Ido Haar’s docu “9 Star Hotel,” about illegal Palestinian construction workers building a new Israeli city in the Occupied Territories, focuses not on the obvious political ironies, but on the covert laborers themselves and the communal existence they carve out in makeshift shanties in the hills above the border. In dangerous and downright cruddy conditions, the personable Palestinians share stories, lodgings and camaraderie with the young Israeli filmmaker, whose handheld camera follows them everywhere. Multiple fest award winner and a surprise hit at home, pic opens today at Gotham’s Film Forum.
Docu contrasts the elegant housing complexes in the blindingly white new city the men are building with their own homes in narrow cardboard enclosures or tin-covered huts lit by batteries and surrounded by total blackness. Every morning, they dodge patrol cars and run across busy highways to cross the border, only to race back again in the evening. They are necessary as a cheap labor source yet officially hunted. Most of them are the sole support of their families and worry about what will happen when the notorious security fence is completed and they are cut off from their employment.
Despite the dire circumstances, the men form a supportive community, chatting, sharing meals, caring for the sick and generally looking out for each other. Outside the protective circle, though, fear and uncertainty reign, as sudden police raids compel the undercover workers to scatter, filmmaker Haar among them. Those who manage to escape capture, often find their dwellings and meager possessions reduced to ashes when they return.
Haar’s handheld camera rawly captures the breathless scrambles and nocturnal disorientation of the fleeing Palestinians. At times, the dark, quasi-unreadable video image mimes the very clandestineness and shadowy ambiguity of the illegal workers’ status.
Haar, whose debut docu “Melting Siberia” dealt with rediscovered kinfolk, retains his knack for casual inti-macy — for economically capturing a subject’s personality in a fleeting vivid gesture or intense facial expression. Here he largely focuses on two complementary Palestinian friends — wiry Ahmed, a mercurial, imaginative magpie bringing back odds and ends of Israeli discards (from batteries that light the shacks to toy trucks for his nephew), and tall, muscled Muhammad, a pensive thinker whose out-of-the-blue collapse and near-death rein-forces both the fragility and the solidarity of this band of outsiders fated to dart in and out of what used to be their homeland.