One of the pleasures of anticipating an Ali Suliman performance is knowing he’ll bring depth and complexity to every role. His character in “200 Meters,” a father of three taking huge risks to get to his son in the hospital, doesn’t expand his repertoire, but it gives the movie its heart. The film may not always be quite as successful in imbuing all roles with the same kind of unaffected three-dimensionality, but debuting writer-director Ameen Nayfeh’s depiction of the shameful hurdles Palestinians must overcome in their daily lives rings true even when the script falters. Part family drama, part road movie, the film — which landed the audience prize in Venice Days — works best when drawing out how one man’s story is a reflection of a collective experience, and should find welcoming audiences at festivals and showcases.
Mustafa (Suliman) is a freelance construction worker, a loving husband and father of three, and a man of principles. His wife Salwa (Lana Zreik) lives with their kids in an apartment just inside the wall dividing Israel from the Occupied Territories, while Mustafa maintains a place with his mother 200 meters (219 yards) on the other side, within sight of each other. He could obtain a permit allowing him to live in Israel, since his wife and kids are Israeli citizens, but he’s unwilling to play by rules he considers illegitimate, so instead he uses his work permit to get jobs and spend regular time with his family. Salwa’s tired of the back and forth, of her husband not being present, which leads to occasional outbursts invariably subsumed by the tenderness of their rapport.
One day at dawn when he’s crossing the border with hundreds of others to go to work, Mustafa’s told by the officious guard that his permit has expired and he can’t enter Israel. The scene, like an earlier one, may feel like many other checkpoint sequences we’ve seen in Palestinian films, yet we might as well criticize commonplace commuter scenes in films from anywhere else: This is daily life, often twice a day, so it belongs here. Since it’s the weekend, he can’t renew his permit immediately, but needing the work and wanting to see his family, he goes to people smuggler Nader (Nabil Al Raai), who’s charging about $100 to cross. Then he gets a call from Salwa that their son Majd (Tawfeeq Nayfeh) is in the hospital on the Israeli side, making the urgency acute.
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An odd assortment of fellow passengers joins him in the smuggler’s vehicle. There’s younger, cocksure Rami (Mahmoud Abu Eita), arty activist Kifah (Motaz Malhees) and German photographer Anne (Anna Unterberger), cluelessly attempting to film the whole experience. Each figure rather obviously represents a particular type, and while Rami manages to escape being a standardized character thanks to Abu Eita’s strong performance, Anne is practically a parody of the German tourist in Palestine, well-meaning and naive to an eye-rolling degree. Nayfeh tries to develop the role by giving Anne an unexpected background, but it feels too contrived, too convenient as a plot device and exposes even more the maddening nature of her obliviousness.
The majority of the film is spent following the group’s danger-filled journey to get across a border that should be accessible to all. That means facing Israeli security, Palestinian hoodlums and, of course, their own fears as each person nervously weighs getting caught with what’s waiting for them on the other side. Tension-filled scenes are nicely played and well-constructed, driven by Mustafa’s increasingly desperate need to make sure his hospitalized son is OK. It’s this goal, framed by the tender family dynamics witnessed earlier, that gives “200 Meters” its appeal, making the lovely ending feel satisfying rather than cloying in its sweetness. Nimble cinematography by Elin Kirschfink (“Our Struggles”) reflects and amplifies the stress as well as the intimacy, finally bridging the divide between the family’s two apartments with an aching kind of warmth.