Palestine Stereo: Film Review

The irony and frustrations of living through the endless war in Palestine are captured with low-key realism but very little drama.

Two Palestinian brothers save cash to immigrate to Canada in director Rashid Mashawari’s new work.

The heart-rending choice of two brothers to leave their homeland in Palestine Stereo gives director Rashid Masharawi (Layla’s Wedding) a natural way to document life under occupation, which he captures with a keen sense for the comic-tragic absurdity inherent in an impossible political situation that just goes on and on. Coming through strongly is his passionate message to Palestinians to stay and fight for their country, rather than immigrate to more promising pastures. There’s nothing terribly new here, but the story is more compelling for being wrapped in a fuzzy warm feeling of the brother’s mutual love, dignity and self-sacrifice. Co-funded by the Palestinian Authority with Tunisia, the UAE and Europe, the film is said to be one of the most expensive ever made in the country (budget was a reported $1.5 million), though it has the same gritty down-to-earth look that characterizes most of the region's films. Following its Toronto bow, it should play well on the festival circuit.

From the opening shot of stocky Stereo (Mahmoud Abu Jazi) and his curly-haired brother Sami (Salah Hannoun) struggling to sleep in a makeshift tent in the rain, the landscape has a surreal quality. They have been camping in the backyard of Sami’s former fiancée Leila (Maisa Abdel Hadi) ever since Stereo’s apartment was destroyed in an Israeli bombing. The Israelis were trying to take out a terrorist on the third floor, and Stereo had the misfortune to live on the fifth. He is able to tell the story to an official at the Canadian embassy with a touch of irony, but the tone shifts to tragic when we learn his young wife was killed in the bombing, which also left Sami a deaf mute. 

The tragedy’s effect on Stereo himself was psychological: a professional wedding singer, he has never been able to sing again.

Unable to hear, Sami is no longer able to work autonomously as a sound engineer and depends on the saintly Stereo to get him out of tough situations as they drive around Ramallah in a demobilized ambulance, setting up loud speakers for weddings and funerals, protest marches and government speeches. They need a bank balance of $10,000 Canadian dollars to be eligible for immigration, and this quest gives the narrative some natural propulsion. But the closer they get to reaching their goal, the more they are torn apart by the idea of leaving their loved ones behind.

Masharawi, who also wrote the screenplay, situates the action with painstaking precision, using unnecessary exposition to fill in details of the brothers’ backstory. One can hardly imagine the characters needing to tell each other things they must already know, like their sister (Areen Omari) informing them her son is in prison and that’s why she has a rooftop apartment free for them while they’re in Ramallah.

Also hard to swallow is Sami’s stubborn refusal to read a highly important letter from his ex (he, not she, canceled their wedding on account of his disability.)  “When are you going to read Leila’s letter?” goes on for so long that one starts making unwarranted assumptions about its contents.

Masharawi’s great strengths are those of a skillful documentarian, and his main interest here seems to be depicting a historical moment in a place laden with tension. Yet drama and narrative conflict take a back seat to the realism, and often tacky banality, of everyday street scenes where angry men shouting slogans and playing a scratchy national anthem over dusty loudspeakers provoke Israeli soldiers who defend colonists and bulldozers. The portrayal of a hot-air politician pompously repeating an empty speech, then getting Sami fired from his job, is scathingly on-target.

Though they hardly resemble each other, Abu Jazi and Hannoun radiate the same gentle decency that makes it likely they grew up in one home. Their sister and her lawyer-husband are equally good-hearted and willing to do everything to help them, although with a son in prison their money is tied up in court cases.

Kaies Sellami’s gentle, non-insistent music works well in the background, a complement to the subdued ivory and neutral colors emphasized by Tarek Ben Abdallah’s cinematography.

Venue: DVD screener, Oct. 16, 2013.
Production companies: Cinepal Films, Cinetelefilms

Cast: Mahmoud Abu Jazi, Salah Hannoun, Maisa Abdel Hadi, Areen Omari, Assem Zoubi
Director: Rashid Masharawi
Screenwriter: Rashid Masharawi
Producers: Rashid Masharawi, Abdel Salam Abu Askar, Habib Attia
Director of photography: Tarek Ben Abdallah

Production designer: Ala Abu Ghoush
Costumes: Mohamad Atallah
Editor: Pascale Chavance
Music: Kaies Sellami
No rating, 90 minutes.

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