'Palestine Stereo' Review: Rashid Masharawi's Heavy-Handed

A strident political message, a sitcomish/soapy narrative and an overly bright TV-style look mar this story of life under Israeli occupation.

The sad, frustrating and deadly absurdity of life under Israeli occupation is once again Palestinian helmer-writer Rashid Masharawi’s chosen theme, but “Palestine Stereo” lacks the captivating nuance and finely tooled irony of his pitch-perfect previous film, “Laila’s Birthday.” As two adult brothers try to earn enough money to immigrate to Canada, circumstances (and other characters) continually force them to re-evaluate their plans in this heavy-handed, tonally all-over-the-place picture. “Stereo’s” strident political message, sitcomish/soapy narrative and overly bright TV-style look will limit its appeal beyond the Arab world and partisan festivals.

It takes a while, but we gradually learn that the wife of wedding singer Stereo (Mahmoud Abu Jazi) became collateral damage when the Israelis bombed their apartment building; his electrician brother Samy (Salah Hannoun) lost his speech and hearing in the same attack. Reduced to living in a tent in a nearby yard, Stereo decides to leave for Canada and, he hopes, a life of dignity, and Samy opts to join him. Samy’s decision does not go down well with his fiancee, Leila (Maisa Abdel Hadi, “Habibi”), who loves him despite his disabilities. But Samy is too proud and too stubborn to marry her in his current condition.

The brothers pay a final visit to their sister Mariam (Areen Omari) and brother-in-law Ziad (Assem Zoubi) in Ramallah. Given that the couple’s son has been held for years in an Israeli prison (without ever having been charged with any crime), they have plenty of room.

Stereo and Samy must have $10,000 in the bank before the Canadians will look kindly on their immigration application, and to raise funds, they provide sound equipment for events throughout the West Bank, including weddings, funerals, demonstrations and political rallies. It’s clear that it sometimes pays to be deaf, as the politicians repeat the their stale slogans ad infinitum.

While most scenes are shot with simple sitcom-style camera work, the demonstration sequences evoke an air of danger and uncertainty as the participants chaotically disperse in the face of violent reprisals from Israeli soldiers. But although Masharawi’s screenplay repeatedly raises important questions — having a homeland vs. making a home elsewhere — the discussions of this issue continually devolve into simple sloganeering, much as the blowhard politicians do. Some of the absurdities highlighted hit home, while others, such as the blind imam wondering why the deaf soundman keeps trying to take his mic, simply fall flat.

The actors struggle but can’t bring much genuine feeling to their cardboard-thin characters, with Abu Jazi and Abdel Hadi coming off best. Tech package is crude but effective; creative use of sound sometimes mimics Samy’s point of view.

Film Review: 'Palestine Stereo'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 10, 2013. Running time: 90 MIN. Original title: "Falastine Stereo"

Production

(Palestine-Tunisia-France-Norway-United Arab Emirates-Italy-Switzerland) A Cinepal Films, Cinetelefilms production, in co-production with Gaza Media Center, Mille et Une Prods., Ape & Bjorn, Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization, Film Market Initiative, Produzione Straordinaria, with the participation of Aide aux Cinemas du Monde, Centre National du Cinema et l’Image Animee,  Ministere des Affaire Etrangeres, Institut Francais, SorFond, Enjaaz Fund Dubai Film Market, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Palestinian Ministry of Culture, Palestinian Investment Fund. Produced by Habib Attia, Abdel Salam Abu Askar, Rashid Masharawi. Co-producers, Fares Ladjimi, Ruben Thorkildsen, Silja Johnson, Augusto Pelliccia.

Crew

Directed, written by Rashid Masharawi. Camera (color, HD), Tarek Ben Abdallah; editor, Pascale Chavance; music, Kais Sallemi; art director, Ala Abu Ghoush; costume designer, Mohamad Atallah; sound, Thomas Francois, Dominique Marcombe, Thierry Delor.

With

Mahmoud Abu Jazi, Salah Hannoun, Maisa Abdel Hadi, Areen Omari, Assem Zoubi. (Arabic dialogue)

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