Latest gem from Palestinian helmer Hany Abu-Assad (“Rana’s Wedding,” “Nazareth 2000”) is a jaunty absurdist docu concentrating on one of the thousands of white Ford vans, formerly Israeli police cars, that ferry Palestinians from checkpoint to checkpoint along the West Bank. Assorted passengers hold forth on the political situation from the back seat while the driver, pic’s putative hero, provides an ongoing lesson in seat-of-your-pants navigation through an endless military gauntlet. Skedded to open at the Film Forum later this summer, lively, likable docu should do well on the arthouse circuit before shifting to cable.
With transport virtually at a standstill due to endless waits at impromptu army roadblocks, people rely upon the vans not, as before, to get them from city to city, but merely to get them from one temporary way station to the next. Early curfews in several districts further complicate the trek.
Just about everyone agrees the long delays and road closings are devastating to average folks attempting to get on with their workaday existences while completely ineffectual in stopping anyone with anything to hide. In the course of the film, van driver Rajai, who traffics in counterfeit CDs on the side, easily smuggles his contraband, but is forced to drop off a couple of innocuous old ladies carrying baskets of “illegal” cucumbers.
Opinion is divided as to why the Israelis insist upon these draconian, largely self-defeating measures that fuel the kind of frustration which can drive terrorism. Some, including van-riding Israeli helmer B.Z. Goldberg (“Promises”), theorize fear leads them to act irrationally, while others are convinced it’s all part of a concerted effort to boot the Palestinians out.
Though lacking the extraordinary emotional resonance of his 2001 feature “Rana’s Wedding,” docu quietly attests to the monotonous insanity of life under Israeli occupation.
Abu-Assad leavens the mix with well-observed humor, particularly from ordinary citizens. When asked to weigh in on Bush’s latest speech, one fare asserts that an American president with a low I.Q. is the true terrorism. Later, an argument stops abruptly when an attractive women climbs aboard; all the males sit in well-behaved silence until she leaves, at which point the fracas resumes at an escalated pitch.
Inspired music choices ranging from traditional Arabic to gangsta rap provide a running commentary on tired people trudging through rubble to wait to be processed by the armed militia. Also heard: a generous helping of Morricone to herald the arrival of Rajai’s white Ford.
It is the raffish charm of Rajai, a young man who hates routine, has dreamt of becoming an Egyptian opera-singer — but truly enjoys his job and the people he picks up, that gives the pic its energy. Boasting that Palestinians, like ants, can surmount any obstacle, this West Bank cowboy descends from his van to check out the roadway ahead — only to be fired upon, at which point he hastily reenters exclaiming “no problem” and races back down the way he came.
Pic closes with the van broken down in the middle of nowhere and Rajai walking away from the camera down the road, a fitting metaphor for political impasse on the Bush-touted “roadmap to peace.”
Shot in Super-16 by lenser Menno Westendorp and blown up to 35mm, image is crisp, the contrast between the ubiquitous white Fords and their colorful passengers accomplished without the garishness of usual DV-shot docu fare.