'Samouni Road': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
The harrowing account of an atrocity.

Director Stefano Savona ('Tahrir Liberation Square') and animator Simone Massi evoke an Israeli massacre in a Palestinian village of farmers.

In a quiet village in Gaza, the 2009 killing of 29 Palestinian farmers, their wives and children by Israeli army forces is told with chilling detachment by Italian documaker Stefano Savona in Samouni Road. He recreates this terrible event, which occurred during the three-week Operation Cast Lead, a.k.a. the Gaza war, between December 2008 and January 2009, in soberly filmed scenes alternated with the expressive animation of Simone Massi (well known to festival goers for his poetic logo for the Venice Film Festival.) The final effect is devastating and yet oddly distanced, leaving the viewer with sorrow, indignation but also space for reflection on the cruelty and injustice of Israel’s tactics in its war against Palestine. The film was well positioned in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight and, thanks to the quality of the filmmaking, could reach audiences where many other Palestinian docs fail.

Deceptively quiet opening scenes introduce the main characters, particularly the young teenage girl Amal Samouni, who has miraculously survived the attack on her village. Her mother remarks that she was given up for dead under the rubble of their home, until Red Cross workers found her and pulled her out several days later. She still has shrapnel in her head that causes her pain.

The family orchard, destroyed in the war, has been partially replanted and she lovingly shows the camera young lemon trees, while her brother Faraj grimly counts their four remaining olive trees. Massi’s black and white 2D drawings bring to life a happier era, when they worked and played in the fields with their father Ateya and little brother Ahmed, both of whom died in the attack.

The young people seem almost detached from the tragedy that struck their family, as though they had repressed the most unbearable memories. But you can sense a different reaction in the eldest son Mahmoud when talks about his father taking care of his trees until the day he died. Behind his grim smile, something has shifted in the boy’s mind and there is the hint of a future Jihadist.

Massi’s simple, flickering line drawings bring back the village as it once was, when life unfolded around a 150-year-old sycamore tree. In the houses around it lived Ateya Samouni and his three brothers, an extended, close-knit family tied to the land they owned. The father is a great story-teller who recounts tales from the Quran; he says it is what distinguishes men from beasts, and the film makes the point that story-telling is precisely what has been lost with the death of the older generation.

The farmers are level-headed folk and persist in thinking the war will spare their peaceful village; after all, many of them used to work in Israel and speak Hebrew. But gradually, as the animated flashbacks draw closer and closer to the main events, the tension grows through faster pacing and sound effects.

Savona has already tackled the Gaza war in his 2009 eye-witness doc Cast Lead, which won special jury prizes in Annecy and Locarno. This film is different in its narrow focus on a single family, adding a strong, natural emotional angle, and in its superb integration of animation. Massi’s dreamlike drawings dive straight into the viewer’s unconscious. One indelible sequence is a dream of rampaging metal elephants who uproot the sycamore tree and flatten buildings, until a flock of birds bombards them with stones (the David and Goliath imagery of the Intifada.)

The other memorable sequence, of course, is the attack itself. Having decided their best chance is to stick together, the villagers barricade themselves in a ground-floor house as missiles explode down the street and houses go up in flames. Amid the smoke, helmeted soldiers sinisterly slide down ropes from helicopters and bang on the door, demanding entry.

At the same time, eerie drone shots from overhead turn people into white-hot silhouettes seen through the sights of a missile launcher. These images, timed to the minute on January 5, 2009, are reconstructions from the Israeli army’s own internal investigation into the massacre, but they pack a sickening, American Sniper-style realism. While the mayhem is in full swing, the voice of the Israeli soldier firing the missiles is heard refusing to shoot at children and civilians, contradicting his commanding officer’s repeated order to do so.

The use of sound to create a feeling of doom leaves an indelible impression particularly in the key flashbacks, but also in the celebrations that leave a feeling of hope in the final scenes. Savona’s camerawork is respectful and serviceable without any magic moments.

Production companies: Picofilms, Dugong Films in association with Alter Ego Production, Arte France Cinema, Rai Cinema
Director: Stefano Savona
Screenwriters: Stefano Savona, Penelope Bortoluzzi
Producers: Marco Alessi, Penelope Bortoluzzi, Cecile Lestrade
Director of photography: Stefano Savona
Animation director: Stefano Massi
Editor: Luc Forveille
Music: Giulia Tagliavia
World sales: Doc & Films International 
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
128 minutes