An Israeli soldier/interrogator and a Palestinian prisoner/artist face off across a hallucinatory no-man’s land in Jessica Habie’s fiction debut, “Mars at Sunrise.” As in Roman Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden,” tortured and torturer later collide unexpectedly, but neither Habie nor her hero is interested in retribution. Rather, the encounter sets off a fever dream of memories as the two characters invade each other’s nightmares on the battlefield of art. Based on real-life events, this quasi-experimental political two-hander is short on plot but long on impressionistic imagery, and may prove a hard sell outside festival and human-rights venues.
“Mars” is the first release from Eyes Infinite, the American-based nonprofit distributor of newly formed independent film collective Fajr Falestine, whose stated mission is to produce “thought-provoking, experimental cinema in the Middle East.” Habie’s non-generic outing certainly fills the bill. The filmmaker based her script on the actual prison experiences of Palestinian artist Hani Zurob, with the added imaginative twist of making his soldier-jailer Eyal a failed artist whose cruelty stems from creative envy and frustration. She also adds a succinct, almost romantic framing device to supply a listener for the Palestinian artist’s story.
Unconscionably held up at an Israeli checkpoint while the guard on duty snoozes, a visiting Iranian-American poetess (Haale Gafori) and a Palestinian man, Khaled (Ali Suliman), enjoy a friendly exchange that ends abruptly when he recognizes the guard, Eyal (Guy Elhanan), as the soldier who arrested and tortured him in an effort to enlist him to spy on fellow artists. The film then flashes back for most of its duration to their jailhouse confrontations and tormented inner visions.
Habie imbues the initial flashback scenes, and indeed all the scenes that take place outside the prison, with a colorful, sunlit immediacy, vividly enhanced by Xavier J. Cunilleras’ lensing. One sequence shows Khaled as a beloved art teacher working closely with little children; his justified anger and nonviolent response to intimidation are established he paces back and forth in his Jerusalem home, talking on the phone with his parents. He bitterly complains about having to leave his house, soon to be commandeered by Israelis, and paints his defiance on the walls.
In contrast, the interrogation scenes transpire in a dingy underground room, with Khaled shackled. Eyal, who slashed and destroyed Khaled’s artwork when he arrested him, further torments him with detailed knowledge about his family and students. When not being tortured or questioned, Khaled is locked in a narrow, coffin-like cell. To stay sane, he examines dust motes and irregularities in the walls and peers out of his door’s food slot, which soon becomes the stage for hallucinated sounds and images to nourish his deprived senses. Eyal, meanwhile, is shown in various locations fast asleep, haunted by the young boy (Maisam Massri) he mistakenly shot, who poetically comes to represent all the occupied peoples of the land.
Ultimately Habie, who started in documentary shorts, infuses more passion and vibrancy into her straight-ahead narrative than into her attempts at imagistic experimentation, complete with abstract colors and imagined fantasy figures. The proportions feel unbalanced, the film sometimes bogged down in the tedium and sensory deprivation it depicts. Luckily, Tamil Muskat’s music track enlivens the film’s drearier stretches with politically engaged songs in multiple languages. And Suliman (“Paradise Now,” “The Attack”) dominates the screen as Khaled, utterly compelling in and out of jail, his magnificent perf tying up cinematic loose ends.