Screens at CIFF: 10/14 & 10/17 & 10/18
World premiere: 11 February, 2012, Berlin International Film Festival

It appears, sometimes, that the Israeli film industry exists almost solely for Jewish directors to make incredibly serious, politically-minded movies about how their government needless abuses the Palestinian and other Arab citizens of that country, and years of variations on this theme have gotten us to the point where, for the most part, they're all kind of the same movie: none are genuinely bad, while even fewer are true masterpieces.

We have here another example of small twist on this well-worn theme; if the game yesterday was "gay Palestinian", today it is "non-Palestinian", for Sharqiya, the first feature by director Ami Livne, is a story about a Bedouin family threatened by the Israeli government's intention to dislocate them from the home where they have lived for generations. And while the distinction between Bedouins and Palestinians is unlike to seem that big of a deal to the great majority of Westerners, who tend to have one big bucket marked "Arab" into which they throw the great bulk of Middle East inhabitants, it is unlikely that those people would bother with Sharqiya in the first place.

The difference, of course, is that because our protagonist, Kamel Najer (Ednan Abu Wadi), is not Palestinian, he's been able to fit into the mainstream of Israeli society well enough to have a job as a bus station security guard, and to find himself regularly grappling with the problem of being both of and fundamentally foreign to Israel at the same time; meanwhile, he and his family jockey around Israeli officials looking to tear down their home. If that somehow manages to sound really darn interesting, then good: for a long time, it's the only thing Sharqiya has on its mind. And in the film's defense, the lives of Israeli Bedouins haven't been as exhaustively documented in cinema as e.g. the lives of playboy superheroes, so purely on the level of ethnography, it has real, tangible value. That value does not, perhaps, translate into the most revelatory movie of the age, nor the most moving; Livne's aesthetic choices are, consistently, much too stripped-down for that to be the case.

In fact, even more than the familiarity, in the very broadest strokes, of the film's narrative, it's the undistinguished visuals that threaten to leave Sharqiya with a strong case of "been there, done that". Long takes, little dialogue, a frequently handheld camera - we have seen this movie before, many times. There are a few intriguingly-framed shots that emphasise the relationship between the Bedouins and the earth they live on, but mostly it's a film content to let action happen in front of the camera without too much thought about what that camera is doing. And while there is perhaps some sociological value in a movie that depicts Bedouin life in lingering moments of silent observation, finding the rhythms and poetry of the everyday (though less, of course, than there would be if this were an actual documentary and not a staged work of fiction), there is not so much dramatic value.

For a long time, then, Sharqiya is a bit formless and repetitious and over-familiar, and the only thing that keep it from withering away entirely is Wadi's performance, which is simple without being simplistic, and which gives us a good sense of Kamel's innate decency without making him out to be cardboard Noble Peasant. He becomes, basically, a person worth spending time with and getting to know, and that is good, because we get to know him very well, at exhaustive length.

Eventually, the film stumbles, almost by accident, into a narrative, and the shift is striking: all of a sudden, this quiet, pleasant man gains new depths as a character in quick, broad strokes. Without giving anything away, Kamel hits on an idea to get himself access to the Israeli media, a dangerous and stupid and over-the-top idea, and for the first time, we see in concrete dramatic terms how desperate he is to preserve his way of life, and what has been a static, nearly plotless movie unexpectedly begins storming forward quite quickly, culminating in a lengthy, wordless, but extremely active sequence in which Kamel's family home is destroyed, tactlessly and broadly.

The last 20 minutes of Sharqiya come awfully close to redeeming the whole thing. Close, not quite all the way. The sense of crazy, arbitrary punishment being meted out on a helpless family that can't do anything but watch, stunned, is the first time that the movie actually mounts the humanist argument against Israeli's policies against the Bedouin that it's had on its mind the whole time; and the scene to follow,an even more vigorously humanist moment still, combining hopefulness with willful stubbornness in an ambivalent, but generally uplifting closing gesture.

In other words, Sharqiya ends with its strongest moment, and so the post-film feeling is of something that has, overall, been considerably more resonant than it necessarily was all along. Which is better than the alternative, certainly; and I don't want to act like the whole film is drastically ineffective, or anything. It's a good movie with a very good ending and very good lead performance; a very generic good movie, though, and that is the real problem. It's hard to feel anything terribly strong about the film: terribly excited or terribly irritated, or even terribly bored. The whole thing feels like it's running on autopilot right up until its cascading finale, and only the ingenuity and impact of what happens in that finale allows Sharqiya to make much of a strong impression at all - but it does, barely, make that impression.