Three Fathers and a Wall

in 9th Dubai International Film Festival

by Altaf Mazid

Content-wise, there is nothing new in Khaled Jarrar’s ”Infiltrators” (Mutasalilun, Palestine & UAE ). It is simply about the people trying illegally to cross the wall situated in the Israeli West Bank. But as time passes, the wall becomes the most imposing character in the film. It takes the viewers to a different plane where the content turns out to be non-existent and the form takes over. So strongly and convincingly is the form embedded that at the end it looms large in viewer’s psyche. Here lies Jarrar’s stroke of cinematic revelation.

In the opening  sequence we see a group of young-to –middle-aged men running at daybreak towards an unknown destination. Their heads are down. They stop time and again to check whether they are being watched. They appear to be a faction getting ready for a minor secret mission. But as the sun begins lighting the scene, the camera starts illuminating their situation. We are near a tall concrete wall. Several other groups are also trying to topple it to meet their nearest and dearest living on the other side. With minimum resources – broken wooden posts and short makeshift ladders – they try to defy the state of Israel once more.

The film is full of many such attempts. Some of them get caught by the Israeli soldiers and others arrive at their destination. It’s a never ending story, where disappointment leads to more determination, and success leads to another new effort. The lead characters are a group of smugglers and a trafficker who develop furtive strategies, sometimes on the spot. Jarrar is not interested in showing a single story but he  builds, through filming these repeated attempts, on the universal theme of people’s yearning for reunion with their families. In one sequence we see a young girl attempting a daring crossing. In another an old woman could only touch the fingers of her spouse who somehow sneaked  beneath an unfinished gap in a section of the concrete. This sequence is quite heart wrenching. In yet another sequence we see a young man caught by the Israeli police after crossing the wall successfully. From one smuggler to another we hear announcements about these  failed efforts , stopped by security. The film shows us people with only one need: to cross the wall. No matter what their background and the motives, the relationship  with the wall takes many shapes and forms. The closer they get to it, the more intimate the relationship becomes as a human body touches the rough cement surface.

Jarrar’s structure is unpredictable: it has innumerable twists and turns and many stylistic components. The soundscape is designed to build suspense and heighten tension. It regulates the mood of the film, from the fast cuts to the boredom of people awaiting their next move towards the wall. Music compositions lend great support, to elevate the film-design to a poetic piece of visual fare. This way Jarrar has exploited all the cinematic means available at his disposal. These are the keys that raised its preference to this film for the FIPRESCI prize of the Muhr Arab Documentary section of the festival.

Among other 14 films of the section, three other films also catch attention. ”Amal’s Garden” (Iraq, U.S.A., 32 minutes) by Nadia Shihab, ”My Father Looks Like Abdel Nasser”, (Abi youchbeh Abdel Nasser, Lebanon, 33 min) by Farah Kassem and ”The Man Inside” (France, Kuwait, UAE, 50 minutes) from Karim Goury. In all of them the unifying thread is a father figure. In the first film, in Northern Iraq, an aged Amal chooses to remodel his house after the long war. The film thus is a warm and unexpected portrayal of Amal and his wife in their garden and the streets outside it. Director Nadia Shihab is Amal’s grand-niece. Her inquisitive camera positions make the film lovely viewing. In the second film director Farah Kassem films her father candidly while he is undergoing sleep related treatments, in  an attempt to capture and comprehend him through camera. She dwells on various intimate moments trying to get answers to all her questions, before it’s too late. When a Holter monitor is fixed on his chest to record continuous heart rhythms, she giggles at him, ‘he looks likes a ‘Jihadi’’. This is the only remote reference one gets, a hint about the title of the film (Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein was the second President of Egypt who used an iron fist to demolish the Muslim Brotherhood. From this, the concept martyrdom of the Jihadis evolved ). In this film, we are given no more clues about the cross-reference, the main subject is something else. But let it lie, we are not interested further.

The date September 11 always suggest 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001. But Karim Goury in his film, ”The Man Inside” chooses 9/11/1989 as a starting point, again leaving  viewers clueless about the origin. But what Goury has delivered in this 50 minutes film is a piece of pure cinema. The director locks up himself in a hotel room in Kuwait where his father worked as a manger. He left his family long ago, and never went home but often wrote letters and sent greeting through an audio cassette. The son turned director tries to visualise him through these letters and the voice tape. At times he is transformed to become his father. This transitory place, far from home, is the last place where the father stayed as far as the son knows. The film begins with a fast moving car in a cold deserted location without knowing who is travelling but ends with another car, this time, with the son figuring in the camera, in a street full of other people and their activities. In between the camera never leaves the hotel room. We see the son in reflections and shadows and that too midway through the film. ”The Man Inside” is indeed a rare piece of work.

Eliane Raheb’s ”Sleepless Nights” (Lebanon, UAE, Qatar, Palestine, 128 minutes) also examines an unusual situation of two different characters living well apart –  Assaad Shaftari, a former intelligence officer in a Christian right wing militia, responsible for many casualties in the Lebanese civil war, and Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a missing young communist fighter who disappeared in 1982. The film investigates the war wounds and tries to answer the questions of redemption and forgiveness. While Shaftari is asking forgiveness by confessing to secret plans, and to killing many people during 1975-90, Saiidi is in no mood of surrender, but determinedly tracks her missing son. Beside these stories,  what makes the film important is Raheb’s use of camera position and editing style. The take off shot is worth mentioning: we see a hand cleaning the rear window of  a car through which the back of a man’s bald head appears. The sitting character is Shaftari who appears to be cleaning the glasses of his own spectacles. A table cover placed diagonally between Shaftari and Raheb in an interview scene develops tension building between the two and the condition of filming. Use of sound track is also a point of note. When Shaftari complains of wrong information about his bio data we hear his voice but at the moment he has already finished reading out his piece of paper. Raheb repeatedly uses such craft to turn the dry contents of the subjects to visual treats.

Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the artistic director of the festival, must have spent many sleepless nights to shortlist the films of the festival. Name any section of the DIFF; you are bound to encounter a good crop of outstanding films. The most discussed work of the festival was a debut feature, ”Wajda”, by Saudi Arabia’s first female director Haifaa Al-Mansour. It is a story of a young Saudi girl who is testing the boundaries of a woman’s place in a highly conservative society where her love for Western music and fashions land her in trouble. It is considered to be the first feature film shot entirely in the country. It rightly won the best film award in the Muhr Arab feature category, and the lead actress, the 10-year-old Waad Mohammed also bagged the best actress award in the same category. Her role, as a child with a playful individuality and flexibility in times of misfortune left the audience spell bound. Al-Mansour had previously stated that she was forced to do the shooting from a van with a walkie-talkie in the conservative localities of Riyadh because she was working along with male crew and cast. Sometimes the locals shouted at her and erected barriers to the shooting. An emotional Haifaa Al-Mansour said afterwards that the award meant a lot to her.

Edited by Julie Rigg