TORONTO - There's a definite increase of films by and about Palestinians being shown around the world, and several were shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. As funding and talent develop, the courage and determination of Palestinians fighting to remain and survive on their rightful land occupied by one of the most persistent and brutal military forces is depicted in stories that reveal the deceitful and inhumane treatment of the occupier.
Quickly gaining world prominence, filmmaker Hany Abu Assad, director of the first Palestinian Academy Award nominee, Paradise Now, brings us Omar, the Jury Prize winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It's a moving story of a young Palestinian man co-opted into becoming an informant after he is imprisoned and tortured. By using the insidious method of pauperizing the population and then blackmailing people into informing on each other, Israel has reached the point of desperation in its attempts to maintain control of other people's land, an action almost the entire world has condemned.
Without the occupation, Omar would probably just be a young boy in love with a young girl, working at a bakery, enjoying the love of his family and friends and being free to travel anywhere he wants in his own country. But in reality, Omar is forced to climb a rope 30 feet high over the illegal separation wall just to get to work and sometimes visit his girlfriend. His friends are involved in the killing of an Israeli soldier, and Omar gets arrested first. Adam Bakri debuts in a physically demanding role climbing walls, jumping between rooftops and balancing precariously above the city, all without the assist of a stunt actor. Eventually Omar is confronted with the fact there's a traitor in his group, and betrayal becomes yet another tragic obstacle to deal with in his quest for freedom in his own land. And the way he deals with it makes this one of the most compelling and intense dramas that in addition offers one of the most shocking endings in recent memory.
The Israeli funded film Bethlehem tells a similar story, but from the Israeli point of view. Here the Palestinians are more treacherous, disloyal and inhuman. They betray and hate each other while the disciplined and morally virtuous Israeli military forces do their duty to protect their people from crazed "terrorists." Once again we're dealing with an Israeli Secret Service agent (Razi) and a young Palestinian (Sanfur) who is in their employ as an informant. The film almost appears as a commercial to entice more Palestinians to abandon their struggle and rat against their own people for special favors. Here, the dissension between Palestinian factions is exploited and even satirized at points, as for example when they show opposing groups fighting over a corpse to use as a martyr for their own cause.
Although the director has stated his attempt was to show "the hard reality where innocent people are losing their lives on a daily basis," contempt, ridicule and lack of compassion for the "enemy" lies just below the surface of this supposed intellectual exercise about loyalty and morality.
In a much more accessible and entertaining manner, if that's possible in a land of constant sorrow and grief, Palestine Stereo, directed by the gifted talent Rashid Masharawi (Ticket to Jerusalem, Laila's Birthday), tells a touching story about life after bombardment. Stereo lost his wife and his brother Sami lost his hearing and speech as a result of an Israeli air bombardment. Sami, in his state of confusion and loss, also gives up on his girlfriend. The brothers decide their only hope is to move to Canada, but they need to raise large sums of money. They set up sound systems for protests, weddings, conferences and rallies to raise money to emigrate. A friend even donates an old ambulance for them to carry portable equipment into difficult areas, which often times during conflicts is confused for a real ambulance, much to the dismay of the injured.
The movie addresses many issues, and parodies the hypocrisy and opportunism of political leaders who keep repeating the same speeches but provide no real changes. Stereo says to his brother, "I envy you for not hearing all the bullshit about liberty." But their plan runs into obstacles as friends and family force them to reconsider their decision to leave. Sami's girlfriend laments, "Don't let the occupation ruin everything." They start to feel their job of providing sound systems for rallies and other urgent events is "making money off of tragedies." They question whether they can or want to leave everything behind.
This seemingly lighthearted story reaches deep into the question of national loyalty and ultimately pays tribute to those Palestinians who remain to defend their land under the most challenging conditions.
One of the most heartwarming stories at the Toronto Film Festival this year is Giraffada, which tells the tale of Yacine (Saleh Bakri), the veterinarian of the only zoo remaining in the Palestinian West Bank. He lives alone with his 10-year-old son Ziad, who seems to be training to follow in his father's footsteps.
Because his father is non-religious and his mother is deceased, Ziad is ostracized at school and rejected by his peers, but finds consolation in a pair of giraffes that seem to represent parental love to him. He nurtures and feeds them daily. But during an Israeli bombing near the zoo, the male giraffe is frightened, hits his head on a pipe and dies. The female giraffe stops eating and is nearing death unless they can find another mate for her. This is where the story really begins, as Yacine makes efforts to locate another male giraffe in the region.
At times fantastic and often comical, the story involves a local food vendor who is a sort of grandfatherly figure to Ziad, in a highly convincing manner, not surprisingly since the role is played by the legendary Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri (K, Jenin, Jenin,) himself the real father of the actor who plays Yacine. It's a touching role, perfect for the well-loved artist who has given so much to his people and the struggle for his homeland. This is a touching family drama with great acting and a wonderful ending.
Photo: A scene from Giraffada. Toronto International Film Festival website