by Alex Deleon for <filmfestivals.com>
The sixteenth edition of the Arab Film Festival (which travels to five cities in California) opened here on Friday, October 19 with a festive reception at the Screen writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. This is an intensive three day event which will screen as many films as can be squeezed into a long weekend. The opening night film was "Man Without a Cell Phone", a debut feature by Palestinian filmmaker Sameh Zoabi who has won various festival awards for short films before.
"Man Without a Cellphone" is basically a comedy with definite political implications, but sketched in with a light savvy touch. The setting is a Palestinian village in the heart of Israel where everybody keeps in constant touch with everybody else by cell phone. The political catch is that in order for the phones to get a signal they are dependent on a cell phone tower built by the Israelis on their land. The tower is equipped with a scanning TV monitor implying that Big Brother is watching all the time.
The main character, Jawdal (a captivating Palestinian actor, Razi Shawahdeh) is a handsome happy-go-lucky young guy with a winning dimpled smile who is constantly wooing different girls via his iPhone. His best friend and sidekick in the film is a comical buddy with a hook nose who runs a small cement factory and is also Jawdat's employer. But if Jawdat is ever to get beyond hauling bags of cement for a living he needs to pass the Hebrew Language exam which is the prerequisite for higher education in Israel. Remember these are Arab-Israelis, which is to say Palestinian Arabs who never left their land when the State of Israel was created and are now a barely tolerated minority in their own country.
Jawlat's father, Salem, a cantankerous man with a big beer belly, has no love for the Israelis or cell phones, (or TV monitors!) and is convinced that the Cell Phone tower (referred to throughout as "the Antenna") placed at the edge of his olive groves, is an Israeli plot to poison the Arab village with cancer producing radiation.
His political position (and by implication that of everyone else) is spelled out quite early in the film when, Salem, while working his olive orchard and totally pissed at the presence of the tower, exclaims "Co-existence, my ass!" [at least that is what the sub-title says].
We have other clues that the Palestinians are not too happy with their second class status on their own land but nobody takes Salem too seriously and the "antenna" is accepted as a necessity for their vital phone communication. Finally Salem takes it upon himself to burn the tower down under cover of night and the result is that all cell phone communication in the community stops --No more signal! This leads to a variety of comical situations.
Meanwhile we have Jawdat's amorous escapades. One of his girlfriends is a Christian Arab from the village. When he is invited to meet the parents, who seem like very reasonable people --he is confronted by the father, who naturally speaks the same Arabic, with the question; "It seems that you both love each other, but what about the children?"
To this Jawdat responds cheerfully; "Oh, I have that all figured out --we'll have two --the first one will be raised Muslim and the second Christian -- or -- the other way around?? -- which gets a big laff from the audience.
At several points Jawlat does not want to go to work on Saturday and his father asks angrily, "What are you -a Jew now?" -- This is actually the only overtly Jewish reference in the film, and more comical (audience laughs every time Saturday is mentioned) than negative in nature. However Jawlat is hassled by Israeli border guards when he tries to go to the west Bank to meet a girl there he has been courting by cell phone. To them he speaks Hebrew as many Arabs in Israel do -- it is after all the official language. This may however give pause to some Arab viewers who might wonder how come the Israelis don't learn Arabic to communicate with Arab citizens on their own soil.
The trip to the west Bank is aborted because the Israeli police believe his constant phone calls to that forbidden area smacks of possible terrorist activity.
When he convinces them it's just an affair of the heart, one of the cops wryly advises him to "Just find a nice Arab Girl here in Israel". (So they won't have to keep monitoring his calls!) ---
All this, of course, draws attention to the fact that Arab-Israelis do not have the same freedom of movement as do Jewish Israelis --but the point is made skillfully without being too contentious about it. Which, in fact, characterizes the entire film. Political points made with a light comic touch will often get across to people who might otherwise simply just turn away and deny. We spend a lot of time with Jawlat's family and never leave the confines of the village. The mother who refuses to cook for Salem when he gets too cantankerous, the uncle who thinks he may have caught cancer but still refuses to relinquish his cell phone... Significantly, there are no scenes at all of prayer or Mosques or anything connected with religion, so that the impression one gets is that these are pretty much ordinary down to earth rather secular people. Moreover the men drink plenty of Heineken beer --another indication that this is not exactly a fundamentalist society. Eventually Jawlat helps father Salem set up a kind of sit-in protest picnic against the rebuilt antenna tower but the Israeli para-military is called out to protect it. They are watered down comically by spray from Salem's strategically placed irrigation hoses, but the tower stays. (We lost a battle, but not the war, says Papa Salem most significantly.) At the end it looks like Jawdat has found that "nice Arab girl" right there in the village -- she is a sassy secular lass who drives around town and takes no gaff from her over protective brother. He's had his eye on her all along and even though she plays a little hard to get we're glad to see them finally get together. Apparently he won't need a cell phone for a while ....
Basically, in spite of the ongoing political overtones, this is a surprisingly light comedy with highly engaging characters, all Palestinian, and the language of the film is funky Palestinian Arabic -- with a little Hebrew thrown in here and there. Director Zoabi is evidently well aware that good-natured humor can produce a better effect than bludgeoning audiences with polemics. This is not a major film but it is one that sends a crafty message without Western Union, and Zoabi is definitely a director to keep an eye on.
Sameh Zoabi is a writer and director from Iksal, a small village in Israel. His feature debut, Man without a Cell Phone, was selected for the New Directors/New Films festival at MoMA and the Lincoln Center. His short film, “Be Quiet,” won third prize in the Cinéfondation Selection at the Cannes Film Festival. He has bachelor’s degrees in film studies and English literature from Tel Aviv University and attended the M.F.A. Film Program at Columbia on a merit scholarship.
Razi Shawahdeh (JAWDAT) and Bassem Loulou (SALEM) in Man Without a Cell Phone.
NOTE: There are now numerous specifically Palestinian film festivals in cities such as Chicago, Houston and elsewhere, apart from festivals such as the above which show films from a variety of Arab countries.