in Omar) and Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy. The interviews are shown in split-screen and are filmed as binomial dialogues. The artifice makes the film more art-installation than anything particularly cinematic but Common State is compelling nonetheless.

You can argue that the principals are all of an intelligentsia far removed from popular sentiment on either side of the divide – it is definitely true that all those interviewed are broadly left-leaning and there is none of the toxic racial determinism so widespread among Israelis or the opportunistic Holocaust denial and anti-semitism that blights some Palestinian discourse. Still, it can’t be denied that this attempt at a ‘potential conversation’ is lucid and intelligent. The one-state solution is dismissed by many as utopian and detached from reality – given how neighbouring communities even in rich countries such as Canada and Belgium can’t get along – but the ideas broached here are about a shift in mentality rather than a project for an immediately tangible state. Roucham Marton, the only interviewee old enough to remember life before 1948, says it was a time marked by more tolerance than the present (despite real atrocities committed by either side) and that she prefers not to talk of love, ‘because love always ends in tears’. Sival, whose criticism of the Israeli state has earned him smears from the likes of French Zionist Alain Finkielkraut, is to be commended for this colloquium. The comments contained within it will seem inconceivable to many who are trapped inside the confines of two-state orthodoxy but in decades to come, it will be these interviewees who, for better or for worse, will be proven right.