In the appealing, naturalistic drama “Alam,” a middle-class Arab teen living in a village in the Galilee undergoes a political awakening catalyzed by a pretty, outspoken girl from his high school class. Just like the protagonist, the audience, too, receives a provocative civics lesson on the symbolism — and power — of flags and what constitutes resistance. This intelligent, sensitive treatment of the rarely seen, everyday lives of young Palestinian citizens of Israel marks tyro feature writer-director Firas Khoury as a talent to watch, as well as a solid acquisition for Film Movement, the North American distributor. “The film. ”Alam” nabbed three prizes, including best film and audience award, at the Cairo Film Festival.
The story unfolds through the eyes of watchful, artistically-inclined Tamer (well-played by newcomer Mahmood Bakri, yet another member of the talented acting family of veteran Palestinian performer Mohammed Bakri), a high school senior nearing his matriculation exams. Like his friends, loudmouth 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 hoping to graduate without making too large of an effort.
Although he lives in an Arab village, Tamer is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, an identity fraught with contradiction and repression. For example, look no further than his school. Like all educational institutions in the country, his teaches the Israeli curriculum, a course of study that celebrates the nation’s Independence Day without acknowledging its dark, opposite side, the displacement of the Arab population that the Palestinians call the Nakba.
Yet as 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 engagement with politics and the past is further kindled by a bold new student, the attractive Maysaa’ (Sereen Khass), who invites him to a demonstration and involves him in other acts of peaceful resistance.
The film shows Tamer coming of age in more ways than one. We watch him assess the older men in his purview as if considering which, if any, of their choices to emulate. There’s his supportive father (Amer Hlehel), a modern Israeli Arab, who begs him to steer clear of politics; his mentally ill uncle (Saleh Bakri, Mahmood’s actual brother), who had a breakdown in an Israeli prison; the local activist Adel (Riyad Sliman), who counsels youths at a community center on their rights and how to behave if arrested; and “Lenin,” the neighborhood drug lord who deals from his elderly mother’s home.
Khoury’s convincing and engaging screenplay perfectly captures teenage fearlessness and bravado along with a certain cluelessness about how the real world works. He shows the existential contradictions of the teens’ lives in images as well as words. Their village, located near the ruins of other Arab villages now planted over with trees by the Jewish National Fund, seems quiet and peaceful, although Israeli vehicles patrol constantly, taking down surreptitiously hung Palestinian flags and painting over Arabic graffiti.
Indeed, as makes sense for a movie whose title translates as “flag,” flags provide a flashpoint throughout the film. Blue and white Israeli ones fly over all public buildings and spaces, including the school. Meanwhile, the Palestinian tricolor stripe overlaid by a red triangle as well as the black flag signaling no quarter hang in private homes and wave defiantly at demonstrations.
In “Alam,” director Khoury, himself a Palestinian citizen of Israel now resident in Tunisia, more than lives up to the promise of his prize-winning shorts such as “Maradona’s Legs” (2019). In addition to his stellar work with non-professional actors who display great screen presence here, he’s not afraid of quiet, contemplative moments or of humor. One touching scene which combines both involves a nighttime discussion between Tamer and Safwat, in which the former recounts his uncle’s background and the latter sings the lyrics to “The Internationale,” which has been mysteriously playing in Tamer’s house courtesy of a musical coffee cup.
Tunisian DP Frida Marzouk keeps a tight focus on Tamer’s alert face, which is repaid by the young Bakri’s thoughtful performance. Kudos are also due to veteran editor Nadia Ben Rachid for supplying an unrushed, organic rhythm to the cutting.
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