Under the Same Sun: Palm Springs Review

Despite some screenplay problems and a rather unlikely finale, this otherwise quite realistic drama conveys how absurd the Israeli-Palestinian divide really is.

Israeli-Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi's second fiction feature stars Ali Suliman and Yossi Marshek.

PALM SPRINGS -- Solar energy is the unlikely motor for peace in the Middle East in Under the Same Sun, from Palestinian-Israeli director Sameh Zoabi (Man Without a Cell Phone).

The film portrays the problems of two savvy businessmen, one Palestinian and the other from Israel, who would like to set up a joint venture that would provide green energy for Palestinians in the West Bank. The improbable but not impossible scenario becomes increasingly utopian, however, as the film barrels ahead, though along the way Zoabi does illuminate many of the region’s problems as well as opportunities. Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution NGO, supported the making of the film, was which broadcast simultaneously in Israel and Palestine.

Under the Same Sun recently also played the Palm Springs fest and other festivals should welcome this film with open arms, while niche distributors, especially those looking for politically engaged content, should also take note. 

Israeli Shaul (Yossi Marshak) meets Palestinian Nizar (Ali Suliman) at a conference on green energy in Marseilles, France, and the duo see a business opportunity when they realize that providing the West Bank with solar energy would make the Palestinians much less dependent on their sole source of electricity: Israel.

Shaul’s pregnant wife (Noa Barkai) isn’t sure this crazy idea is feasible but she’s not exactly opposed, unlike Shaul’s sister (Eliana Schejter), who lives in the occupied territories and who sees her sibling’s actions as a personal betrayal. Meanwhile, Nazir, who’s come back to his family after some time in Dubai, has to deal with his mother, who’s trying to hook him up with a nice Palestinian girl (Lucy Aharish), while he and Shaul must also try to figure out ways to meet to face to face discuss their project. Because of their respective nationalities and locations, this proves practically impossible, especially after Nizar’s denied a permit to enter Israel.

There’s a telling scene when they manage to finally meet after Shaul crosses a piece of no man’s land where the wall hasn’t been finished yet and he remarks that they’re “sneaking around like two thieves” just to meet, which is patently “absurd.” Scenes like these might be a bit on the nose but at the same time illustrate very well how ridiculous the situation is for two businessmen who want to make a living while constructing a better future.

Structurally, the screenplay by Yossi Aviram (The Dune) is somewhat cluttered, as the story starts with news camera footage that’s meant to illustrate the rift caused between Shaul and Nizar after the media find out that they’re collaborating, before flashbacks illustrate how things got to that point. But the foreknowledge there’ll be some kind of public outrage is hardly illuminating and adds little tension to the proceedings.

The film’s unexpected finale, set in the future, takes the concept of wishful thinking to a whole new level, which seems as bold as it is unrealistic. In fact, Aviram and Zoabi are better at smaller personal scenes in which what’s at stake is illuminated through personal drama, such as a lovely, well-observed sequence in which Nizar and his prospective wife go to the cinema, only to see the film suddenly stopped by a generator outage, further underlining why electricity is important while also illustrating intimate moments from the characters’ personal lives.

Acting, in a mix of Arabic and Hebrew, is solid across the board and the film, though clearly made on a modest budget, looks fine. The propulsive score by Hilal Zaher is the film’s technical standout.

Venue: Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now)
Production companies: Lama Productions, Search for Common Ground
Cast: Ali Suliman, Yossi Marshak, Dirar Suliman, Levana Finkelstein, Lucy Aharish, Noa Barkai, Eliana Schejter
Director: Sameh Zoabi
Screenwriter: Yossi Aviram
Producers: Amir Harel, John Marks
Director of photography: Benjamin Chiram
Production designer: Avshalom Smolarczyk
Music: Hilal Zaher
Costume designer: Chen Carmi
Editor: Eyas Salman
No rating, 75 minutes.

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