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Romance, not Romanticized: Three Stories of Love and Loss from the Boston Palestine Film Festival

[Still image from [Still image from "Paradise Lost."]

Love During Wartime, directed by Gabriella Bier. Sweden, 2010.
Paradise Lost, directed by Ibtissam Mara’anah. Israel-Palestine, 2003.
77 Steps, directed by Ibtissam Mara’anah. Israel-Palestine, 2010.

All three films are playing at the Boston Palestine Film Festival this week.

In their films, Ibtissam Mara’anah and Gabriella Bier both focus on romantic relationships that cross the Palestinian-Israeli divide. Bier’s Love During Wartime follows a married couple grappling with bureaucrats and policies that deny them permission to live together, while Mara’anah’s autobiographical works Paradise Lost and 77 Steps chart the factors that lead her to leave her Palestinian village and move to Tel Aviv, where she tries to build a life with a Jewish Israeli boyfriend.

These stories spring directly from the intersection of the personal and the political, and they are undoubtedly romantic. But fortunately, rather than overstating the redemptive qualities of love or romanticizing its struggle to overcome obstacles, the filmmakers portray a much more raw and visceral picture of what happens when the everyday processes of growing up and falling in love collide with political ideologies, discriminatory policies, and the fear of the other.

Love During Wartime follows Jasmin, an Israeli, and Assi, a Palestinian, over four years spent dealing with Israeli, Palestinian, and German authorities in search of a place to build a life together. In addition to courtrooms and law offices, we see the relationship through letters, phone conversations, reunions, fights, and embraces. The Israeli citizenship law prevents Palestinians from living in Israel, and this law, like Bier’s camera, follows the couple from the halls of justice and bureaucracy into the intimate spaces of their home (sometimes quite literally, as when Assi, in an argument over folding laundry, complains, “Israelis never stick to their agreements!”).

Ironically, Germany is the only place the couple manages to cohabitate legally—and only because Jasmin’s mother was born there (under the Nazi regime, no less). Germany turns out to be far from the perfect solution, but it does serve to emphasize the arbitrary nature of nation-states’ decisions about whom to include or exclude, and, if one is to take an optimistic reading, suggests the possibility for a different future. Jasmin and Assi stroll down German streets, marveling at the plaques marking the names of people once forcibly deported by the state, quietly but permanently inlaid in cobblestones where those people once lived. When Assi tells his family back in Palestine that for once, a policeman passed him in the street and he felt no fear, one can only think of a day when that might hold true in his homeland.

[Still image from Love During Wartime.]

Jasmin and Assi are both artists (she a dancer, he a sculptor), and the film deftly weaves their art into the narrative. While highlighting how important art is to the couple, however, the film makes clear that art alone is an insufficient means to saving their marriage and their sanity—let alone their societies. Assi decries the perception of art and artists in Palestinian society with a cousin who is a policeman—“You do not want artists in this country!”—underscoring his frustration at feeling unwanted not only in Israel, but in Palestine as well. And the conversation eventually turns to the assassinated Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali, suggesting that art can be a matter of life and death.

When Jasmin and Assi at last arrive at a solution to their problem, it is with connections forged through art. At the same time, however, art itself is never idealized as liberating or freeing outside of the realm of material interests: it is not just art that allows the couple to attain a measure of freedom, but art that sells. “My dream is to live without debts,” Assi insists. The couple cannot live on art alone, to be sure, but it is clear that without it they would be much more lost amidst the more oppressive institutions framing their lives.

Ibtissam Mara’anah’s two cinéma vérité films, meanwhile, deal with the consequences of distance: not only the distance inherent in a relationship between a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man, but distance from one’s hometown, emotional distance between sisters, and the generational distance between parents and their children.

Paradise Lost is a deeply critical look at Mara’anah’s home community and the factors that eventually drive her away from it. Mara’aneh is driven to speak out by the reluctance of people in her hometown, Fureidis (which means “paradise”), to do so—what she calls “a silence that made me want to talk.” The film itself is both embodiment and representation of her insistence to pursue questions of identity and the past: she is always in front of the camera, never behind it.

