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‘We make films, not wars’: on Michel Khleifi’s Zindeeq

July 2, 2010

How do you say ‘colonize’ in Hebrew?
—There is no verb to say ‘colonize’ in Hebrew. We use the word ‘colonialism.’

Michel Khleifi’s first solo film in 14 years is obsessed with walls. The ‘security barrier’ (or as it’s more commonly known, the Apartheid Wall) is prominently filmed from inside a car, the way many Palestinians and visitors to the West Bank experience it, and physical barricades of all kinds abound in the film.

A filmmaker returns to Ramallah to create a film about the refugees of 1948. His own parents were ‘buried with their secrets’ from that life-changing event, but he has arrived with the hopes of recording the memories of living ’48-ers (as they’re sometimes called).

An off-scene conflict, which I’d prefer not to spoil, forces him to stay away from his family home or risk falling victim to ‘tribal’ violence or blood killing. It’s tempting to compare this event in the film with Ajami, which used blood oaths and ‘honor’ killings as a plot device, but Khleifi is far more adept and intelligent at providing context.

The unnamed man’s sister, as if to relay fears of his precious masculinity, tells him: ‘Fleeing, brother, is three-quarters of manliness.’ This was one of the most poignant moments in the film because of how delicately it referred to the film’s main subtext of the ’48 Palestinians, those who out of shame or humiliation never recounted their memories of being forced off their land. If there is a moral lesson here, it is this one: when people are buried with their secrets, no historical understanding is possible. In order to create meaning in the present the past must be reconstructed and evoked.

Disallowed from staying in any nearby hotels, the man is without a roof over his head. Hotel after hotel turns him away. All of them, like the screen grabs show, position barriers in his path.

Frustrated, thirsty, weary and tired, he stays awake by recalling his memories, watching the footage of the ’48-ers he’s filmed. Occasionally a memorable character or two pops out of the long, unending night.

‘I’ve seen people from outer space who have decided to occupy Palestine.’

He comes face to face with an unsavory group in an unoccupied house (he claims it as his own: is it?). Inside he burns a cross for warmth (zindeeq is translated to free thinker or atheist in Arabic), and then family photos.

Zindeeq lasts the whole of one day and one night—that fact, in addition to the reflexive references to filmmaking and technology in the service of creating memory—recalled for me Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, also led by an enigmatic and unnamed lead actor.

The legendary actor Mohammad Bakri plays this unnamed lead. His performance is good: not terrible, but not great either (his emotive face and stoic gestures were much better received in the film Private). Nb: I know Bakri personally and only came to understand his great stage power after meeting him. Personal affection aside, the immediacy he wields with such strength onstage can sometimes feel stilted on camera. Nevertheless, Khleifi (who possesses a wonderful eye for cinematic timing and movement) has constructed a complicated, beautifully shot film and extracted a more than decent performance from his lead.

One lacking aspect of the film is the Rasha plot: if she is a major love interest she is thinly portrayed. There’s a whiff of patriarchal nostalgia for the ‘woman who got away.’ She’s dressed in white, either a white sheet or a white veil. The relationship between her and Bakri’s character is never consummated, even though he clearly indulges his sexual desires with other women. In short, the character and subplot promises big and doesn’t deliver, especially for such a slow-moving film.

The character that makes up for the woefully underfilmed Rasha story is the Gazan boy that the man more or less adopts. In the stony silence of the streets where they bond after a slightly scathed escape from thuggish types, the boy becomes fascinated with the man’s equipment. He thinks the camera looks like Israeli field glasses. This reminded me of a pivotal scene in Kusturica’s Underground, when a man fleeing war mistakens movie lights for the moon.

The Israelis make wars, Bakri tells the boy. We make films.

(All screenshots by S/S.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 1, 2011 19:04

    I have just returned from a showing of Khleifi’s first film “Fertile Memory” (1980). It was a beautiful, lyrical film, recording a Palestine that was quickly disappearing. Michel Khleifi attended for questions and discussion. It was a most moving evening, filmed with love for its main real life characters, two women, one old and the other younger. The older woman portrayed amazing ‘sumud’ resistance to selling her land to the Israelis, steeped in Palestinian traditions, while the younger woman, a now famous writer, Sahar Khalife, epitomised the future, questioning traditionality, and aching for a quiet revolution out of occupation, and stifling patriarchal values. The panning shot of Nablus, then largely untouched, was an exquisite Pasolinesque sequence of ravishing beauty of a city growing out of stone hills.
    I look forward to seeing Zindeeq!

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