Mustafa (Ali Suliman) lives with his mother in a West Bank village on one side of the border wall, while his wife Salwa (Lina Zreik) lives 200 meters away with their three children in a Palestinian village on the Israeli side. On a track field, an average runner could cover the distance in 45 seconds. For Mustafa, the day he needs to reach his wounded son in an Israeli hospital could well be a journey to the center of the earth, fraught with danger and betrayal against the humiliating and sometimes deadly rules and regulations of military occupation. . A control mechanism does not read his fingerprint and then an employee informs him that his work permit has expired. It is a weekend so not renewable until Monday. Desperate, Mustafa pays off a smuggler and embarks on a high-risk 200-kilometer journey across the border.
This is the premise for 200 meters, a gripping 96-minute thriller written and directed by Palestinian-born Ameen Nayfeh and shot on location in the West Bank. 200 meters is Nayfeh’s first feature film and has won numerous awards, starting with the Audience Award (Venice Days) at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered in September 2020.
Currently streaming on Netflix, the film has toured many film festivals, most of them, until recently, virtual festivals, due to the demands of the pandemic.
Seeing him for the first time in 21St. Annual Chicago Palestinian Film Festival (running through May 21), I couldn’t help but think about the power of video to spark the kind of empathy that changes minds. In my case, Palestinian documentaries like 9 star hotel (2008) and Five broken cameras (2011), helped me break out of the paralytic bondage of Zionism and into activism.
Speaking with a volunteer afterward at the t-shirt giveaway, I was surprised to learn that 200 meters it had been part of the Chicago Jewish Film Festival last fall. Really? Are you sure? I asked and the volunteer checked with another volunteer at the table, and yes, they were sure.
A Palestinian film at a Jewish film festival is unusual. But a little googling revealed the fact that 200 meters it has been screened by at least two dozen Jewish film festivals in the United States in the last 15 months. The first of these was in February 2021 in Atlanta, where Bob Bahr of the Atlanta Jewish Times summarily called “…a rare victory for a Palestinian film”, it received the Human Rights Jury Prize.
One dubious distinction of bringing a Palestinian film to Jewish festivals is that reviews will likely be written through a Zionist lens. There don’t seem to be many, but the reviews I found are full of micro-aggressions and mixed praise reflecting a failure to see the Occupation as the brutal travesty of human rights that it is, and a failure to see Palestinians as equals. .
There is nothing new in that, but in the context of the arts, which at best may be the most humanizing tool we have for building peace and understanding, it exposes a perversity that is usually kept well hidden under the Zionist talking points.
In the Northern California Jewish Newsfilm critic Michael Fox first assures readers that 200 meters it is “heartfelt” enough not to offend “even the most ardent American Jewish supporters of Israel.” Subsequently, Fox hints that, in the hands of a less sensitive director, the circumstances of the story could lend themselves to “an indictment of Israeli policies…” and the “demonization” of Israeli soldiers. He applauds Nayfeh for keeping “editorialization to a minimum,” such as the “blink and miss it” moment in which a Palestinian expresses dislike for Israeli settlers who taunt Palestinians while driving on Palestinian roads. He finally says that “200 meters is at its best when it relegates politics to the background and lets Suliman’s unflinchingly decent Mustafa run the movie,” whatever that means.
Reviewing the film on Variety.com, Jay Weissberg also seems to have issues with its political context, covering it up by calling 200 meters, “part family drama, part road movie”. Like Fox, he says the film works best when it focuses on Mustafa’s story. He criticizes the portrayal of the younger, openly angry Palestinians Mustafa encounters along the way as not being “multidimensional”. Weissberg wonders—as if a checkpoint critic were sitting on his shoulder as he writes—if a checkpoint scene in 200 meters is necessary, “it can feel like many other checkpoint sequences we’ve seen in Palestinian movies…” He condescendingly decides, “This is daily life, often twice a day, so it belongs here.”
And then there is the issue of the Israeli identification card that Mustafa refuses to apply for. Fox suggests that the election may have thrown this “type of person who gets along and never (otherwise) shows a political identity” into a self-created crisis. The review, by the way, is titled: “The Palestinian father knows best in ‘200 meters….or the?”
It is not known whether an Israeli identification card would have been available to Mustafa, given the unpredictable interpretations of the then Israel Citizenship and Entry Law, which was recently codified as permanent law. Or if he was once at his beck and call, could he have taken the card capriciously? This is a feature film, not a documentary, so all we really know is that, in the middle of an argument reflecting the stress of living under occupation, Salwa tells Mustafa that their separate living situation is his fault because she refuses to ask for the Israeli ID and he replies that he doesn’t want it.
Bob Bahr, the Atlanta Jewish Times art writer, seems to have correctly deduced that if he had Israeli ID, Mustafa would never see his mother in the West Bank again. Bahr doesn’t say it like that. Instead, he extracts the entire political context of the film and offers this cryptic synopsis: “200 meters…tells the dramatic story of the difficulties an Arab construction worker and his father face when trying to maintain a relationship with his mother.”
Of course, this wonderful film received a lot of rave reviews from non-Zionist writers, none of whom questioned or misunderstood its political context or intent. When Human Rights Watch projected 200 meters at its May 2021 film festival, the jewish striker conducted an in-depth interview with Nayfeh. In it, she spoke about the film’s autobiographical inspiration: her childhood in a West Bank village that had broken away from the Palestinian people, now in Israel, where her grandfather lived. He remembered how as a child he would take a taxi every weekend to visit his grandparents and suddenly when he was a teenager there was a wall and the trip was impossible. Four years later there was a frantic moment when his grandfather was dying, the checkpoint was closing for the day, and he and his brothers convinced a soldier’s humanity to get through.
Nayfeh said The front that he hopes his work will contribute to a growing conversation about Palestinian rights.
“I have a little bit of self-esteem because I have a movie that talks about Palestine and it’s showing,” he said.
The power of film, as we learned from the video that ultimately convicted Derek Chauvin of killing George Floyd, depends on the power of the narrative the viewer is attached to. There were defense attorneys who saw that video and still insisted that Floyd died of natural causes. And there were jurors who said, “I know what I saw.”
I don’t remember exactly now, but I must have been blurting out my narrative when I saw my first Palestinian film. At the time I was in love with a man who supported Palestinian rights, a new concept for me, and he drew my attention to those films in the first place.
I can only hope that somewhere in the world, amidst the tangle of virtual screenings at dozens of Jewish film festivals, there are also people on the verge of change who saw 200 meters and crossed a border.
So where are the Palestinian voices in the mainstream media?
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