In an isolated valley far from the Palestine-Israeli conflict, an Arab family ekes out a precarious existence and becomes the center of a tragic drama. Though financed with Israeli coin, “Thirst” shows a thoroughly Palestinian sensibility and showcases a strong new talent in first-time director Tawfiq Abu Wael. While its expressive use of imagery and acting have real power, its rhythm will probably prove too lethargic even for most arthouse patrons, reducing post-festival prospects to a limited release.
The film seeks a delicate equilibrium between drama, stunning visuals, and metaphoric undertones that are never completely articulated. Its ambiguity in making a political point was perhaps dictated by production circumstances.
It might have been a stronger films for foreign auds, however, if what one senses under the surface been made clearer. For instance, it’s meaningful to know the action takes place near Um El-Fahem, the second-largest Palestinian town within Israel and an Islamic stronghold, and that the abandoned buildings where the family lives were formerly a fake Palestinian village used for training Israeli soldiers.
Instead Abu Wael approaches the story as a classic drama set in no definite time or place. Tyrannical Abu Shukri (Hussein Yassin Mahajne) rules his wife (Amal Bweerat) and three children as if he owns them. Having forced them to leave town for this godforsaken spot, he keeps them burning fires all day to make coal.
His son Shukri (Ahamad Abed El Gani) has to run away to attend school; the women don’t even have that chance. In addition, daughter Gamila (Roba Blal) has apparently had a sexual relationship that led to the family leaving town in disgrace. She barely speaks now.
To this unhappy situation, the father brings his obsession with having running water. He pays workmen to run pipes to his house, despite being warned that a patrol will come along and confiscate everything. Even the family’s livelihood is illegal, since the wood they burn is poached from a nearby forest.
But center stage is given to the characters’ inability to overcome the tyranny of the authoritarian father figure. The mother speaks up but he never listens to her; he uses a vile trick to keep Shukri from going to school and locks Gamila up when she makes a bid for freedom. Yet in Mahajne’s masterful performance, there is also a human side to the father, whose love for his family peeps through his cruelty. In a telling scene, he vents his frustration by shooting at a helmeted target, again suggesting a political origin for the personal drama.
With his gaping mouth and huge doe eyes, El Gani is also impressive in the role of the son, who is slapped and beaten into becoming a man like his father. Amazingly, all the actors in the film are non-pros.
Assaf Sudry’s widescreen cinematography turns the dusty valley into a place of mythic dimensions, while bathing the characters in expressive shadows. The smoke and flames of infernally burning stacks of woods add further angst.