The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A Palestinian Epic

I just saw the much talked about movie Bab Es-Shams (Door of the Sun), Egyptian director Yousri Nasrallah's adaptation of a the novel by Palestinian-Lebanese director Elias Khoury. The ambitious five-hour saga is a cooperation with the French ARTE TV channel, as well as with companies from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco. It has a Pan-Arab cast, who were trained to speak Palestinian Arab by the Palestinian actors involved, and in general has rare high-quality production values (at least when compared to most Egyptian movies nowadays).

The story opens with a literal bang, as a young and unidentified Palestinian woman guns a man down in an alley in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. The rest of the first installment of the movie (entitled "The Departure") is told in flashbacks, narrated by the woman's presumed lover while he sits at the deathbed of one of the main characters, and is the story of a family of Palestinian peasants driven out of their village after the Nakbah ("catastrophe") of the 1948 war. The story unfolds from multiple points of view (with characters sometimes contradicting each others' versions) but what is worth noting is that all these viewpoints are personal, powerless ones--none of those involved has any way of foreseeing will happen next, or much control over events.

As I'll write in my review of the movie for the soon-to-be-launched Cairo magazine, the sequences that are the most moving and make the strongest political statement in my opinion are the ones that show the life of the Palestinian village before all is lost. There are several beautifully filmed, vibrant scenes of collective activities--a wedding full of trilling women in splendid traditional clothes, an olive harvest in which the trees pound like a sea, plucked by hundreds of a hands. These scenes show the dignity and vitality of Palestinian culture in the days before refugee camps. They give the lie to the claim that Palestinians "were never a people," and lay the emotional foundation for the anger, despair and determination of the dispossessed villagers. By the end of the first part of the movie, the young man in the family has carved the date in which his village was burnt to the ground into his arm and become a fedayeen; his wife still lives in Israeli-occupied territory; and the two meet clandestinely to make love in a cave over the border, nicknamed by them "the door to the sun."

My only criticism of the movie is that the best acting is done by the lesser characters (the Palestinian Hiam Abbas is splendid as a dry, high-strung, domineering mother), that the tone is too melodramatic at times, and that a few plot twists are unrealistic. Then again, critics keep talking about the film's "magical realism," so maybe some scenes are meant to be understood metaphorically.

Overall, though, it's a gripping piece of work. I couldn't help wondering if it will ever be widely seen in the United States, and what kind of an impact it might have. I think it would be shocking for American audiences to see the Palestinians "humanized" like this, and the Isrealis reduced to ominous shadows.

Then again, it's unclear how many Egyptians will even get to see the film. It's only being shown in two theatres in Cairo, and according to this article it's partly because of a falling-out between the Egyptian movie production company owned by renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and Bab Es-Shams director Nasrallah. This is a real pity, because I think Egyptian audiences would like this movie. And Nasrallah's work is much better than anything Chahine had been doing recently.

To order the movie, see here. Here's also Al Ahram Weekly's review.