Leeds Palestinian film festival got underway today with Muayad Alayan’s Palestinian-set domestic drama ‘The Reports on Sarah And Saleem’. Centring around the extra-marital affair of the titular Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a delivery driver from East Jerusalem who smuggles goods across the West Bank Barrier in order to help provide for his pregnant wife and soon-to-be child, and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a café owner in Israeli West Jerusalem, the film takes a thoughtful look at these character’s actions and the socio-pollical context that they occupy, while unfortunately presenting it with a directing style that’s far-too dry for its own good.
The film’s greatest strength is undoubtedly its nuance, both personally and politically. Each character occupies a morally grey space throughout. Sarah and Saleem’s relationship may ultimately be wrong but so are the consequences of their actions, consequences that are rooted strongly within the Palestinian experience. The at-times arbitrary nature of Israeli policing within the West Bank is front and centre here, conveying the brutal law-enforcement power that it is possible for the occupying forces to hold.
However, it’s not just the Israeli government whom the film has its eyes on, and internal Palestinian justice is also portrayed as highly flawed and problematic, proving itself susceptible to both unsanctioned violence and corruption in a similar manner to Israeli military’s treatment of the Palestinian people, as Saleem’s ‘powerful connection’ Abu Ibrahim (Kamel El Basha) proves just as powerful at swaying Arab intelligence as Sarah’s IDF Colonel husband David (Ishai Golan) does on the Israeli-side. Comparisons such as these are not here meant to draw a false equivalency but rather to paint an accurate portrayal of legal-life in Palestinian, in which one is all too easily susceptible to the capricious and brute application of apparent-justice over spurious evidence and rumour.
This realism extends not simply to the framing of both the story of Sarah and Saleem and that of life in the occupied territories, but also to the movie’s performances. In all the main performances there’s a real sense each character’s internal conflict and how their circumstances prevent them from any kind of self-actualization; Saleem knows he’s plunging his family into an uncertain certain future by protecting Sarah, and Sarah knows the same, and this is painfully played out in the background of the movie’s second act through the performances. Commendation should be given to both Safadi and Kretchner for expertly bringing out the script’s subtext through their performances.
The film’s greatest hindrance however, has to do with its directing and presentation. Alayan (for whom this is his second narrative feature) decided to go with a very social-realist aesthetic, and while this further cements the film’s realism the decision do so in part by not scoring the film was unfortunate, as it utterly decimated the film’s pacing. The script is by no means too slow or meandering but the film’s lack of music, combined with the fact that the central conflict takes roughly an hour to get going, leaves the film feeling somewhat lethargic, which considering the immediacy of the conflict leaves the film with an almost dissonant feeling – as one’s thoughts on the film begin to move faster than the film itself.
Overall the film’s intelligent moral and political-subtlety is somewhat depressed by the film’s well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided decision to proceed without a score. Ultimately however, I came out liking the film and would recommend it, although I can say with a lot of certainty that I personally won’t be watching it again anytime soon.