Tyro Jordanian writer-director Hazim Bitar’s laid-back minimalist approach works to surprising dramatic effect in “Fish Above Sea Level,” a character-driven two-hander about the grandson of a white loan shark and the grandson of his black victim thrown together by the economic downturn. Evocative locations and understated thesping help flesh out the picture’s clear political thrust, as the characters have the chance to either redress historical wrongs or repeat them. Unlike clunky, expensive costumers like “Cherkess,” this zero-budget, slow-paced indie may rep Jordan’s best bet to move onto the cinematic world stage, artistically if not commercially.
After the death of his father, who’s made a number of bad investments, affluent young urbanite Talal (Rabee Zureikat) finds himself penniless; his luxurious home in Amman is about to be repossessed and his only asset is a farm in Ghour near the Dead Sea. Taking along a goldfish his father bought him years ago to teach him responsibility, Talal drives across Jordan, planning to sell the farm to pay off the mortgage on his townhouse.
But the farm is inhabited by a black man, Dawoud (Abdallah Dghemaat), who claims Talal’s father gave him the property to thank him for the care he received and to correct past injustices. Apparently, the place originally belonged to Dawoud’s family but was lost to Talal’s loan-shark grandfather. The divestment of valuable land held by the Afro-Jordanian community through private and governmental malfeasance, a theme emotionally expressed by Dawoud while standing in expropriated fields, also informs helmer Bitar’s early shorts.
Feeling sorry for Talal, who has nowhere to go and seems genuinely shocked at his grandfather’s dastardly deeds, Dawoud reluctantly invites him to stay at the farmhouse, and the two very different young men soon fall into an uneasy friendship within the slow rhythms of country life. Talal even winds up picking tomatoes with Dawoud and his relatives — less from any desire to pull his weight than out of sheer boredom. But complications eventually arise that lead to a stunning reversal of audience expectations.
Writer-director Bitar, who also lensed and edited, immerses the viewer in the colors and textures of Jordan in this desultory road movie, from the vivid colors of the farmhouse (whose gates are painted a bright blue) to the vast expanses of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea and the busy streets of the capital.