[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ENJAMIN Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, has just lost his majority in elections held on September 17. Building coalitions will take time and he may well return at the head of a right wing coalition. Either way, his legacy will endure.
Relentless settlement-building in Palestinian territory has created a de facto single state, putting an effective end to peace negotiations. Muayad Alayan’s recently-released second feature, The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (2019), is an ironic take on Netanyahu’s Israel. In it, Israelis and Palestinians live closer to each other than ever before and forge relationships against the grain of authoritarian logic.
Making good films under conditions of occupation seems impossible. But that is what the latest generation of Palestinian filmmakers have done. Palestine for them is a sensibility past tragedy. It is a sense of the absurd that keeps anger and hopelessness in check. There are no grand narratives in Palestinian cinema, only wry and ironic ones– The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, for example, is a spy thriller with no spy. Its plot turns on popular cinematic device – the extramarital affair. Sarah is the wife of David, a senior Israeli counter-intelligence officer and is sleeping with Saleem, a Palestinian deliveryman. David is responsible for Saleem’s mistaken arrest as a Palestinian militant, sparking off an Israeli operation to identify the Israeli ‘informant’ he is believed to have seduced.
The film is set in Jerusalem, future capital of ever-receding Palestine in which Palestinians, today, live as second-class citizens. The city has ‘lines’ running through it which map the history of its appropriation and participate in the action of the film. First comes the Green Line much like the LOC in Kashmir, drawn after the first war in 1948. It divides the city into Jewish West Jerusalem where Sarah lives and ghettoized Palestinian East Jerusalem where Saleem lives. Then, in 2002, after the Second Intifada, came the Separation Wall, closing off the city from Palestinian territory where David and Sarah will paradoxically have their showdown. And now, Israel has built walls closing off entire Palestinian neighbourhoods within the city. To access places in their own city, they have to take routes, some of which are underground tunnels, all the way to the West Bank.
Amidst these herculean efforts to keep populations apart, you have Sarah and Saleem parked in a deserted parking lot, having vigorous sex in the back of a delivery van.
Alayan’s Jerusalem is a city of paranoia which normalizes transgression. You have to disobey to survive. Saleem works at night, delivering grocery products illegally to shops in the West Bank. Without this he cannot make ends meet. And when he smuggles Sarah into Bethlehem ‘just for a drink’, she needs to pose as a Dutch NGO worker. The very next day, however, he is picked up by Palestinian security and accused of smuggling Israeli prostitutes into the West Bank. Alayan is not kind to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Set up at in 1994 in the interim to statehood, the PA administers a shrinking territory. Statehood is a distant dream and contemporary Palestinian cinema reflects this.
Alayan shoots resolutely within the framework of the Occupation and focuses on interactions between Israelis and Palestinians as individuals.
These interactions are unequal as a rule and Alayan, in The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, attacks them indirectly.
The film is in the tradition of a farce where roles are inverted. Saleem, for example, affects an empty and pathetic machismo at home while his wife, Bisan, shines in contrast. Played by the beautiful Maisa Abd Elhadi, her characterization is devoid of irony. Alayan is not as kind to Sarah and positively harsh towards David. The two of them lead a privileged life rooted in an unjust status-quo which Alayan undermines through the device of the extramarital affair. He undermines them as stock characters, Sarah being the unfaithful wife and David, despite his pretensions, the cuckold. He will also prove to be a coward and a bully when Sarah’s identity as Saleem’s imaginary recruit is revealed. He will then threaten to divorce her and take custody of their child if she doesn’t agree to save his career.
Bisan is the alternate pole of the film. She doggedly investigates the reports too, but for reasons of integrity. The power she represents is that of nature. It is life-giving. All plotlines ultimately converge on her. She is the redemptive force in her film. She is a student in an advanced state of pregnancy. And when you see her with her college books in hand, a scarf draped around her face and her pregnancy visible through her abaya, you wonder if she is for real? Does Alayan really believe in her in a material sense or is she a symbol?
It must be hard for Palestinian filmmakers to end films set within an intractable conflict. We see that some end in stomach-churning ways, whereas some end with an ideal, like a mirage, incarnated by a woman.