A Palestinian Existence Is Threatened in "Private"

in 57th Locarno International Film Festival

by Mohammed Rouda

There is an undeniable feeling for the oppressed in “Private”, the first feature film directed by Saverio Costanzo. The film which was made on a very tight budget, and shot in a southern Italian town with the Palestinian actor Mohammed Bakri flown in, stands as a statement on the realities of the present situation in the occupied territories in Palestine. Yet, if the film didn’t depict these realities, which it does skillfully, it could also have worked as a thriller. One that brings to mind “Suddenly”, a Hollywood picture, directed by Lewis Allen in 1954.

Here we have a Palestinian family that lives in a two- storey house with a bit of a farm. The head of the family, Mohammed (Bakri), from the first scene in the film, realises the risks he is taking by opposing the request of his wife Samiha to leave the house. He declares that he doesn’t want to be a refugee and by this declaration he reminds us of the whole story of the Palestinians who fled their homes and became refugees either in their country or in other Arab countries. Mohammed, understandably, doesn’t want to find himself in the same situation so he decides to stay with his family in his own house which, unfortunately, is in the zone separating an Israeli military post and a Palestinian town from which ‘unfriendly’ fire is disturbing what little peace there is.

We are introduced to Mohammed’s family. Beside the wife there are three boys and a young girl whom Mohammed wants to send to Germany to continue learning. And he is very happy to listen to his youngest son learning new English words.. This is a positive image drawn of a Palestinian family. Though it doesn’t contain certain depth, it works as an introduction to what will follow: the occupation of the house by the raiding Israeli army. From the night of the raid till no one really knows, the Israeli army will be stationed in this house for its strategic importance. The uptight Israeli officer who leads his men to the house orders the family to stay in the ground floor and -at night- never to leave the living room which will serve the family as their bedroom. As for the upper floor they should not try to climb its stairs.

At one point Mohammed is about to be shot when the Israeli army leaves the house and the family regain its freedom for a while. Mohammed shows a lot of restraint fearing what would happen to his family if he, or any other member of his family, made a wrong move. In his opinion one way of resistance is to exist. Not to fight back. He is against violence which he sees as not fulfilling (and he has the whole real situation as a proof). Yet he will not give up his rights. In a dream, he summons the officer who asks him why he won’t leave the house. He answers back “And why don’t you leave my house?”. A lot is said in that sentence.

Yet I have a problem with the story. As his daughter (played by Hind Ayoub) climbs up the stairs for the first time aiming to steal a soldier’s rifle left unattended and ends up in the empty closet hiding, one is expecting an exciting situation. One of intriguing possibilities as it could lead to a new development in the drama. She is not discovered and she runs down to the first floor safely. Then she does it again. She hides there again peeping and listening (though she does not understand Hebrew), and then she sneaks back to her part of the house again. As she keeps doing this three or four times, nothing worth mentioning happens to either her, her family or the story, which becomes unfocused and the tight situation a bit boring.

The film, nevertheless, is tightly directed. The interior scenes create the feeling of what it is like to be imprisoned in one’s own house/ land. The camera, hand-held for most of the time, is well controlled adding to the tension provided by the story. The film does not draw stereotypes on either side. Even some Israeli soldiers are more human than the officer. Yet, successfully, the film is not after a ‘balanced- view’ by the simplest notions and terms. It does not provoke the joke of being on a naive journey to discover facts. The film presents what the writer/director sees as facts. And these facts rings true and affection for a family that, in more than one way, resembles all the innocent people in this troubled land.

Mohammed Bakri is an asset to this film. He is a veteran Palestinian actor/director who first came to international attention when he played in Costa-Gavras’ “Hanna K”. A film that was first in dealing with the rights of existence for the Palestinians. He is also the director of “Jenin… Jenin” which the Israeli military is suing him for because of the negative reflection upon what happened in Jenin, the Palestinian town which was attacked by the occupation forces.