At the Berlinale, Jews and Arabs just want to go home
Film festival

At the Berlinale, Jews and Arabs just want to go home

Israel’s ostensible irrationality regarding the Palestinians is a common theme at a German international film festival

'Rock the Casbah' (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Rock the Casbah' (photo credit: Courtesy)

BERLIN — Tarek, a Palestinian refugee boy in Jordan in 1967, just wants to go back home. A group of Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip  in 1989 want home, too. Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah right now, wants his home legitimized.

Superficially, in the first movies on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict screened at the Berlinale this weekend, Jews and Arabs have never had more similar feelings. The Berlinale, one of the world’s leading film festivals, opened Thursday. Some 400 international movies will be screened in 10 days, more than 10 of them dealing with Israel or the Middle East conflict.

The first three to be screened on the subject, very different in perspective and genre, have one thing in common: they depict a very negative Israel, irrational in all that concerns the Palestinian conflict.

‘When I saw you’

Tarek – played by a very expressive Palestinian boy, a third-generation refugees from a camp in north Jordan – is an 11-year-old who finds himself stranded in the Harir refugee camp with his mother in 1967. His home in “Palestine” seems very close but it is out of reach. His father has disappeared. He hates the camp, and after an old woman tells him that she’s been living in it for more than 20 years, he decides to leave by himself and go home to his father.

On the way, he finds himself in a Fedayeen camp and joins the Palestinian rebel forces. Soon his mother joins, and their relationship and approach to the situation dramatically change.

The Fedayeen camp, to ths Israeli eye, looks very much like an IDF camp from the same period. The old, plain uniforms; the intensive training; the late night gathering around the fire, singing; and, of course, the longing for home.

“My interest in this period is very personal,” says Annemarie Jacir, the 39-year-old film director, after the screening of “When I saw you.” “My parents are from Bethlehem, which was occupied in ’67. That was an important year, it changed everything for the second time. It was a second wave of refugees, that split families. All my life I was hearing, ‘Before ’67 we used to do this, before ’67 we used to do that.”

“But ’67 was also a year of hope in the world of civil rights movements. Regular people believed that they could do something to change their life. And I think the Palestinian movements were connected to that. I was interested in exploring that — before things changed, before things went wrong and corrupted.”

‘Rock the Casbah’

Going home is all that the soldiers in “Rock the Casbah” want, too. They are caught in the crazy reality of the Gaza Strip at the height of the first intifada in 1989. One of the soldiers is killed when a washing machine is dropped on him from the rooftop of an apartment building. The Palestinian perpetrator escapes and the commanding officer orders the soldiers to take positions on the roof for the weekend — an unclear mission with unclear goals.

“I grew up in a very left-wing family,” says the director, Yariv Horowitz, after the screening. “I remember that when I would come home from the territories as a soldier, my mother would say that the soldiers were animals. And I said: ‘One day I’ll show you how it really was.’”

Showing the reality of serving in the territories was important for the whole cast. “When I shot this film, I was a soldier in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit,” says Yon Tumarkin, for whom this is his first movie. “But I played the part of one of my friends, who was trained for combat and didn’t know what to do in these situations, fighting a civilian population.”

“When I read the script it felt like one of the stories of my friends who were there,” adds another member of the cast.

The audience at the Berlinale seems thrilled by this Israeli introspection. “It’s a pity that people like you don’t run the government,” says one audience member at the post-screening Q&A session.

“Are you going to screen that in Gaza?” asks another, evidently unaware of the impossibility of so doing.

Horowitz seems embarrassed: “I would love to go and have a screening there,” he says. “But I’m not sure I’d be able to get out.”

“But would you love to go there?”, the audience member persists. “Of course, in a utopian world,” he replies, “I would like them to open the borders and start partying — but it ‘s not happening.”

‘State 194’

The president of the Berlinale Jury, director Wong Kar Wai, proposed at the jury’s first meeting that it talk only about the good things it sees in the movies under consideration for awards. That idea made for a short discussion of “State 194,” a new documentary directed by Dan Setton.

Setton was given exclusive access to document Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in his two-year effort to prepare his homeland for recognition as a state by the UN.

Setton completely falls for Fayyad, whom he apparently considers the first perfect prime minister. Not a single argument is heard against Fayyad who, in some scenes, describes his achievements to a background of engaging music.

“State 194” ends with a call to move forward with the two-state solution, which it says is jeopardized by Israel’s settlement policy. I’m not sure how this film will influence the peace process — but it might save Fayyad a buck or two in any future political campaign.

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