‘Alam’ review: Coming of age for a teenage Palestinian citizen of Israel

‘Alam’ review: Coming of age for a teenage Palestinian citizen of Israel

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In the gripping, naturalistic drama ‘Alam’, a middle-class Arab teenager living in a Galilee village undergoes a political awakening, catalyzed by a beautiful, open-hearted girl from his high school class. Like the protagonist, the audience is also given a provocative civic lesson about the symbolism – and power – of flags and what constitutes resistance. This intelligent, sensitive treatment of the rarely seen, day-to-day lives of young Palestinian citizens of Israel marks tyro-filmwriter-director Firas Khoury as a talent to watch, as well as a solid asset to Film Movement, its North American distributor. “The film.” Alam won three awards, including Best Picture and Audience Award, at the Cairo Film Festival.

The story unfolds through the eyes of the alert, artistically inclined Tamer (well played by newcomer Mahmood Bakri, another member of veteran Palestinian artist Mohammed Bakri’s talented acting family), a high school senior approaching his entrance exam. Like his friends, rowdy Shekel (Mohammad Karaki) and electronic games nerd Rida (Ahmad Zaghmouri), Tamer shares the concerns of a typical male slacker: girls, how to find cigarettes and weed, and hope to graduate without too much effort. .

Although he lives in an Arab village, Tamer is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, an identity full of contradiction and repression. For example, look no further than his school. Like all educational institutions in the country, he teaches the Israeli curriculum, a course that celebrates the country’s independence day without acknowledging its dark, other side, the displacement of the Arab population that the Palestinians call the Nakba.

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But when Safwat (Muhammad Abed Elrahman), one of Tamer’s classmates, dares to challenge their teacher’s historical narrative, we see a dawning awareness in Tamer’s eyes. His involvement in politics and the past is further fueled by a daring new student, the attractive Maysaa’ (Sereen Khass), who invites him to a demonstration and engages him in other acts of peaceful resistance.

The movie shows Tamer coming of age in more ways than one. We see him judging the older men within his reach as if considering which of their choices, if any, he might want to emulate. There’s his supportive father (Amer Hlehel), a modern Israeli Arab, who begs him to avoid politics; his mentally ill uncle (Saleh Bakri, Mahmood’s real brother), who collapsed in an Israeli prison; local activist Adel (Riyad Sliman), who advises young people in a community center about their rights and how to behave when arrested; and “Lenin,” the neighborhood drug lord who trades from his elderly mother’s home.

Khoury’s compelling and captivating screenplay perfectly captures the fearlessness and bravado of teenagers, along with a certain ignorance of how the real world works. He shows the existential contradictions of the lives of the teenagers both in images and in words. Their village, located near the ruins of other Arab villages now planted with trees by the Jewish National Fund, appears quiet and peaceful, though Israeli vehicles are constantly patrolling, covertly tearing down Palestinian flags and painting Arab graffiti.

Indeed, as makes sense for a movie whose title translates as “flag,” flags create a flashpoint throughout the film. Blue and white Israeli flies over all public buildings and areas, including the school. Meanwhile, the Palestinian tricolor stripe topped with a red triangle and the black no-quarter flag hang in private homes and wave defiantly at demonstrations.

In ‘Alam’, director Khoury, himself a Palestinian citizen of Israel who now lives in Tunisia, more than lives up to the promise of his award-winning short films such as ‘Maradona’s Legs’ (2019). Besides his great work with non-professional actors who show a great screen presence here, he is not afraid of quiet, contemplative moments or humor. A touching scene that combines the two is a late-night discussion between Tamer and Safwat, in which the former tells his uncle’s background and the latter sings the lyrics to “The Internationale,” played mysteriously in Tamer’s house courtesy of a musical coffee cup.

Tunisian DP Frida Marzouk keeps a close eye on Tamer’s alert face, which is rewarded by young Bakri’s thoughtful performance. Kudos also to veteran editor Nadia Ben Rachid for delivering an unhurried, organic rhythm to the montage.

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