By Ali Moosavi.
If the quality of a country’s cinema is judged on a per capita basis, then surely Palestine would be sitting at the top table. For a country boasting a population of less than five million, it has consistently been producing films of a very high standard and regularly winning awards at film festivals around the world. It has also produced world class film makers such as Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad, Annemarie Jacir and Rashid Masharawi. It is often said that oppression and suppression fuel creativity. Who can forget Orson Welles/Harry Lime’s immortal observation comparing creativity in Italy under the Borgias with that in Switzerland under “brotherly love”? As Annemarie Jacir stated in my 6 January 2018 interview with her for Film International,
Where there are restrictions; whether they are financial or political, I think filmmakers have to think harder about what they are doing and how they are going to do it. Because everybody and everything is against them. So, I guess this helps creatively because you have to figure out solutions and ways to deal with things.
We now should add the names of brothers Muayad Alayan and Rami Musa Alayan to the growing list of distinguished Palestinian filmmakers. They are, respectively, the director and screenwriter of The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, a new Palestinian film. The film revolves around an extramarital affair between Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married Israeli woman. Such an act, in the prevailing socio-political climate in Palestine and Israel is so perilous, that it is almost tantamount to suicide. Think of it in these terms: an affair between a black man and a white woman in pre-civil rights movement times in a southern USA state or during the Apartheid in South Africa. In fact, it appears so far-fetched that if the words “based on true events” had not appeared at the beginning of the film, one would be hard pressed to believe it.
We are not told how the affair started. Sarah runs a coffee shop in Jerusalem and Saleem is a driver for a bakery delivering their products to Sarah’s café. Sarah is married to David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army. Saleem is married to Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), whose brother Mahmood (Mohammed Eid) is a shady character with strong links to the Palestinian resistance movements. He also gives some financial aid to his sister and her low-paid husband. Every time Saleem and Sarah have one of their clandestine sexual liaisons – mostly at the back of Saleem’s delivery van – a tense situation is created. However, just to heighten the tension even further, the Alayan brothers start the film with a scene in which Saleem is suddenly taken from his home by Israeli security forces and questioned about his action in “recruiting an Israeli woman” to spy for Palestinian resistance groups. Therefore, we’ve already been warned that catastrophe is just around the corner; which amplifies the tension. It also changes the genre of the film from social drama to a sexually oriented political thriller.
The relationship between Saleem and Sarah appears to be purely sexual in nature. It is only when Saleem tries to make it more than that, by taking Sarah for a drink, that it triggers a chain of events leading to that first scene in the movie. This change in relationship, from purely sexual to a step further, is somewhat reminiscent of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). The gravity and extreme oddity of their folly is further demonstrated in a scene where Sarah confides to her lady assistant that she is having an affair. The assistant initially dismisses this confession by comforting Sarah to not worry, as these things are common these days. But, when Sarah tells her that her lover is Palestinian, the assistant is gob smacked and tells Sarah, “There are a million Jewish men out there – why the hell did you go with an Arab?!”
The film also highlights the many inequalities that exist between the Palestinians and Israelis: in finding work, legal rights, right to travel, and so on. If Saleem and Sarah get caught, Sarah, being Israeli with an army colonel as husband, can remain relatively unscathed while Saleem can expect spending many years in an Israeli prison, if his fellow Palestinians don’t do anything worse to him.
The script by (MIT-educated) Rami Musa Alayan gradually and skillfully includes all the perils and obstacles associated with such an affair. Muayad Alayan, meanwhile, ensures that he depicts these incidents in a way to maintain the audiences’ attention for the full 127 minutes’ duration of the film. Saleem and Sarah are not portrayed in “black and white,” as good or bad. They are normal human beings falling prey to human desires in a place where such desires are best kept locked up inside the people. Meanwhile, the performances, as in most Palestinian films, are note-perfect. The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is the Alayan brothers’ sophomore writing/directing venture and it promises a career to be eagerly followed by those interested in Palestinian cinema and cinema in general.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).