Monday, May 04, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Salt of this Sea

In a rare display of organizational competency, the Palestinian Authority has consistently submitted films for the Best Foreign Language Award, even snagging a nomination in 2005. Their 2008 submission is a somewhat surprising choice, since it frankly depicts the corrupt and arbitrary nature of life under the PA. Though a decidedly mixed bad, Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea (trailer here), indeed has some noteworthy moments. While its New York debut occurred during the recently concluded Tribeca Film Festival, it seems likely to secure further invitations from City festivals, given its origins and subject matter.

Soraya is an American citizen, but her family roots are in Jaffa. Deeply steeped in grievance politics, she travels to Ramallah, by way of Israel, hoping to connect with her heritage. Soraya also wants to recover the long frozen bank account her grandfather had originally opened during the era of British colonial rule. However, the corrupt bank managers refuse to recognize her claim, naturally invoking Israel as a scapegoat. Rather than pursue legal options (it is worth noting Israel has probably the most accessible court system on Earth), Soraya opts to rob the bank with her new boyfriend Emad and his aspiring filmmaker buddy, Marwan.

Somehow they pull off the job with unloaded guns and high-tail it to safer territory: Israel. With Soraya and friends on the lamb and living solely in the moment, SOTS veers into Breathless territory. Jacir nicely captures the unreal qualities of these moments of deceptive peace that clearly cannot last. Unfortunately, attempts to be politically provocative often fall flat. For instance, the security wall is often used as a backdrop, obviously intended as an ominous symbol. Yet, in actuality, it has the innocuous look of a non-descript industrial park (again it is worth noting reports terrorism-related deaths fell by fifty percent since the wall’s construction).

There is no doubt the camera loves radical spoken word performer Suheir Hammad as Soraya. At times, she is an exciting screen presence, but she has a tendency to over-act, eventually giving free reign to a petulant anger that seems misplaced even in the politicized context of the film. Saleh Bakri by contrast, is more credible and consistent as the likable but disillusioned Emad.

Frankly, SOTS is a better than anticipated film, featuring several strong supporting performances. Jacir impressively mixes gritty realism with some memorable visual imagery. However, SOTS is ultimately undermined by the same biases and resentments which plague its protagonist.