Thursday, August 12, 2010

Annemarie Jacir's SALT OF THIS SEA: ownership & occupation in Israel/Palestine

You couldn't ask for a more timely or explosive subject for a film than that chosen by writer/director Annemarie Jacir, whose first full-length film is SALT OF THIS SEA -- which is also said to the the first film from Palestine by a female director. (This "Salt" is certainly more flavorful and timely than another that opened a couple of weeks back, and the initials of the person most responsible for the success of each film -- coincidence? -- are AJ.)  Using a documentary style to carry her narrative, Ms Jacir, shown below, tracks the "adventures" of a Brooklyn-born young woman, Soraya (played by a great beauty named Suheir Hammad, shown at right, two photos below), of Palestinian lineage who comes to this native-land-of-her-soul in order to visit her late grandparents' home in Jaffa and access her grandfather's bank account.

Things do not move ahead so easily.  From her protracted airport visit and interview/search by authorities (can anyone, especially Soraya, be surprised by this?) to her experience with the bank, she and her quest are blindsided left and right.  Along the way she meets a young local, Emad, played by Saleh Bakri (below, left, of The Band's Visit, and another beauty: This pair alone makes watching the movie very easy on the eyes). Emad works as a restaurant waiter while waiting for his visa to be granted to study in Canada, where he has a scholarship pending. The glimpses we get of Palestine life, while not horrendous, are certainly not pleasant. Employment (and the money to pay employees) seems unusually "iffy," and that visa, it turns out, has been rejected a number of times already (golly: do Israelis not want their Palestinian brethren to succeed in life?).

So Soraya, Emad and his best friend Marwan (a clownish but enjoyable Riyad Ideis, shown at right, two photos below) hatch a plan, and here the movie either hops the track entirely, depending on your tolerance for genre-jumping, or at the very least becomes pretty problematic.  I won't reveal all that transpires (mini-spoilers ahead) but will say that the photo below reveals a part of that plan -- which then takes our threesome deep into Israeli territory, where the men wear yarmulkes and Soraya's citizenship and use of English is a major help in getting by.

All this is not very believable, I must say, yet it enables Ms Jacir to explore the themes that really matter to her (and should to the rest of us): ownership, occupation and the right to travel freely between points and countries. If the filmmaker does not do this nearly fully enough (her scenario is simply too creaky), she at least forces us to face up to some troubling contradictions in so-called western (and one eastern) "democracies."

When the threesome finally arrives at the home of the late grand-
parents, it is greeted by perhaps the most welcoming Israeli in memory -- who tells the group to stay as long as it wants. Yet so obsessed is Soraya by what was taken from her family back in the 1940s that she cannot negotiate even a minor peace. This turn of events is actually all too believable; it brings the woman's character and psychological problems to the fore, where they now remain through the film's conclusion. It's not so easy to put the past behind you when that past has been taken from you due to nothing for which you or your ancestors were personally responsible. But this also brings up the principle used in situations from wartime conquering to long-term squatting: possession equals ownership.

You can't go home again as it turns out.  We knew that, but we may not have seen it expressed from quite this interesting/exotic a view.  Soraya and Emad become briefly like some new Adam and Eve, but nothing here  can last for these Palestinians.  The film is propaganda, of course. Yet despite the clumsy manner in which some of the story is handled, the performances are strong and the ideas and feelings generated even more so.

From one angle you can view the film as the story of a disturbed woman looking for her roots while wreaking havoc on those around her. On the other hand, you could just as easily get away with giving this movie a title oft-used but still pertinent: a Stolen Life.
Or maybe as a kind of suicide road-trip, minus the bombs.

Salt of This Sea, via Lorber Films, together with the nicely ironic and alliteration-heavy distributor Philistine Films, opens tomorrow, Friday, August 13, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, followed by engagements in other select (read "highly-limited-distribution") cities.  Eventually, one hopes, we'll also be able to see it on DVD.

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