x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Salt of This Sea (Milh hadha al bahr)

The festival's World Cinema strand staged this Palestinian first feature. A brave work that bristles with righteous rage.

First love: The Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad makes her feature film debut alongside Saleh Bakri in <i>Salt of This Sea</i>.
First love: The Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad makes her feature film debut alongside Saleh Bakri in <i>Salt of This Sea</i>.

Soraya (Suheir Hammad), born and bred in Brooklyn, bored and with no direction home after a steady succession of insignificant jobs, discovers that her grandfather had his modest savings frozen in a bank account upon his expulsion from Palestine in 1948, the year of the creation of the state of Israel. She decides to make the trip to her ancestral home and to recover the funds. Grainy, monochrome newsreel clips from that year, documenting the Israeli occupation and its brute force - houses torn down by tanks; refugees wading out into the sea in the wait for escape boats - open this highly charged, political, insightful debut with requisite urgency. Cut to the present day. Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport. In a passport control booth, Soraya parleys her entry into Israel - only to be hurried away for interrogation and subjected to a full body search. Finally reaching Ramallah, she learns that the accounts at the Bank of Palestine were wiped clean following the events of 1948. Emad (Saleh Bakri), a young, attractive local waiter with similar ambitions to escape his cul-de-sac life, enters the picture. To earn their freedom, together they steal matters into their own hands - with law-breaking consequences. In doing so, they inadvertently venture through the history of a lost nation. Jacir's real coup is to stage the narrative of a persecuted people atop the plight of a not-so innocent protagonist. Hers is a cool, self-possessed work. One that is as enamoured with Bonnie and Clyde-esque cinematic style as it is with exploring the frustrations of a nation long denied what Virginia Woolf conceived - sadly so almost a century before - as "a room of one's own": the right to land, property, income, and with it, freedom. In Salt of This Sea, the stunning realisation of what was lost arises, first of all, out of a personal avarice entirely independent of political motivations. Those are only later inherited. While uneven in places - it assumes too many clear-cut good-evil distinctions to be a truly subtle take - Jacir's film succeeds in offering us an inner view of a situation: mute moments and still scenes of real dignity coming to allay Soraya's restlessness. By the end of it, we have come full circle back to Ben Gurion, bar a notable absence that is just crushing. Together with another dynamic, empowered debut showing at this year's festival, and one from the Israeli perspective at that - Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir - they make a stirring duet, one that is admirably intent on finally finding a resolution for the too-long-lost Palestinians.