Ana Arabia: Venice Review

'Ana Arabia'

Director: Amos Gitai
Cast: Yuval Scharf, Sarah Adler, Uri Gavriel, Norman Issa, Yussuf Abuwarda, Shady Srur, Assi Levy
In Competition

Ana Arabia tells the tale of a small community of Jews and Arabs who live together as outcasts in a forgotten enclave at the "border" between Jaffa and Bat Yam, in Israel.

A single, 81-minute take that avoids having to cut between the Israeli and Arab sides.

Prolific Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai's latest feature is a single-take film set in a small mixed enclave in Jaffa.

VENICE, Italy -- A young Israeli journalist visits a tiny enclave in Jaffa where Jews and Arabs live together in harmony in Ana Arabia, the latest film from prolific Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai (Kadosh, Free Zone).

The film tries to take an even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, showing people from both sides living together and suffering through the same worries, hardships and joys, essentially presenting life itself as the great equalizer. The attempt at impartiality even extends to the film’s formal qualities, as it was shot in a single, 81-minute  take (shot on an Arri Alexa) that avoids having to cut between different sides.

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Though not quite incisive or dramatic enough for widespread distribution, this Venice world premiere should nonetheless have a solid festival run followed by some niche theatrical bookings.

Yael (Yuval Scharf) is a journalist who’s preparing a story about the late Siam, nicknamed Ana Arabia, a Holocaust survivor who was born Hanna Klibanov and who, after her family settled in Israel, dared to marry a Muslim construction worker, Yussuf (Yussuf Abu Warda) and convert to Islam.

The entire film takes places in the courtyards, pathways and gardens around a small cluster of dilapidated buildings in a peaceful little enclave in Jaffa, close to Tel Aviv, where Yussuf’s family lives and where the aging paterfamilias introduces Yael to his extended clan and neighbors. They include his daughter, Miriam (Sarah Adler), who tends to the garden, his Jewish daughter-in-law, the widow Sarah (Assi Levy) and Yussuf's son Walid (Shady Srur), a former fisherman who now scrapes by helping out the town’s vegetable sellers.

As Yael wanders between the buildings and in the garden, she chats with everyone and all sorts of subjects naturally come up. If she were indeed a journalist, her article about Ana Arabia would be about a paragraph long since few of the things people say here are directly related to her or her passing. Instead, there are stories that illuminate daily life in Jaffa and the country at large, where inequalities are part of society’s fabric but hope also springs eternal.

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The anecdotes of Sarah, whose own marriage to someone of another religion was not a success, are finally the most touching and also the most sobering, though the fact she still lives with her Muslim in-laws despite being a widow also offer a sense of quiet optimism about a possible peaceful co-existence.

Many of the stories have an anecdotal quality and at times, it’s hard to figure out if things should be taken at face value or whether they contain deeper political metaphors or meanings. What to make of such statements as “Everyone gets what they deserve,” uttered by Yussuf, or Miriam’s confession that she lets intrusive weeds grow because they seem to help rather than hinder the growth of her planted flowers and trees? The film doesn’t offer any easy answers, though taken together, the stories mainly underline the humanity of the characters, an effect reminiscent of Gitai’s own Wadi documentaries, about a group of Jews and Arabs living together in northern Israel.

The acting, by an ensemble that actually mainly consists of Israeli actors speaking Hebrew with the occasional "jalla" thrown in, is down-to-earth and realistic, while the supply moving Steadicam, operated by Nir Bar and with Giora Bejach credited as cinematographer, observes the characters from a slight remove. The magical-hour timing of the take (the tenth and last, according to the press materials) further infuses the proceedings with a sense of fleeting beauty. The sound design is crisp and high on ambient noise, which beautifully contrasts with the occasional use of the score’s classical pieces.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

Production company: Agav Films
Cast: Yuval Scharf, Yussuf Abu Warda, Sarah Adler, Assi Levy, Uri Gavriel, Norman Issa, Shady Srur
Director: Amos Gitai
Screenwriters: Amos Gitai, Marie-Jose Sanselme
Producers:  Hamon Hafakot, Agav Hafakot, Michael Tapuach, Amos Gitai, Laurent Truchot
Director of photography: Giora Bejach
Production designer:  Miguel Merkin
Costume designer: Laura Shein
Editor: Isabelle Ingold
Sales: Agav Films
No rating, 81 minutes.