With its remarkably intimate look at Israeli Bedouin culture, a subject heretofore little treated, Danny Verete’s “Yellow Asphalt” is a deeply affecting and brutally uncompromising anthology of three unrelated stories. Its somber fatalism recalling that of Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle,” “Yellow Asphalt” lifts the veil on the mysterious Bedouin lifestyle and, like the Iranian film, is particularly evocative in showing the unfortunate lot of its women. Pic has had a limited Stateside release via New Yorker Films and will continue to make the rounds of international festivals where, given the current focus on Middle Eastern culture, it should garner further attention.
In the seven years Israeli filmmaker Verete spent developing “Yellow Asphalt,” he secured the trust and participation of the desert-dwelling Jahalin tribe, some of whose members appear in the film. Pic consequently has a palpable feeling of authenticity.
Its first tale, “Black Spot,” opens with a truck speeding down a deserted road. Suddenly, the truck careens into a young Bedouin boy and his donkey. Remorseless, the driver (Zevik Raz) and his substitute driver (Moshe Ivgi) toss the boy to the side of the road and are preparing to leave when several tribe members appear. Frantic that they’ll be killed, the drivers tentatively propose an unlikely solution: In payment for the boy’s life, they offer the truck’s spare tire. Silently accepting the offering, the tribesmen retreat into the hills. This spare, wordless sequence is devastatingly effective in its use and avoidance of sound: The silence is punctuated only by the truck’s running motor and the piercing wails of the boy’s mother, who is left alone to deal with her sorrow.
Second episode, “Here Is Not There,” is much longer and more involved. A Bedouin woman, Tamam (Tatjana Blacher), is summoned for a meeting with the senior tribesmen who have heard she is unhappy in her marriage to the overbearing Sliman (Abed Zuabi). Though Tamam wants to divorce Sliman and flee with her two small girls, the tribal chiefs insist she remain. At night, however, she slips away, only to be trailed by the enraged Sliman across the desert’s rocky hills and caves. A brief flashback reveals the German-born Tamam was romanced by Sliman with a promise of a very different life; instead, she has effectively become his indentured servant. There’s an aching poignancy to Tamam’s desperate flight and to the fact that the seemingly endless plains and plateaus of the desert unexpectedly symbolize entrapment rather than freedom.
Final tale, “Red Roofs” is the story of the ill-fated romance between Shmuel (Motti Katz), a wealthy, married, urban Israeli, and his Bedouin housekeeper Suhilla (Raida Adon). When Suhilla is glimpsed kissing an unidentified man, her Bedouin husband beats her senseless. Returning to seek help at Shmuel’s house, however, she finds only disdain. Completely adrift, with the exception of fellow Bedouin domestic Anat (Hagit Keler), Suhilla frantically contemplates her options, only to realize she has none.
All three stories point up the bleak desperation of female Bedouin existence and the incompatibility of modern Israeli life with ancient nomadic traditions. Verete never stoops to easy answers, and he manages to remain impartial throughout, rather than condemning or venerating one lifestyle or another. “Yellow Asphalt” weaves a deft and complex web of ethical issues that leaves the viewer thinking long after the film is over.