The Never-ending Oppression

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Claudia Lenssen

Sharqiya — the first full-length feature film of Tel Aviv based Israeli filmmaker Ami Livne — deals with the hidden drama of modern Arabian life under Israeli security restrictions in the Negev desert. It depicts the struggle for identity which juxtaposes the descendants of the Bedouin tribes, who once owned the desert land, to the politics of the Israeli administration. Its laconic way of storytelling and its cinematic virtuoso make it a splendid experience of post-Lawrence-of-Arabia-reality and as well a subtle but vivid pledge for witty resistance.

Kamel (Adnan Abu Wadi), a shy young Bedouin, lives with his patriarchal, dominant elder brother Khaled (Adnan Abu Muhareb) and his sister-in-law Nadia (Maysa Abed Alhadi) in a less than modest assemble of metal cabins in the endless landscape of the sand dunes. Due to the regulations of Israeli administration they are not allowed to follow the traces of their traditional nomadic ancestors. They nevertheless insist on living in the area, keeping their herd of goats in a provisory camp, in spite of the fact that they cannot prove by papers that they own the land.

Brother Khaled lives the disillusioned hard life of a rural worker who is aware of the excavators who will come and tear down everything he has worked for. Nadia sticks to her husband and manages the poor household, but seems to dream of a change. She wants to continue her studies and asks Kamel, her brother-in-law, to get her books from the nearby city. Both keep the secret about this rebellious attitude — a significant detail about the taciturn communication in this family.

Kamel, the main character of the film, is the only one who has a regular job which makes him able to get in touch with the Israeli’s. He works as a security guard in the back area of Be’er Sheba’s central bus station, where he keeps an eye on any suspicious-looking piece of luggage. Though his job is of high responsibility, the everyday routine is boring and frustrating. Kamel’s competitive colleague plays tricks, makes Kamel’s plastic seat disappear and tries to take over his job. Already under constant and ridiculous pressure in the job, Kamel has to withstand even more hostility when he gets home after the shift, first having to travel by bus and then taking a long walk through the desert. Brother Khaled hates Kamel’s connection to the Israeli’s, even more the feeling of being dependent on his younger brother’s income. Kamel answers the offenses somewhat stoically and full of appreciation. He even tries to earn his brother’s respect by helping him with the farm work. But the conflict turns out to get even more intensive when Kamel is unfortunate to lose an agricultural machine in the desert.

So, when Kamel realizes that the family is confronted with a new directive informing them that their home is going to be pulled down, he tries to prevent the damage. Publicity seems to be the only way to prevent the devastation. In a tricky way — an ironic turn of the general Israeli paranoia situation — director Ami Livne makes his main character Kamel succeed in enticing a TV-crew to Be’er Sheba. He uses the discovery of a bomb at work — which is in fact a dummy he rigged up at home and placed at the bus station in order to get “discovered” by himself. The young Bedouin guard wants to use his fame as hero of the day to say a word about his people and their needs in the interview. In the evening the whole family is sitting in front of Kamel’s TV (which he turned on the diesel generator for) and is waiting for the news to come on the air, but the story is cut — there is no publicity for the Bedouin’s loss of land.

The next morning the excavators slowly arrive, enter the camp and complete the destruction of their homes within a short time. The family watches the sad scene with silent desperation. Sharqiya seems to end in a pessimist conclusion, with no hope for the Bedouins. But, just in time after the excavator’s departure, neighbors and friends of the family arrive and unload lots of material to rebuild the desert housing in exactly the same place.