Eye For Film >> Movies >> Salt Of This Sea (2008) Film Review
Salt Of This Sea
Reviewed by: Ali Hazzah
Directed and written by Annemarie Jacir – who previously helmed award-winning short Like Twenty Impossibles (2003) – this feature debut concerns an American woman of Palestinian descent who embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim her vanished heritage. The dialogue is primarily in Arabic (although a number of scenes are a mix of English and Hebrew).
The film opens with a montage of grainy black and white newsreel footage of Jaffa in 1948*. A doleful melody, played on an oud, sets the emotional tone, as unidentified military forces methodically demolish an unnamed seaside Palestinian town. Palestinian families wade haplessly into the Mediterranean to board a fleet of small fishing craft. The sequence concludes with a lingering, melancholic shot from the vantage point of a boat leaving the harbour. We see the boat’s wake, as the harbour’s grey water gradually fills the lower half of the screen, and Jaffa’s elegant minarets and clusters of palm and trashed buildings hauntingly recede from view.
The action proper begins with a youngish woman stepping up to a counter in Ben Gurion International airport, south-east of Tel Aviv, to obtain an entry visa. A passport control agent (Dana Drigov) asks her a series of questions, which become increasingly testy as the woman replies, without overtly seeking a confrontation with the agent, but also without a hint of obsequiousness toward her or what she represents.
What is the purpose of your visit? To visit. First time in Israel? Um-hm. How do you say your last name? Tahani. What is your father name? Musa. Where was he born? In Lebanon. When did you leave Lebanon? I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. What about your mother, where was she born? Also… in Lebanon. And your grandfather? Here. He was born here. In Israel… where? In Jaffa. Step aside, please.
This crisp exchange sets the tone for the entire movie. After a lengthy airport interrogation episode, which concludes with a humiliating scene in which a body search agent (Reoana Lotem) instructs her to remove her pants and bra, the woman, Soraya Tahani (Suheir Hammad), is allowed into the West Bank, but only with a two-week visa. Her subsequent entry into Ramallah is more akin to the process of checking into a state prison than visiting a normal place.
What follows is a linear storyline that starts conventionally enough, but becomes increasingly improbable: Jacir’s narrative strategy is to portray progressively unrealistic events in a pseudo-realistic manner.
Soraya first meets up with her friend Corinne (Sylvia Wentz), briefly seen, and ends up having a meal with some friends. They drink wine, and one of the Palestinians sitting at the table tells her to forget about Jaffa. Another is needlessly unpleasant towards their waiter, Emad, played by the Palestinian actor, Saleh Bakri (The Band’s Visit) who, incidentally, has acquired quite a fan club in Israel.
The next day, Soraya tries to access her grandfather’s frozen account at the Ramallah branch of the British Palestine bank, but ultimately its supercilious regional manager (complete with plummy English accent) condescendingly turns down her request for a token sum.
Determined, on principle, to get her hands on the money, she convinces Emad, who is denied a visa to study in Canada, and his amateur filmmaking nephew Marwan (Riyad Ideis), to pull a heist. Following a quasi Godard-like (circa La Chinoise) robbery sequence, they manage to circumvent Israeli checkpoints (which have acquired almost totemic status in Palestinian movies) and enter Israel, ending up at her grandfather’s old house in Jaffa.
What interested me in the last major segment of the movie was not the long awaited confrontation in the house. It is, for the most part, predictable and anticlimactic, including an episode in which Soraya expresses heartfelt anger falling quite flat.
Instead, her low-key, elegiac scenes with Emad, toward the end, when they camp out alone in the ruins of Dawayima (the site of one of the more odious massacres during what is known to some as Israel’s War of Independence, and to others as the nakba, or catastrophe) are the most dramatically moving and convincing parts of the movie.
In the final moments, as Soraya is leaving Israel, a typically intrusive security official once again asks her the defining question of the film: Where are you from? This time, her answer – which we will not spoil here – is imbued with a quiet sense of self-affirmation by Hammad.
Salt Of This Sea is unlikely to break box office records in Tel Aviv, or the backwaters of America’s Bible Belt. It is likely, however, to find a more receptive potential audience in large metropolitan areas around the world; anywhere one finds open-minded moviegoers eager to watch edgy Palestinians films.
However, the key to success for any Indie movie, Palestinian or otherwise, activist, or not, is to provide a film experience - one that is not, at some level, counter propaganda in narrative form.
Jacir’s movie is a study of a falsely-naïve protagonist spoiling for a fight, one she knows she cannot win. Some viewers may be put off by Soraya’s political obduracy, or if you prefer, tenacity. Yet others may empathise with and, indeed, relate to her need to have pursued with such single-mindedness a personal odyssey of this sort.
That sentiment - empathy - is insufficient to judge Salt Of This Sea an exceptional film. It is worth watching, and tenderly insightful in parts, and well acted, so do see it, but be prepared for a certain amount of agenda-driven reductionism.
It would have helped to have a more nuanced conclusion. If Soraya had discovered, for example, that her grandfather's house had ended up being occupied by a Palestinian family, perhaps one with a shady collaboratist past - such an epiphanic twist might have allowed Soraya’s character to develop in unexpected ways, thus helping her role seem less one-dimensional.
But that is not this movie.
Worth noting, in closing, is that Israel has refused to allow Salt Of This Sea to be screened in Ramallah, and recently denied Jacir re-entry into the Occupied Territories. Meanwhile, Jacir scooped up the best screenplay award at the recently concluded fifth annual Dubai International Film Festival. I look forward to her next film.
*For any viewer who might wish to know more concerning the background history of the footage in Salt Of This Sea’s opening scene, the following may be of interest. According to Viola Shafik’s Arab Cinema (American University in Cairo Press, 1998), a significant amount of documentary footage (similar to that which appears in the beginning of this film) taken in Palestine during the immediate post-WWII era has disappeared. This evidentiary footage had initially been preserved, by national resistance organisations such as Fatah and the PLO, in West Bank film vaults, and later, in Beirut. Much of it was looted, or destroyed, per Shafik, following a deliberate and systemic effort to eradicate the visual record of any events, leading up to creation of the state of Israel, which did not support the mythology that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land. Deeply revisionist Hollywood movies [in this reviewer’s opinion] such as Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), starring the late Paul Newman, would help support this long-running process.Reviewed on: 21 Dec 2008
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