A simple affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, springing from a need to let off some steam, becomes twisted by security services on both sides in Muayad Alayan’s engrossing, slightly overextended sophomore feature “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.” Marking a leap forward in every department from his modest debut “Love, Theft and Other Entanglements” (co-written by his brother, Rami, who gets sole writing credit on this one), this frequently taut psychosocial drama with political thriller elements deftly conveys the tensions, both physical and mental, between West and East Jerusalem, showing how societal forces prevent any form of normalized relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Winner of Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund Audience Award, “Reports” is well-placed for potentially strong worldwide play.
While the filmmakers proudly tout the fact that this is the first Palestinian-Mexican co-production (alongside the Netherlands and Germany), what’s even more significant is the presence of quite a few Israeli actors in a Palestinian film with zero Israeli funds attached. Benefiting from a wide array of European and Arab film funds — Hubert Bals, World Cinema Fund, AFAC, et al. — the film should do well in international markets, though the large number of Israeli thesps will make this an interesting test case once MAD Solutions rolls out its Arab distribution.
A sharply edited mix of flashbacks and -forwards grabs audience attention before settling down to fill things in: Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) is a café owner in Jerusalem frustrated that once again she’s going to have to close her business and move, with her Israeli army colonel husband David (Ishai Golan) and their young daughter, since his promotion means relocation. Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) lives in East Jerusalem but works in the West delivering baked goods to places like Sarah’s café. The pay is small and he’s not making ends meet, causing significant worry, considering his wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), is pregnant and he’s feeling emasculated living alongside her family. Hot sex in the back of his delivery van helps both Sarah and Saleem escape from the pressures of life.
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Saleem’s brother-in-law Mahmoud (Mohammad Eid) gets him a night job running goods unavailable in the occupied territories to Bethlehem; one night he suggests Sarah join him — she can pretend to be European, and it’s just a brief postponement of their evening romp. At a bar, her Hebrew name-pendant slips out and a suspicious local challenges her. The next day Saleem’s arrested by the Palestinian security authority, accused of smuggling Israeli prostitutes into the West Bank. Lawyer Abu Ibrahim (Kamel El Basha) can get him off only if he signs a document stating that Sarah’s not a whore but a well-connected Israeli he’s recruiting as a spy.
It should be something only the Palestinian security forces know, but a raid in Bethlehem by the Israeli army nets a bunch of documents, including the one Saleem signed. That rings major alarm bells with army investigator Avi (Jan Kühne), who connects Saleem to Sarah’s café, and informs David there might be trouble. Things spiral out of control as Saleem is arrested by the Israelis, refusing to implicate Sarah.
Rami Alayan’s script tries to keep a few too many characters in play, and the last quarter sees Bisan (and others) behaving in not entirely believable ways. That’s a great pity, since Abd Elhadi is one of the region’s best actresses, with terrific screen presence, and she’s not always well used. If at times it feels like the Alayan brothers have bitten off more than they can chew, the core of the plot, and the weighty issues raised, fortunately remain front and center. Sarah and Saleem’s affair was always lopsided, since her Israeli middle-class privilege puts her in a position of power that he as a Palestinian can’t hope to approach. Her co-worker, Ronit (Rebecca Telhami), doesn’t care that Sarah is cheating on David, but she is bothered that the guy is an Arab: Regardless of whether they’re in the same city, co-existence without real and psychological barriers is a myth.
“Reports” does a fine job underlining this physical division within Jerusalem, where the East (let alone the occupied territories) is largely a no-go zone for Israelis, apart from settlers looking to displace the Palestinian population. Especially well observed is Sarah’s nervousness as Saleem takes her at night to Bethlehem, just a half hour away yet on another planet as far as she’s concerned. Saleem is made to feel unwelcome in Israel; Sarah’s not wanted in Palestine: Their desire for each other’s body, a simple urge whose consequence should only have been the betrayal of their marriage vows, turns into the betrayal of two nations for those around them.