TORONTO: Broadly speaking, there are three types of Palestinians living in Palestine. There are those who sincerely need to leave because existence there – beneath the Israeli occupation’s daily violence, routine land confiscation and criminalization of free movement – is slow suffocation.
Then there are the loyalists who fervently believe the country cannot grow and prosper unless Palestinians – the young, the idealists, the artists – remain in Palestine.
Between the two extremes are the pragmatists and opportunists – self-righteous politicians paid to rehearse decades-old bromides about morality and international law – and cynical landowners, businessmen and the like, who harness the permanent international non-governmental organization presence and perpetual political protest to make a living.
This is the dystopian worldview of Rashid Masharawi’s fiction “Palestine Stereo.” The 11th feature-length film of the Gaza-born writer-director just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s screening in the Contemporary World Cinema program.
Milad and Sami (Mahmoud Abu Jazi and Salah Hannoun) are residents of Rafah. As the film opens, they’re sharing a tent alongside the destroyed block of flats where Milad once lived.
Formerly a well-known wedding singer, Milad is nicknamed “Stereo.” Since his home was destroyed in an Israeli rocket attack – which killed his wife – he’s been inconsolable. Unable to continue to work as an entertainer, Stereo decides to migrate to Canada.
An electrician, Milad’s brother Sami was doing some work on the house at the time of the attack, and it’s left him a deaf mute. Now he’s decided he wants to emigrate to Canada as well.
This decision doesn’t sit well with Sami’s fiancee Laila (Mayssa Abdul-Hadi) – whose parents happen to be Milad’s neighbors. She tries to prevent Sami from abandoning their life together. He refuses to relent but Laila is a stubborn Palestinian woman so she, and the compulsion to follow the difficult path of remaining in Palestine, is a motif of the film.
The brothers move to Ramallah. They stay with Milad’s sister Mariam (Areen Omari), whose husband Ziyad, a lawyer, is completing their visa applications. Ziyad informs them their circumstances conform to the Canadians’ criteria for visa status, but that Ottawa demands applicants prove they have $10,000 in the bank. This is no small sum for a retired wedding singer and an electrician.
Milad can no longer work as an entertainer, but he finds a solution when he drops around to see his old colleague Salem al-Alam, who rents and sells musical instruments and public-address systems.
The political economy of the Palestinian Authority is such that Salem has been able to vastly supplement his income by providing sound equipment to the plethora of activists and political parties. The former regularly rally to protest the construction of Israel’s apartheid wall on Palestinian land, house demolition, the destruction of olive trees and the like, while the latter are fond of delivering speeches at events commemorating the various military catastrophes, massacres and such that are the grim markers of Palestine’s calendar.
“The Israelis sit on one stake. We sit on two,” Salem grins.
“The Israelis’ stake is the Palestinians, who refuse to go away. For the Palestinians, it is the occupation ... and the political parties. There’ll always be a demand for protest!”
So begin Sami and Milad’s anti-picaresque adventures in moneymaking in the PA.
They provide sound for a Palestinian minister whose slogans about victory over occupation are so stale that Milad can recite them in synch with him.
The minister’s speeches are the source of some broad comedy. At one point the PA system squeals – as if the equipment itself were heckling his cant. At another event, a poorly hung Palestinian flag collapses on the official and his cronies, to the general amusement of the bored crowd.
There is no shortage of such comedy here.
For every event, Sami burns a single CD for each of the PA’s several parties, comprising the patriotic tunes favored by the respective parties, complemented by a separate disk with the Palestinian national anthem on.
At one event, Milad finds they’ve misplaced the national anthem. Since it’s too late to retrieve a new one, he improvises. He picks up a spoon, brings a water glass to his lips and performs the anthem for the audience that way. It seems to insult and belittle the PA as a national institution, but the crowd sings along and at the end bursts into applause.
“ Palestine Stereo” deploys a dark humor that complements Masharawi’s deep insider’s skepticism of the state of his country. The film’s language isn’t that of an aestheticized art-house movie. It casts its net more broadly, speaking a dialect of popular cinema that mingles love, sadness and comedy that’s meant appeal to Palestinians and those who know Palestine from within.
That isn’t to say there isn’t intelligence in the writing.
One running gag arises when the brothers are gifted with a decommissioned Red Crescent ambulance. It’s liberally adorned with bullet holes from the First Intifada, and the owner is confident that the so-called peace talks will eventually falter and the vehicle will return to its intended purpose. In the meantime, he says, Milad and Sami can use it to carry their gear from event to event.
As the brothers go about their labor – conveying PA gear from the ambulance to the venue on a stretcher – it casts up a strong metaphor for the health of the Palestinian people’s “voice” under indirect colonial rule, one funded by international donors and administered by the PA.
The Toronto International Film Festival continues until Sept. 15 For more information visit tiff.net.