Friday, July 17, 2009

"Strangers" by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor

Strangers is a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet, but the details more than the general theme make the movie. Eyal (an Israeli traveling to Berlin for the mondial - or football World Cup) meets Rana (a Palestinian ex-pat), and they fall in love. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this film is that it was filmed unscripted, with the actors simply being told to act out what came to mind. But with an Arab and an Israeli playing an Arab and an Israeli, the tensions caught on camera are very real. When Eyal and Rana first talk politics, for example, he complains that "We always try and give so much, but they always say no". She flashes back "And why do you think that is?". Confusion meets anger - and it isn't acting. Their halting conclusion that "we won't.. solve the problem .. tonight" also comes across as on-the-spot pragmatism. In a reality where two people with a bitter disagreement touch on the topic in question, the actors seem to remember to co-operate because they are acting.

Rana is played by Arabic speaking
Lubna Azaba, Eyal by Hebrew speaking Liron Levo. Azaba's first role as Palestinian was in Paradise Now, where she played a woman returning to the West Bank who becomes romantically involved with a man planning to become a suicide bomber. Strangers is set in a more neutral France and Germany, and allows her to explore meeting an Israeli, as she would meet any man - without anger.

Rana's character is complex by design, with secrets unraveled as the film progresses. But it is the calm and straight-forward Eyal who gets me thinking. In his late twenties - traveling to the mondial to see his German ex-girlfriend, Eyal is an Israeli who has finished his compulsory military service and still has to decide what to do with his life. So many Israelis like Eyal get the traveling bug. He too is at home away from home. When we see him reaching for his phone to call his dad again - usually from a bar - it seems that Berlin is as close as Tel Aviv.

Eyal tells Rana about a previous relationship with his German ex-girlfriend that he gave up - because she wasn't Jewish. He loved her, but he didn't want to upset his family. Coming from a background where ethnic ties are just as strong, Rana is sympathetic. His ex-girlfriend though, isn't returning his calls. Was there ever an Israeli girlfriend? We don't know.

And then there's football. What is it about football and Israelis? Children in India and China watch their latest heroes on TV, but in some sense it's different here. As a 12 year old in Israel for the year, I recall my friend - the dedicated Liverpool supporter - smiling almost mystically when the conversation would turn towards English football. I don't think he played the game at all - it was a magical dream of constant glory which Liverpool in the 80's gave people. This guy belonged. And Eyal too, I think, wants to belong. But to what? We see images of him in the crowd, sharing passion, jumping with joy. But was this really about football? The mondial, where his country have failed to qualify ("because they play like Arabs") is perhaps the most universal cultural event in the world. Could it be that the real motivation here was his wanting to be a part of that universal family of nations?

The directors hone in on this theme. At one stage we see images of the crowd - Slavic and Nordic children, in their country's colors, next to Eyal. Then the screen splits and we see Israeli tanks jolting from the force of firing heavy shells. Striking contrast. The message
- you're not really here. You're not fully part of this.

The Lebanon war actually started while the movie was being shot, and the directors fortuitously decided to incorporate it into the story. The war brings out those tensions between Eyal and Rana, and also those within Eyal himself. At the relationship level we see two lovers watching football in each others arms, content. Then we see them watching the war news together, with no interest in anything but calling home. This is Romeo and Juliet. Internally too, Eyal can no longer be so care-free either. We see him alone in two contrasting scenes - able to enjoy being part of the crowd watching the final, and then worried, watching the news. Whilst Rana belongs to a culture that has the sympathies of the world, Eyal has no such luck. In one scene he is even thrown into the role of IDF spokseman, defending against the latest allegations of atrocities. Didn't so many Israelis play that role somehow during the war? Didn't so many of us feel isolated, like Eyal?

Two other images from the movie stick in my mind. The first is at a hospital, when a nurse calls the immigration police to report Rana for being in the country illegally. Perfectly curved and French, the nurse looks down as Rana is dragged away screaming. Jews know that betrayal. It was an insightful touch.

The other image in my mind is of Eyal playing with Rana's son. An Israeli man playing with an Arab child. A sense of humanity overcoming what stereotypes would demand, strength and vulnerability mixed into a walk down the street.

But sentiment aside, the question that remains for Eyal is what to do? We watch him struggle with forces pulling him in both directions: To leave Rana is to give up her love, to stay is to gamble with his identity. Could he have both? Should he give up one?

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