x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Stranger than paradise

In Annemarie Jacir's stunning debut feature, two young Palestinians steal a taste of freedom on the run from the law. Rasha Salti is captivated.

Badlands: Soraya (Suheir Hammad) and Emad (Saleh Bakri) among the ruins of Dawayima in Annemarie Jacir's <i>Salt of This Sea</i>.
Badlands: Soraya (Suheir Hammad) and Emad (Saleh Bakri) among the ruins of Dawayima in Annemarie Jacir's <i>Salt of This Sea</i>.

The opening moments of Salt of This Sea, Annemarie Jacir's first feature, hit like an unexpected jab - black and white newsreel footage from 1948: Israeli tanks knocking over walls, pulling down houses, panicked refugees wading into the sea to crowd onto boats. From the violence of 1948, the film jumps to the present day, to a Palestinian-American woman standing in a passport-control booth at Ben-Gurion airport, negotiating her entry, only to be whisked away for an interrogation and a full-body search.

Soraya (Suheir Hammad) was born and raised in Brooklyn to Palestinian parents. Bored and listless after a series of dead-end jobs, haunted by a sense of being out-of-place, she learns that her grandfather - one of 70,000 Palestinians expelled from Jaffa in 1948 - left behind savings that were frozen in a British bank, and that this bank has opened a new branch in Ramallah. She decides impulsively to go there and reclaim the funds: her plan is simply to walk into the bank, see a cashier and demand they hand over the money.

After the humiliating interrogation session at the airport, she arrives in Ramallah, finds the bank and does exactly that. The bank's staff, all Palestinian, treat her like she is demented - to reclaim confiscated Palestinian accounts is, to them, unimaginable. Undeterred, Soraya decides to stick around, and finds a job at a fancy restaurant in Ramallah, where she meets Emad (Saleh Bakri), an attractive young man who becomes her guide to the city. He is deeply frustrated with his own life in Ramallah, where his prospects for a brighter future have evaporated with tightened Israeli control over Palestinian movement, in the form of multiplying (and increasingly permanent) checkpoints.

Jacir's characters and cast are among the most successful elements in the film. Hammad has never acted before, but she is a natural; her chemistry with Bakri, a professional actor, is captivating. Her sculptured beauty and luminous smile are hard to match, but Bakri's lanky, soft-spoken, seductive Emad, makes a perfect fit. Life in Ramallah does not quell Soraya's restlessness; drawing inspiration from Emad's muted despair, she devises a plan to rob the bank and flee with her rightful inheritance. It is no conventional bank robbery: Soraya wants only the estimated value of her grandfather's savings - plus interest - and, with Emad and his friend Marwan (Riyad Edeis), she succeeds in taking it and escaping.

The realm of lawlessness presents, albeit tenuously, a certain freedom of movement, and the three outlaws drive through Palestine towards its unattainable frontier, the sea. Elated, watchful, free and scared, Soraya discovers the landscape of her homeland. Emad and Marwan finally breathe free of the confinement of Ramallah. Soraya decides they should drive to Jaffa, to see her family's house, and - after a few hairy scrapes with Israeli police - they find it. The charming seaside home is inhabited by an Israeli artist with "Peace Now" leanings. She greets the three fugitives warmly and invites them to stay as long as they wish.

Emad and Marwan get comfortable, but Soraya seems unsettled and tormented. She is incapable of accepting the loss of her family's home. Unable to contain her pain and outrage, she confronts the Israeli artist, and the three Palestinians have to go on the run again. Emad and Soraya decide to visit the ruins of Dawayima, Emad's native village, which was destroyed in 1948. When the police inevitably catch up to them, Soraya's American passport spares her a jail sentence, but Emad is beaten, handcuffed and taken away.

The police take Soraya back to Ben-Gurion airport. The last scene is eerily quotidian, almost documentary; the camera lingers at the entrance to the departures area, the sound of instructions to travellers blaring from loudspeakers. We don't see Soraya, but her absence is overwhelming. While we are certainly not back at the beginning of the film, with the newsreel footage of the Nakba and its massive forced expulsion, we are right in line with 2008, when the summary deportation and incarceration of Palestinians are commonplace Israeli procedures.

Salt of this Sea is Annemarie Jacir's first feature-length narrative film, and the first Palestinian narrative feature directed by a woman. Jacir, who is not yet 35, has been involved in film production since 1994. She studied film at Columbia University in New York, and has been active in the promotion and presentation of Palestinian cinema. Palestinian cinema is distinctive in the landscape of Arab film, and not only because of the improbable fact of its very existence, given the near-impossible strictures on film production in a country under military occupation. What is even more remarkable is its diversity: Palestinian cinema is unique in its balance between mainstream narrative and innovative experimental features; between fiction and documentary; and between shorts and features.

