Friday, August 13, 2010

Grievance Cinema: Salt of this Sea

In a rare feat of self-governance, the “Palestinian Authority” has consistently submitted films for the Best Foreign Language Award, even snagging a nomination in 2005. Their 2008 submission was a bit of a surprise, since it somewhat forthrightly depicts the corrupt and arbitrary nature of life under the PA. After kicking around the festival circuit, including Tribeca last year, Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea (trailer here), finally launches its theatrical run today in New York.

Soraya is an American citizen, but her family roots are in the British Mandate. 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 the Mandate. However, the corrupt bank managers refuse to recognize her claim, naturally invoking Israel as a scapegoat. Actually, Israel has the most accessible court system in the world, but since this is the lawless PA, she is pretty much SOL. Rather than even bothering with legal options, 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. That of course would be Israel. With Soraya and friends on the lamb, 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, the film’s attempts to be politically provocative always 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 has a tendency to over-act, eventually giving free reign to a petulant anger that seems misplaced even in the highly politicized context of the film. Saleh Bakri by contrast, is more credible and consistent as the easy-going but disillusioned Emad.

Frankly, this is a pretty silly film with no sense of perspective. That Soraya’s hair is mussed by airport security is treated like an epochal human rights violation, yet it has nothing whatsoever to say about the bloodthirsty terrorism of Hamas and their ilk. At times, SOTS is so overwrought, blaming Israel for suffering apparently caused by the PA within the very narrative of the film, one would almost suspect it is a Jerry Zucker spoof. Still, Jacir is an impressive visual stylist, nicely mixing gritty realism with some memorable imagery. However, SOTS is ultimately undermined by the same biases and resentments which plague its unbalanced protagonist. An attractive looking misfire, SOTS opens today (8/13) at the Quad.