January 23, 2009
Day Seven at Sundance: The Palestinians
By Larry Mark
On Thursday morning, I awoke early to watch the Oscar nominations, and grabbed a bagel at a Park City bagelry. Yes, they have bagels everywhere now. I also checked out two feature films with Palestinian themes: “Amreeka” and “Pomegranates and Myrrh,” which touch on the Middle East conflict in very different ways.
“Amreeka,” the feature film debut of Cherien Dabis, chronicles a Palestinian family’s journey from the Middle East to the Diaspora of post-September 11 Illinois. Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) is a divorced, single parent struggling to remain optimistic and make a new life for herself and her teenaged son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem). When she obtains a green card to work in the United States, she makes the difficult decision to give America a try, staying with her sister and her sister’s family.
The film begins with checkpoints, first Israeli ones, and next an American one. In one memorable scene, a U.S. immigration officer asks Muna her name and nationality. When he queries, “Occupation?” Muna misunderstands and replies, “Yes, occupied for 40 years,” rather than that her former job was in a bank.
With humor, nostalgia, sadness, and authenticity, Dabis creates an absorbing story of immigration and struggle. Muna secretly takes a job at White Castle, while Fadi must confront racism at school, where classmates call him “fatty” and “Osama” and taunt him as an outsider and possible terrorist. Muna’s brother-in-law, a physician, begins to lose patients since he is Arab American, and the family falls behind in its mortgage payments. Neighbors look at the family with suspicion. Joseph Ziegler plays Mr. Novatski, the compassionate high school principal, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Dabis said the film was inspired by her own family’s experiences. After two screenings, each with standing ovations, she related how she was born in Celina, OH, the daughter of Palestinian-Jordanian parents who immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest. Her father, a pediatrician, became a local hero due to the lives he had saved. Yet during the Gulf War, he lost patients, and even as the father of five daughters, he was falsely rumored to have a son who was fighting against coalition forces in Iraq.
As art, or film, imitates life, Cherien’s older sister was falsely accused in high school of plotting against President George W. Bush, which generated a visit to the school by the U. S. Secret Service. The hysteria and investigation was halted only after intervention by the relatively sane high school principal.
I asked Dabis why she decided to make the character of the principal Jewish. Mainly, she said, she needed a fellow divorcé who could relate to Muna on her level, be sympathetic, and draw out her charm and her love for her son. Further, the principal’s Jewish-American background parallels Muna’s experience of immigration and displacement.
“Pomegranates and Myrrh” explores the life of a Palestinian woman making her way between traditional expectations and modern opportunities. The drawback is that the film shows Israeli soldiers and prison guards as one-dimensional, shouting, roughnecks.
The drama opens near an olive grove, east of Jerusalem, on the day of Zaid and Kamar’s wedding. After Zaid prepares, he and his family travel to Jerusalem to a church for the ceremony. Along the way, they must pass Israeli checkpoints, where the tension is palpable. Writer-director Najwa Najjar includes long shots of the barrier wall throughout the film, reinforcing to keen observers the “situation.”
After the wedding, we see that Kamar is a free-spirited dancer, while Zaid runs his family’s olive oil business. But their honeymoon bliss is interrupted when the Israeli Army confiscates their land, charging that someone in the grove had thrown a stone at an Israeli patrol. Zaid is accused of threatening a soldier during the ensuing scuffle and is arrested and placed in administrative detention at Ofer Prison near Ramallah. The film shows him being interrogated and abused.
The grove is surrounded by barbed wire and a handful of Jewish settlers arrive, erect a flag and a tent and squat on the property. The family’s residence is vandalized and covered in Stars of David.
During this time, a new dance choreographer, Kais, arrives from Lebanon and takes a forbidden interest in Kamar, who wants to be a supportive wife to her incarcerated husband, but does not want to give up her dancing. Kais is the son of a Palestinian fighter, and, at age 10, was a witness to the massacres by the supporters of Bashir Gemayal in 1982. He lives for the moment and is without hope. By teaching the local dance troupe new steps, he is a symbol of the changing society and the conflict with new dance forms. He oversteps his authority and garners the wrath of Yusef, who has run the troupe for decades and wants to stay within the strictures of classical Palestinian folk dance.
Lea Tsemel, a well-known Israeli human right lawyer, plays the blunt, realistic, Israeli attorney hired to fight the land confiscation and Zaid’s incarceration.
For more information, visit the Sundance site.