A young journalist visits a tiny community of Arabs and Jews living relatively harmoniously in Jaffa in Israeli Helmer Amos Gitai’s “Ana Arabia,” a meditative if somewhat contrived drama that’s most notable for being constructed from a single Steadicam-shot take. Partly inspired by the true story of a Holocaust survivor who married a Palestinian man and raised several children with him, the pic lightly touches on history, the challenges of cross-cultural romance and the shifting demographics of the region today without saying anything particularly profound. “Arabia” will find an accommodating homeland on the fest circuit, with possible ultra-niche bookings.
Twentysomething Jewish Israeli journalist Yael (Yuval Scharf, who looks more like an off-duty model than a reporter) arrives at a ramshackle huddle of old buildings and a wild but tended garden suffused with birdsong in the middle of Jaffa, the mostly Arab township next door to Tel Aviv. Yael is considering writing a feature about one of the micro-community’s late residents, a Jewish woman who was born in Auschwitz to survivors but converted to Islam to marry a Palestinian man. She was named Hanna Klibanov but came to be known as “Ana Arabia,” which means “me, the Arab.”
Hanna’s husband, Yussuf (Yussuf Abu Warda) solicitously greets Yael, gives her piecemal information about his marriage and life, and shows her around, introducing her to some of the members of his family and neighbors. Yussuf’s daughter, Miriam (Sarah Adler) painstakingly tends the garden planted by her mother, at one point mentioning that she lets the nettles grow to deter the local kids from throwing trash in the greenery and pulling up the other plants. Daughter-in-law Sarah (Assi Levy, the most mesmerizing presence here) lives among them, and has her own bitter memories of a failed intercultural marriage. Yussuf’s surviving son, Walid (Shady Srur), a former fisherman, inveighs against the growing pollution of the sea and asks Yael rhetorically who is treated better by Israelis, recent immigrants from Russia or Palestinian Arabs? Neighbors Hassan (Uri Gavriel) and Norman (Norman Issa) chip in their own two agorot on life, love and family matters.
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The Steadicam, operated by Nir Bar (Giora Bejach is the film’s d.p.), floats alongside the minimal action throughout, taking advantage of the magic-hour lighting of the 81-minute period over which the pic was shot (apparently this was the 10th take and the only one, per press notes, helmer Gitai was happy enough with to use). The virtuosity of the technique helps to mitigate the thinness of the material, which too often feels like notes on a legit play that have yet to be refined. At least, with the emphasis on architecture and the slow-breath rhythm of the action, the film feels recognizably congruent with Gitai’s other pics, but this is not one of his more memorable efforts, although it was warmly received at its press screening in Venice.