The Politics of the Circle

in 4th El Gouna Film Festival

by Pierre-Simon Gutman

200 Meters

From its very first days, cinema has always managed to talk about the world. Maybe because it’s, essentially a window into this world as André Bazin, the French theorist and godfather of the new wave, used to say. Maybe it is, because of its immediate and probably populist nature, a medium which became popular with the wide population before convincing the elites. But the result has been apparent for more than a century now: the seventh art has been a permanent reflection of modern society. It can’t be a surprise then, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that most divisive and political issue, has already been filmed many times. With his first feature film, 200 Meters, the writer and director Ameen Nayfeh tackles this subject head on, thus walking a political minefield, a trap he is probably perfectly aware of. How to talk about a reality so complex and hurtful, so loaded and filled with passion, even rage? The success of 200 Meters lies in the way the author has managed to answer those tricky questions.

At the center of the movie is the wall, the one surrounding Israel and cutting off Palestinians. The start of the plot is both simple and ambiguous: a family lives on both sides of this wall. The father is on one side, his wife and kids on the other. They see each other during the day, then talk on the phone and wave at each other when it gets dark. Two accidental events, the loss of his working license and his son getting hit by a car, force the father to try frantically cross the wall illegally – and to reassess his own life. The choice to stay on the other side is effectively his, for personal reasons, such as the fact his mother lives there, but also for something more ideological, a will to refuse to play by the Israeli’s rules, to accept their country, their border. 200 Meters then quickly appears as a hugely political picture, but with a more human, more fragile, more fallible angle. For the main part, it’s a road movie, the story of the strange trip the protagonist makes around the wall and its borders, without the right papers, in a hurry to get to his son in the hospital, and surrounded by accidental companions maybe even more desperate than him to cross. The political complexities of the problem are seen in a fully practical, almost down to earth light here. It’s not about ideology, it’s about survival, making a living, just to keep going. The presence of a German documentarist during the trip illustrates the point. She is here to film the suffering, but is also caught in her own lies when it is revealed she’s not of Palestinian ancestry, as she claimed, but Jewish. A revelation shocking many, but not the hero, who almost shrugs his shoulders and gets the larger point. There are no sides to be taken, just lives and identities shattered, which may explain why he is hanging so fiercely to his side of the wall, away from his own family. There is no fight in 200 Meters, rather a permanent interrogation about everyone’s place in this mixed up small world. The cinematography, in a glorious tradition illustrated by Jean Renoir among others, tries to get out of the way. Characters, their paths and wanderings, are the movie, and the director seems to be there to capture an energy that can be elusive. As a result, there is not a precise tone forced upon the story. Moments of comedy can be followed by a sudden seriousness and a sense of absurdity can suddenly appear in an apparently tense, even dramatic situation. Nothing is fixed, everything is as messed up, hard to predict or to judge, as the situation warrants. The politics of this situation are never abstract, they are rooted in an everyday reality, far less easy to dismiss or even apprehend, because it’s deeply human and can’t be summed up in a neat and ideologically defined, way.

The perfect circle drawn by the ending is another sign of Nayfeh’s design. The father is back where he started, his wife and children are still on the other side of the wall. They are still waving at each other before going to sleep. Nothing has been fixed, no arc has been solved, no inner revelation has hit our hero. The problem, the fight, the racism and the wall still endure. 200 Meters takes a circuitous route to take us back to the beginning, precisely because the circle is probably the point.

Pierre-Simon Gutman
Edited by Karsten Kastelan