Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Palestine, Israel

Samir Farid reviews two of the Cannes Festival’s highlights

Palestine, Israel
Palestine, Israel
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Palestinian film Dégradé, screened at the 54th Critics Week at Cannes, is the feature-length debut of the twin brothers Tarzan and Arab Abunasser. Born in Gaza in 1988, the two filmmakers are both fine art graduates of Al-Aqsa University. Since 2010 the Abunasser brothers have directed four short films; Condom Lead (2013) was screened in the short film competition at Cannes.
 
“Dégradé” – the Arabic title – is a reference to the famous hairstyle, and the screenplay largely replicates the Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s widely acclaimed Sukkar Banat (Caramel), also set at a beauty salon. Unlike Labaki’s film, however, Dégradé is a directorial work of traditional realism that fails to achieve its comic aims, showing neither imagination nor innovation to compare.
 
A modest beginning for the Abunassers, the film takes place in the course of one day in present-day Gaza City, where the clientele of the salon play out the reality of life there. Filmed almost entirely inside the establishment, with a few scenes at the entrance, Dégradé shows how a power cut and later a brutal gun battle (orchestrated through sound effects but never seen) can turn a space like this into a prison cell.

The salon is patronised by the widest variety of women: Eftikar (Hayam Abbas), who is suffering from a mid-life crisis; Safiya (Manal Awad), a drug addict, and her sister Zeinab (Merna Sheqal), the veiled woman who refuses to listen to music on the premise that it is haram and who nonetheless announces that, though she is religious, that does not mean that she supports the Hamas government.

There is also Salma (Donia Shebar), a bride getting ready for her wedding in the evening, Fatma (Samira Al-Qasir), a pregnant woman, Sawsan (Wedad Al-Nasser), a divorced woman whose her former husband spent his time praying at the mosque rather than providing for his family.
 
In addition, there is Wedad (Mayssa Abdel-Hadi), an employee at the salon who is in the middle of a devastating love story with Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), whom we see at the door of the salon with a lion that he stole from the Gaza Zoo – an act that will cost him his life by the end of the film when the police kill both him and the lion.
 
One of the script’s typical weak points is the manager of the salon, Christine (Victoria Balitska), the Russian wife of a Palestinian man who has lived in Gaza for 12 years – no information is provided as to how the family managed to settle down in Gaza. Likewise the main storyline: we never find out why Ahmed stole the lion. The dialogue contains much swearing for no obvious reason.

With the possible exception of Safiya, the film fails to build up rounded, believable characters. Both Manal Awad playing Safiya and Wedad Al-Nasser playing Sawsan give brilliant performances, however, unlike Hayam Abbas whose performance was too run-of-the-mill to be added to her list of achievements.
 
The film tries to make a statement against Hamas, showing the Vice Police arresting Ahmed when he tries to help Wedad with her generator, telling him he has no right to be seen with her since he is not her brother. Yet there are stabs against Fatah, too, and in the end the political statement is a general, neither-here-nor-there condemnation of division.

***

The Israeli film A Tale of Love and Darkness – screened in the Special Screenings section – is actress Natalie Portman’s directorial debut. Best known for her role in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), which opened the Venice Film Festival, Portman competed with 25 other filmmakers for the Caméra d’Or award, whose jury was headed by the French actress Sabine Azéma. The film deserved to win.

Portman, herself born in Israel in 1981, wrote the script based on a memoir by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who was born in Jerusalem in 1939. A poetic story of war and peace, Arabs and Jews, the film shares Oz’s vision for a two-state solution and makes room for Palestinian presence.

Fania Oz (Portman), the mother, begins to narrate her story accompanying the opening credits to her only son, Amos, making a lasting impact in that Amos falls in love with storytelling and grows up to become an author. The film thus becomes a biography of Oz emphasising his strong relationship with his mother and contrasting it with the coldness of his father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner, himself also an author.
 
The film opens with Oz as an old man wandering the streets of Old Jerusalem while his voice narrates how his 38-year-old Polish mother died after immigrating to Palestine to escape discrimination against Jews in the 1930s.
 
The film is an original piece. Its significance lies in its form, not its topic, and it benefits from brilliant cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. It is a cinematic form that might be called free association, in that it moves fluidly between past and present, imagination and reality, and combines documentary techniques like black-and-white war footage with fictional flight.

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