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January 31, 2010

Live at Sundance:  A Palestinian Woody Allen

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/live_at_sundance_a_palestinian_woody_allen_20100130/

The tagline for “Fix ME,” a film from Palestine by Raed Andoni, is “Life in Ramallah… sure keeps us occupied!” An unusual departure for Palestinian cinema, “Fix ME” is a humor-filled documentary that focuses on the filmmaker, his anxieties, his life as an artist, and his 20 visits to a local psychotherapist.

Andoni can be compared to a Palestinian Woody Allen, albeit the early Allen.  And he is adamant that he is a filmmaker from Palestine, not a Palestinian filmmaker.

The doc opens as Andoni complains of a pain in his head.  We learn that he suffers from headaches, but when he visits a doctor his blood pressure turns out to be fine, as is his blood work. The physician prescribes “medical” alcohol, i.e. a daily drink.  When the pain persists at his temples and forehead, Andoni decides to consult a psychologist at a modern Palestinian medical building in Ramallah.

The camera is placed behind a one-way mirror, and the sessions begin.  Over 20 appointments, we learn more about Andoni, his family, perceptions, depressions, history, memories, and even lack of memories.  Between sessions, the filmmaker explores his personal relationships, reacts to the therapist’s suggestions, drives through cities and villages, interacts with his anarchist nephew, and fantasizes about his own feelings.

Andoni is best known in the United States as one of the producers of Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s 2001 documentary, “The Inner Tour,” in which two dozen Palestinians go on a three day sightseeing trip of Israel.  His earlier film, “Improvisation,” explores generational conflicts within a Palestinian family of musicians.

In “Fix ME,” the spotlight turns to Andoni’s own desire to be an artist and an individual in a society dominated by a collective identity.

While other filmmakers in Palestine have focused on wars, conflicts, checkpoints, separation walls, and battles, Andoni hoped to take a different path:  to examine who he is, his life as a human being, and his simultaneous sense of weakness and superiority .  In an amusing early scene, he visits his mother with his film crew.  Like mothers worldwide, she criticizes him for not calling enough, then tells him “A film about your headaches is not of interest to people.”  Later, while driving through the streets of Ramallah in his BMW, he passes a billboard from Canadian Club that implores “Be Yourself.”

When Andoni describes his perceived faults during his sessions – that he is impatient, aloof, prefers boredom to engagement, combined with his feeling of slight superiority, the therapist makes him stand on a chair and asks if he feels as if he is looking down at the people around him.

Asked how he filmed his therapy sessions, Andoni said that when one makes a documentary, one actually creates three movies:  “First you write the film, then you film it, and then you edit it,” he explained.  Therefore while writing the basic concept for the movie, he had a friend perform some unofficial therapy sessions with him, in order to get an idea of what to expect. For the real therapy, he devised the following plan:  “The cameras will be behind a one way mirror.  The therapist will have absolute control of the sessions.  The crew will not hear the dialogue, and they did not understand Arabic.  Lastly, I was not allowed to review the dailies of the therapy sessions until after the last session.  This last item was the request of the doctor.”

In one session, Andoni muses about the question:  If you were given the choice, would you rather have been born as a Palestinian or an Israeli Jew?  In another session, we learn that the director remembers very little about the year he spent in an Israeli prison right after he graduated from high school.  After that session, he seeks out one of his former cellmates.  As Andoni walks down a path next to this man, we see that the director walks with a slight stoop, that one of his arms is limp, and that he appears weak compared to his old friend.  The former cell mate, who recalls everything that happened in prison, discusses how he has suppressed his own career goals for the common nationalist goal.  Andoni only remembers a specific detail:  that his cellmate had three tiny dots on his hand; nearly everything else about the experience he has suppressed or forgotten.  He says he is ashamed of his feelings of weakness and vulnerability, theorizing that others have faced far worse problems in their lives.

I asked Andoni if his headaches subsided after the process of therapy, or after of making the film, which was a form of therapy.  “The headaches were a hook to start the film, but my tension headaches have been better,” he said.  I am currently living in Paris, where I have been for almost a year.  I can now say that my headaches are a bit Parisian.”

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