May 19-25, 2005
Philadelphia Palestine Film Festival (through Sun., May 22) The PFF moves into its second weekend with a series of films that, sometimes inadvertently, reveal the inadequacy of conventional documentary. (All screenings are free and, unless otherwise noted, take place at International House, 3701 Chestnut St.) Hany Abu-Assad's Rana's Wedding (Sun., 7 p.m.) and Annemarie Jacir's short like twenty impossibles (Sat., 3 p.m.) cross and re-cross the boundary between documentary and fiction, while Simone Bitton's Wall (Sat., 1 p.m.) breaks away from interview footage to gaze at Israel's divided landscape.
Like Abu-Assad's Ford Transit, which seamlessly mixed impromptu and prearranged interviews, Rana's Wedding erases the line between fact and fiction, following a young woman through occupied Jerusalem on a search for her errant boyfriend. (Her father is leaving for Egypt at 4 p.m., and she has until then to find the boyfriend and convince him to marry her, giving her an excuse to stay behind.) With her searching eyes and inquisitive face, Clara Khoury makes an ideal observer, more like the curious heroine of Agnès Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 than Robert Forster's dispassionate Medium Cool cameraman. When she comes upon a group of children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, she picks up a rock and heaves it halfheartedly, less out of anger than experimentation. Her greatest ire is reserved for the camera itself, whose intrusion she loudly resists at a particularly dark moment.
Alternately titled Another Day in Jerusalem, Rana's Wedding has a day-in-the-life aimlessness which belies the film's urgency; in its obsession with representing the everyday texture of Palestinian life, the movie gives short shrift to the context that determines that texture. A similar lack of perspective afflicts Mai Masri's Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (Sat., 7 p.m.) and Dahna Abourahme's until whenÉ (Fri., 7 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative, 1315 Cherry St.). Frontiers traces the friendship between Mona, a resident of Beirut's Shatila refugee camp, and Manar, who lives in Jerusalem's Dheisheh camp, contrasting the twin heartbreaks of exile and occupation. As the girls' closeness grows through correspondence and a face-to-face meeting through a barbed-wire border, Masri's documentary evokes a strong sense of Palestinian community. But when the intifada starts and Manar goes from performing in a dance troupe to throwing rocks at soldiers, the movie's observational approach seems insufficient to handle the transition. "When I throw a stone, I feel free," Manar says, a statement the movie registers with acceptance, if not approval.
Shot entirely in Dheisheh, until when is even more inadequate, presenting a group of four boys who discuss their intention to martyr themselves with smiles on their faces. Their appalling willingness to kill and be killed cries out for a protest against the cultures Palestinian and Israeli that produce it, but until when finds no opposition to the intifada, no acknowledgement of the futile cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal. The children's embrace of death, the sense that, as Manar puts it, she would rather die than live as a refugee, is a fact, and as such must be confronted rather than ignored. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no shortage of facts: borders drawn and re-drawn, land claims that go back hundreds and thousands of years. Facts are necessary but insufficient, and when facts fail, documentary fails.
Wall, which focuses on the concrete and barbed-wire barrier that marks the unilaterally determined border between Israel and Palestine, attempts to transcend straight documentary by highlighting the issue of perspective: the barrier is a "security wall" to Israelis, a "separation wall" to Palestinians. But the lengthy, contemplative shots of the wall (echoing Chantal Akerman's D'Est) only underline the movie's inability to make an inert object speak for itself.
Annemarie Jacir's like twenty impossibles, the highlight of the PFF's short programming, begins in documentary mode as a group of filmmakers attempt to pass through an Israeli checkpoint. But when someone calls "cut," you realize that the incident is at least partly staged. Things only get more complicated when the crew takes a shortcut through the mountains, where Israeli troops harass and threaten them. As the troops provoke the filmmakers, and the filmmakers provoke back, the movie begins to disintegrate. The soundman is removed for questioning while the cameraman stays behind, so that the encounter you hear isn't the one you're watching; the dizzying necessity of processing disparate perspectives simultaneously will be familiar to anyone who's tried to work out the region's conflicts in their head. The full extent of the movie's construction isn't revealed until the end credits and it would be a shame to ruin it. Suffice it to say Jacir does more in 20 minutes than the above films combined.
Dating back to 1972, Tawfik Saleh's The Dupes (Sun., 1 p.m.) doesn't fit with the more recent entries, but it's of note for two reasons. First, its poetic black-and-white imagery, and second, because it's the only film in the festival to address the schism between Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The story of a group of Palestinians who attempt to smuggle their way into Kuwait, the Syrian-made film shifts from character to character, present to past with jarring abruptness, but its images, particularly the pessimistic closer, leave a mark.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Mon., May 23, 9 p.m., WHYY-TV) The incoherence of its opening minutes may be due to PBS pruning (about 7 minutes lopped off the theatrical cut), but no amount of extra footage could make Robert Stone's documentary anything but a disappointment. Neither of the two surviving Symbionese Liberation Army members who agreed to talk to Stone were involved in Patty Hearst's 1974 kidnapping, and Hearst herself appears only in stock footage and via the infamous telephone calls in which her conversion to the SLA's cause became startlingly clear. It's not Stone's fault that, then and now, the SLA were painfully incoherent, raving about the "corporate state" and the "fascist insect"; the Weather Underground they definitely were not. But the movie's rock score and file-footage interpolation including coy cutaways to various takes on the Robin Hood story, repeated with increasingly aggravating frequency betray a lack of faith in the subject matter, or at least the audience. Apart from a few jumbled generalizations, Stone gives little sense of what the SLA stood for (or at least thought they did) and makes scant reference to the violent climate in which they arose. The story has a built-in fascination, but Guerrilla rarely adds to it, and often muffles it altogether.
Episode III The embargo-jumping early reviews for Revenge of the Sith have made it clear that the movie's anti-Bush subtext will not go overlooked. But what's especially significant, and so far unremarked, is the way Episode III dovetails with Episode IV (known to those without a Boba Fett lunchbox as just plain Star Wars). Although George Lucas may have been inspired by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the most obvious model for the first trilogy's evil empire is, well, the Evil Empire: the Soviet Union. (Think armies of faceless drones, a disregard for individual life, unquenchable lust for domination, etc.) The new trilogy's galactic republic, whose president ruthlessly accumulates autocratic power under a cloak of wartime exigency, evidently reflects the right wing's post-9/11 power grab, but when the two trilogies are placed end to end, the saga becomes even more resonant. The suggestion is not just that the U.S. has traded liberty for "safety and security" - a dialogue awkwardly exchanged during Sith's climactic duel - but that in the name of self-defense, we risk becoming what we once saw as our antithesis: an authoritarian empire in which individual liberties are suppressed in the name of stability. That almost heretical suggestion jars with Sith's superficial silliness, but it also gives the movie an eerie gravitas that nearly makes it worth watching.