Films like Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (2004) and Hani Abu Assad's Paradise Now (2006) have demonstrated that Palestinian cinema is commercially viable in the international art house circuit, and this breakthrough has begun to pay dividends for other Arab cinemas as well. There is not one school or style that characterises Palestinian cinema, but the engagement among filmmakers is apparent, and one can easily detect the influence that an innovative and distinguished director like Suleiman (who draws inspiration from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Yasujiro Ozu) has imparted on a younger generation. It is not so much a cinema d'auteurs as it is a cinema of subjectivity, trends and experiments, with a constellation of names shining brightly. In that regard, Palestinian cinema has been the most vivacious, bold, dissenting, fearless, creative and tenacious in the Arab world.

Palestinian filmmakers do more than denounce the barbarity of the Israeli state, the complacency of kin Arab regimes, the tartuffery of the international community - they are also scathing critics of the ills of their own society: the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the chauvinism of nationalist rhetoric, the dominance of patriarchy. This freedom of expression is rare among Arab cinemas, but what is most astounding in Palestinian cinema is the freedom to imagine - to imagine wildly.

Salt of this Sea will be remembered as one of those Palestinian films that dared to imagine the unimaginable. At a moment when the Palestinian Authority has lost the moral high ground, when negotiations for a "peaceful settlement" seem irrevocably reversed into negotiations for the further subjugation and humiliation of Palestinians, Salt of this Sea tells the story of a Palestinian woman born and raised in the diaspora who decides to go back home, not to where the Oslo Accords allow her to claim a home, but to the home her grandfather owned and was expelled from 60 years ago, in today's Israel. In other words, the kind of home Palestinians are admonished to forget about completely, definitively.

Soraya's fugue represents the release of what Palestinians have been asked to repress. By choosing to cast it as an unplanned journey, as an unbridled urge that comes up while Soraya and her three partners are on their way to the sea, all the ideological encumbrances that one expects to cloak such a plot are absent. And the release feels more raw, more real. The story of the "illicit" return of a refugee is not uncommon to Palestinian literature; as early as 1970, Ghassan Kanafani told such a story in Return to Haifa. Return is not merely a literary motif; it is first and foremost every refugee's fantasy. In every return there is the inevitable moment of confrontation with the civilian occupier who has settled the former home - and Jacir stages that moment masterfully. The Israeli, a peacenik, is not blinded by denial, so an actual exchange is possible. She is the sort with whom the Palestinian political elite imagined a version of peace might be possible 15 years ago; the same sort of person who today has probably acquiesced to the building of a wall around the West Bank.

Soraya's blow-up does not come instantly. It brews gradually from an inarticulate discomfort to an angry outburst. By contrast, Emad's return to the ruins of Dawayima is quiet and laced with sorrow: he and Soraya stand among the remnants of the destroyed village, abandoned and covered by weeds and grass, frozen in the amber of history. The trauma of defeat and expulsion is neither denied nor transcended. As Emad and Soraya find a makeshift shelter in one of the half-standing structures, they know they are living on borrowed time, but it is sweet time. For the span of that lull, the weight of their lawlessness and restlessness is lifted. They revel, play and become aware of their intimacy. The moment is tender, languorous and filled with long gazes and gentle gestures. Jacir's version of the refugee's return marks a shift in the representation of the familiar motif.

Salt of this Sea marks the unlikely intersection of several genres: it is a road movie and - considering how far-fetched is the journey of these Palestinians inside Israel - it is a fantastical movie. Filmmakers like Suleiman have excelled in this realm, and now Jacir has claimed her stake. Prevailing opinion deems realism to be the foremost politically expressive fiction cinema. Suleiman and Jacir prove the opposite. If their films convey with unfettered immediacy the poignancy of lived experience, the political force of their cinema lies in telling sordid and absurd stories to create in film that which we have become forbidden from imagining.

Some examples: In one scene in Divine Intervention, the protagonist is driving in his car, eating a piece of fruit, and when he casually throws the pith from the window a nearby Israeli tank blows up. In another sequence, a knockout Palestinian woman, dressed in a pink couture dress and matching stilettos, walks by a checkpoint and it collapses. In Salt of this Sea, an earnest Palestinian-American walks up to a cashier and asks for savings tucked in the bank's safe since 1948, she is ridiculed, so she organises a hold-up and gets it back. Her friend, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, gets to camp in the ruins of his native village inside Israel for a few days.

Salt of this Sea is not the sort of road movie in which the journey is essentially interior. This is a heist film: the characters are driven to fulfil a whim, not to find the meaning of their existence. And they are fully aware of the practical price they will have to pay for the serial infractions they commit. In some respects, Soraya and Emad carry echoes of Bonnie and Clyde transported to modern-day occupied Palestine. Their quest is for a fantasy rather than a fortune, the kind that children of children of refugees are bequeathed with hopelessness and sorrow. They are not the desperados of the American depression; they are young people who have fed on the poetic imagination of Kanafani.

After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Salt of this Sea has begun to tour festivals and earn awards and acclaim. This is certainly not one of those films that will leave those who think Palestinians need to concede more to Israel comfortable or amused. This is a film with "bad" Palestinians, men and women, attractive, seductive, compelling, which claim a piece of your heart within minutes. Bonnie and Clyde meet Ghassan Kanafani, just what we needed to dream again.

Rasha Salti is a freelance writer and film curator living and working between Beirut and New York.