Review: ‘Wall’

An eye-opener about the true dimensions -- both physical and mental -- of the barrier being built to divide Palestinian territories from Israel, vet documaker Simone Bitton's "Wall" is a think-for-yourself journey along both sides of the titular monument to human stubbornness. Helmer, an Arab Jew, is well qualified to tackle her subject.

An eye-opener about the true dimensions — both physical and mental — of the barrier being built to divide Palestinian territories from Israel, vet documaker Simone Bitton’s “Wall” is a think-for-yourself journey along both sides of the titular monument to human stubbornness. Helmer — an Arab Jew who has lived on both sides of Jerusalem and is comfortable speaking idiomatic Arabic and Hebrew — is particularly well qualified to tackle her subject. Bitton’s first docu produced expressly for the bigscreen after 15 TV docus, pic is worthy of the format and should enjoy an international fest profile prior to tube slots worldwide.

Current docu produces the same queasy “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea” feeling one gets watching vintage footage of the Berlin Wall being erected. A kibbutz official is particularly eloquent about the irony of a people who were crowded into ghettos now deliberately walling themselves in. “We’ve gone crazy. It’s consensual. Our only consolation is we’re doing it to ourselves!”

There is no traditional voice-over; all voices heard are those of people explaining, in their own words, what is happening and how they feel about it, be they construction workers, nearby residents or passersby.

A fair number of interviewees are heard but not seen as the camera shows different stretches of the wall, completed or under construction. Even when clever trompe l’oeil paintings on the concrete help the barrier blend into the horizon, the wall is clearly a blight on the landscape.

Many interviewees combine hope and resignation in their comments, lacing their words with fatalistic humor. Other witnesses aren’t laughing — such as the Palestinian patriarch whose seven children went to college thanks to the revenue from his fruit trees, all of which are now on the opposite side of the impenetrable wall.

Only formal interview is with imposing Gen. Amos Yaron of the ministry of defense who, seated at a desk between two Israeli flags, gives frank, sometimes chilling replies to helmer’s questions about what the wall is made of, why trenches and barbed wire accompany it, why its path sometimes snakes into sectors that are not technically part of Israel, etc.

One of docu’s most interesting features is that helmer never specifies which side of the wall she is on while examining the terrain or conversing with locals. A hefty concrete slab is hoisted into place, sealing off the view of ancient structures and ancient soil: Are we on the Israeli side catching a last lovingly framed glimpse of the territories or are we on the Palestinian side literally losing sight of Israel?

Also mind-boggling is the fact that much of the heavy lifting to construct the ultra-costly barrier ($2 million per kilometer) is being done by Palestinian laborers, grateful for the pay. One seg shows the phenomenal lengths to which people from the Palestinian side must now go to get to work in Israel. The check-point logic skewered in “Divine Intervention” has given way to something even more labor-intensive.

Helmer lenses a video conference call with a psychiatrist friend who works in the Gaza strip. He says that nearly a quarter of young people there aspire to be martyrs and that that’s a very worrisome trait in youth.

Several interactions bring to mind the scene in “Exodus” when the Jewish character played by Paul Newman is told with assurance by a gentile that he can always spot a Jew a mile away — whereupon the boasting party completely fails to identify Newman as a Jew.

Wall

Directors Fortnight / France-Israel

Production

A Cine-Sud Promotion (Paris)/Arna Prods. (Jerusalem) co-production with participation of CNC and TV5 and with support from the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Fund, the Ford Foundation, Jan Vrijman Fund, SCAM. (International sales: Wide Management, Paris.) Produced by Thierry Lenouvel. Directed, written by Simone Bitton.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35, widescreen), Jacques Bouquin; editors, Catherine Poitevin-Meyer, Jean-Michel Perez; sound (Dolby), Jean-Claude Brisson; assistant directors, Rachel Leah Jones, Rania Stephan. Reviewed at Forum des Images, Paris, May 4, 2004. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors Fortnight.) Running time: 96 MIN.
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