“How I Got That Story” could be the subtitle of Aussie documaker Sherine Salama’s “The Last Days of Yasser Arafat,” a personal record of Salama’s dogged attempts to secure a sit-down interview with the Palestinian leader in his Ramallah compound. Staking out the polar opposite position of a discomforting number of contempo docus that fashion non-fiction into dramatic stories with characters or steep them in preordained agendas, this is a genuine cinema verite work that captures whatever happens in front of the camera. Solid fest tour should continue in 2007, coupled with select theatrical and vid sessions.
Salama, of Palestinian descent and the maker of the fine “Wed-ding in Ramallah,” has a true documentarian’s sixth sense for the events swirling around her. That sense, as she relates in the opening narration, told her in 2003 “that Arafat was about to die.” Since Israeli forces had confined Arafat to his residence and pre-arranging an interview was impos-sible, she traveled from Sydney to the Palestinian Territories on a wing and a prayer that she could talk to the ailing leader.
Better than any cable news or network report, Salama’s camera reveals how badly damaged Arafat’s redoubt — a physical symbol of his besieged position –was and how his day was passing from the scene. Matters become unexpectedly comic as Salama runs up against delays and bureau-cratic roadblocks by the bushel, reducing her to just another journo dashing about to glean any infor-mation about Arafat’s murky condition.
Adding insult to injury, au-thorities screening her interview questions tell Salama the ques-tions are “silly,” and that, even if she’s able to talk to Arafat, he won’t delve into personal matters. Her near-Quixotic efforts appear hopeless, and yet, after returning home and then coming back to Ramallah 10 months later, Salama keeps trying to get her story — which has inadvertently become the subject of her film.
The interview finally happens, and, ironically, it was hardly worth the struggle. True to her code, though, Salama valiantly tries to get Arafat to talk about his private feelings and views, but he artfully deflects her questions. She’s stunned to learn afterward that this was Arafat’s final inter-view, given just days before he lapsed into a severe health decline that led to his hospitalization and death in France.
Salama finds a fascinating voice to lend broader perspective on Arafat in the person of his closest friend, ex-PLO terrorist Bassam Abu Sharif, who con-vinced Arafat to recognize the state of Israel.
Pic’s final section is a moving study in grief, with Abu Sharif’s reaction to the news of Arafat’s death and extraordinary footage capturing the arrival of his coffin in Palestine, drawing an uncon-trollable surge of thousands of mourners.
Raw, direct camera and sound distinguish this report from the front. Although closing graphic states that the exact cause of Arafat’s death remains unknown, his French doctors ruled out suspected poisoning.