'The Reports on Sarah and Saleem': Film Review | Rotterdam 2018

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Still 1 - Publicity-H 2018
Rotterdam International Film Festival
A compelling political take on a casual affair.

Palestinian director Muayad Alayan’s second feature follows an adulterous couple caught in the quagmire of contemporary Israel.

Extramarital affairs have probably been the basis for too many films—not to mention too many recent TV shows, including The Affair itself. But in The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, Palestinian director Muayad Alayan adds a meaningful new twist to the tried and tested between-the-sheets scenario, focusing on two couples caught on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Premiering in competition in Rotterdam, this well-acted sophomore feature somewhat overstretches its welcome in the second half, but still makes for a compelling drama in which the personal crosses paths with the political. Overseas fests and boutique distributors should give it a look. 

Written by Alayan’s brother Rami, the story starts off in media res with a torrid bit of adulterous lovemaking between a married man and woman. He’s a Palestinian delivery driver named Saleem (Adeeb Safadi); she’s an Israeli café owner named Sarah (Sivane Kretchner). The two live on opposite sides—geographically, politically and religiously—of Jerusalem, meeting up clandestinely at night to have sex in Saleem’s van. Otherwise, they do their best to maintain stable home lives: Sarah with moody IDF officer David (Ishai Golan); Saleem with his pregnant wife, Bisa (Maisa Abd Elhadi).

Things seem to be going fairly smoothly until Saleem decides to take Sarah along on a late-night ride to Bethlehem—a West Bank city under Palestinian authority since 1995—where he’s delivering black market goods for his brother-in-law. During the excursion, he nearly gets into a bar fight with a local, and the repercussions will turn a not-so-innocent fling into a minor international crisis involving secret police, torture, forced confessions and, eventually, Saleem’s arrest in Israel under false charges. Sarah will then need to decide where her loyalties lie: to her husband and country or to a part-time lover who has inadvertently become a political prisoner.

The film’s first half cleverly weaves the story of the affair into the larger fabric of Jerusalem’s current status as a city divided along religious and ethnic lines. As much as Sarah and Saleem are passionately attracted to one another, and as closely as their lives intersect—he delivers croissants to her café—the two inhabit separate worlds. A telling scene has Sarah confessing her affair to her employee Ronit (Rebecca Esmeralda Telhami), and the latter turns out to be a lot less shocked that Sarah is cheating on her husband than that she’s doing it with a Palestinian and not an Israeli.

Muayad Alayan coaxes excellent performances out of the two leads and their supporting spouses, and even if the drama can seem heavy-handed in a few places, it remains quite believable throughout. The director perhaps pushes things too far into legal thriller territory during the closing reels, which concentrate more on Saleem’s arrest and its repercussions than on affairs of the heart. But such a detour only further underlines how impossible it is, in a place like modern-day Israel, to ignore politics in everyday life, and the “reports” of the film’s title come to signify how a casual affair can be blown out of proportion and snowball into a matter of international urgency.

Handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting by cinematographer Sebastian Bock capture the many contrasts between East and West Jerusalem—as well as the roads Sarah and Saleem take as they navigate between the two.  

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: PalCine Productions, KeyFilm, Mono Films, Manderley Films
Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Adeeb Safadi, Ishai Golan
Director: Muayad Alayan
Screenwriter: Rami Alayan
Producers: Muayad Alayan, Rami Alayan
Executive producer: Hanna Atallah
Director of photography: Sebastian Bock
Production designer: Bashar Hassuneh
Costumer designer: Hamada Atallah
Editor: Sameer Qumsiyeh
Casting director: Salim Abu Jabal
Sales: Heretic Outreach

In Arabic, Hebrew, English
127 minutes