Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jessica Habie's unusual MARS AT SUNRISE tackles the Israel/Palestine problem via "art"

Movie-makers have approached the thorny and seemingly insoluble and unforgiving Israel/Palestine situation in so many different ways -- from unusual love stories like Thierry Binisti's A Bottle in the Gaza Sea to Elia Suleiman's marvelously elusive The Time That Remains to Lorraine Levy's poignant, kids-switched-at-birth movie The Other Son to Michael Mayer's fine GLBT thriller Out in the Dark (there are plenty of other good films simply too numerous to mention here) -- that it is both a pleasure and a surprise to welcome one that approaches the situation via art. MARS AT SUNRISE, the new film from Jessica Habie, is both about art and itself an "art film" -- full of symbols, mystery, impressionism and the surreal.

Ms Habie, shown at right and who also wrote the screenplay, offers up the "plot" situation in a fairly straightforward manner that gives us decent entry into things. An artist and school teacher named Khaled (the ubiquitous Ali Suliman, shown below and most recently seen here in Lone Suvivor and The Attack) is being displaced from his home and art studio in what is suddenly an "occupied-so-no-questions-asked" territory. He doesn't want to leave -- his explanation to his class  (below) regarding why he must go and the different colored visas that reflect this makes a wonderful scene -- and so he stays until he is forcibly ejected by the Israeli military.

The officer in command -- played as an angry, vicious and sad young man by talented newcomer Guy Elhanan, below -- begins by being rude and nasty to Khaled (and to his art) then goes on to imprison and torture the poor guy, after of course demanding that he work for Israel as a spy.

Yes, this situation sets up a rather definitive victim/aggressor scenario. But wait. While our sympathy rather must go with the displaced Palestinian, Ms Habie has more on her mind than simply this. By weaving into her movie so much art and "art," taking us from the real to the surreal, from fantasy to wish fulfillment, from the impressionistic to the hard-edged, she makes us understand that, no matter who seems to hold the power cards, we have two victims here.

The filmmaker's shots are often beautiful and usually meaningful; only occasionally do they fall into what might be seen as pretentious. I think we can live with a little pretension, in any case, when an artist -- which Habie definitely is -- attempts to come to terms with a subject this difficult. (She certainly hands us a better movie than did Julian Schnabel with his pretty dismal and ham-fistedly obvious Miral.)

Habie's combination of art, music and poetry, along with lush and beautifully framed visuals in service to a relatively simple story works well enough to divert us and make us think and connect during her film's short (just 75 minutes) running time.

Sure, there are a few things I'd like to have changed: I'd give Mr Suliman a better wig, for instance; and maybe have dubbed the rather unpleasant middle-eastern valley girl voice of the lovely actress seen at the film's beginning and then off and on throughout. (This young woman sounds as though she could greatly benefit from one of the Lake Bell character's vocal-training sessions seen at the conclusion of the fabulous In a World...)

But these are quibbles against what is a most worthwhile attempt to create art, meaning and change out of continuing injustice. Mars at Sunrise (which I take to be a title of one of Khaled's art works) is an unusual and engaging experience and one of the first of its kind to come out of the middle east that I, at least, have so far seen.

The movie -- from Canada/Palestine/USA, 75 minutes,  unrated, in DCP, in Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles -- opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and elsewhere soon, I hope.

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