Mara’aneh’s queries around the village about Suaad, an activist of the previous generation who was arrested multiple times by the authorities and eventually left for Europe, are met with indifference, frustration, and contempt. Why talk about the past, locals say, when we can barely put food on the table? “The village has a rich history and Suaad is what you’re writing about?” a secretary asks, “What did she ever do for the village?” The conversations Mara’aneh records (and often deliberately provokes) assert a certain disconnect between everyday life and involvement in politics—which is continually associated with the “shame” that Suaad brought upon the village through her entanglement with the authorities.

Mara’aneh eventually travels to England to hear Suaad’s side of the story. For Suaad, the price of asking questions and speaking out was to live a life far from home. But she suggests that although she was from a generation when everything was forbidden, the younger generation is one of possibilities—as though the generational distance will somehow preclude the need for such distances between people as those that have pervaded the village’s past.

But Mara’aneh, frustrated with the limitations on behavior, speech, and dress in the village, is determined to be a free woman, “even if it means losing my paradise”—evoking not only the name of the village, but also a moment in a very different Paradise Lost (John Milton’s), when Adam and Eve are told they must leave the physical paradise of their origins and seek instead a “Paradise within thee, happier far.”

77 Steps documents the continuation of Mara’aneh’s journey, as she moves to Tel Aviv in search of this new life. The film depicts Mara’aneh’s relationship with Yonatan, a Jewish Israeli, and the distance that slowly develops between them as a result of political reality and war.

At first, however, this distance is nonexistent: Mara’aneh is determined to make a new life in Tel Aviv, along with a new urban identity that includes walking dogs, going to rooftop parties, and even, if necessary, masking her Arab identity. “I want to belong to this place,” she declares. Her new lifestyle draws her into politics and she joins Meretz, even running as a candidate in a national election. But then the war on Gaza begins, and she finds herself unable to support a party that in turn is supporting the war. Although Yonatan joins her at protests, the issue begins to drive fissures between them whose outlines become starker and starker, eventually marking what Yonatan calls “the limits of our relationship.”

In a sense, the narrative itself gradually works backwards towards 1948, culminating in a fraught visit to the kibbutz where Yonatan’s grandfather started living that same year, and Mara’aneh’s realization that even his acceptance cannot transcend what the kibbutz symbolizes to her. She and Yonatan break up shortly after a tense discussion over the very different meanings of Israel’s independence day for them both.

As in Paradise Lost, the juxtaposition of different outlooks in the same generation is painfully ironic: Yonatan’s grandfather, who feels his grandson has redeemed him by coming to live in Israel, is happy with the relationship and welcomes Mara’aneh with open arms, while her mother cannot even forgive her for living in Tel Aviv.

Mara’aneh is the vocal and provocative protagonist of both of her films, as though inserting herself in the narrative is the only way for her to draw out the points that no one else will make. Seldom are we privy to the kinds of debates between an Israeli and a Palestinian that she and Yonatan have, thanks to their personal intimacy, or to witness the types of painful personal exchanges that occur in Fureidis. But Mara’aneh captures all of it on camera, and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Running through all three of these films are narratives of powerful forces—whether exclusivist nationalism, xenophobia, discriminatory policies, or political discourses—that define individuals as belonging or not belonging, wanted or unwanted, insiders or outsiders. Those affected see the tracings of these forces on even the most intimate aspects of their lives, and the camera witnesses (and at times even provokes) the countless frustrations and vulnerabilities that follow. The strength of these films lies in their resistance to romanticizing or idealizing the power of those personal relationships—or even the power of art and expression—in the face of those greater forces. But at the same time, in the hands of these filmmakers, the camera becomes a platform for protesting those forces, simply by exposing them through the eyes of the people they hurt.

[Paradise Lost and 77 Steps are playing on Wednesday, October 26, and Love During Wartime is playing on Friday, October 28, at the Boston Palestine Film Festival. Other featured films include Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains, Dahna Abourahme’s The Kingdom of Women, and Mahmoud Al-Massad’s This Is My Picture When I Was Dead. For more information, and a complete schedule for the festival, click here.]

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