Palestinian world cinema by the Nasser brothers

With "Gaza mon amour", the Nasser brothers have made a film in a genre that doesn't actually exist: regular Palestinian arthouse cinema. By Bert Rebhandl

By Bert Rebhandl

The police need to take a mug shot of Issa Nasser, a 60-year-old fisherman who lives in Al-Shati, a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Nasser is suspected of being in possession of art objects. In fact, the police officers who took him to the station have more than just a suspicion: during a house search, he was found to be in possession of a statue fished from the sea a few days previously. A portrayal of the god Apollo that presents experts with several conundrums. It can't have been in the sea that long, otherwise it would have been in a much sorrier state. And is it valuable?

Issa's mug shot shows a man with striking facial features, a fulsome grey beard and a bald head. He could certainly be described as attractive, and to a certain extent he needs to be. After all, Isaa has big plans: he wants to marry. He has already decided with whom he wants to share his life. Her name is Siham and she is a seamstress, who also commutes every day between Al-Shati and the market.

In the film "Gaza mon amour", Siham is played by Hiam Abbasss, probably the best-known and biggest star in Palestinian cinema – a sector that doesn't actually exist. Similarly, Hiam Abbasss herself is billed as an actor from Israel, even though she has repeatedly placed her prestige in the service of the Palestinian cause.

A regular arthouse film from the Gaza Strip?

With "Gaza mon amour", Tarzan and Arab Nasser, who go by the catchier moniker The Nasser Brothers, are setting out to found Palestinian cinema, albeit with a slightly different approach than that of great director/filmmaker Elia Suleiman, whose work will be familiar to many and who devoted his entire career to the absurdities of an existence in a country that doesn't exist, although many people definitely live there.

The Nasser Brothers are attempting – from of all places the Gaza Strip – to put an ostensibly very normal arthouse film on the silver screens of the world: an emotional story in which love is once again the key to everything.

The Gaza Strip is nominally an autonomous territory, but most people there experience it as a prison administered by the Islamist Hamas. In "Gaza mon amour", one of the images of the limited radius of the Gaza Strip is the five-mile zone where Issa is permitted to sail his boat. The statue is like a transgression, because it speaks of  very different Mediterranean, a culturally open body of water, a commingling of eras and quotations.

This openness is also a feature of the Nasser Brothers' film. To make the film, they had to leave Gaza. "Gaza mon amour" lists France, Portugal, Germany and Qatar as its coproduction countries, but most of the filming was done in Jordan and also Portugal, with Arabic as the production language.

The story of Issa and Siham is not subject to censorship, but it is told in such a way that it would make no sense to delve any further into the politics. At one point in the film, a Hamas propaganda speech can be heard in the background justifying the current difficulties because they serve a greater goal: a free and whole Palestine. No one wants to listen to this sermon to the end and it is simply turned off.

Heavy-handed with the aftershave

Issa's spirit of resistance is a character in itself. Issa is no Abu, a traditional assumption about each and every Arab man. He is "no one's father", because he never married. We also discover a preface to this, a youth romance that failed in every way, but also because the object of his desire was a member of the "bourgeoisie". Many aspects of the history of the occupation and Islamisation can be determined from this term alone.

In his advancing years too, Issa's lifestyle is anything but bourgeois. Sometimes he doesn't seem quite sure of his personal style, dousing himself, for example, in far too much aftershave when he finally manages to engineer a taxi ride with Siham. But he is vivacious and brimming over with dreams. Once he even had a wet dream, as he describes it clearly but bashfully. "At your age?" the baffled police commissioner asks him. This scene would have been unthinkable in any film presented to the Gazan authorities for clearance.

Hiam Abbass (left) and Salim Dau in a still from the film "Gaza mon amour" (photo: Alamode Film)
"The story of Issa (played admirably by Salim Dau) and Siham can be seen as an attempt to establish the classic cinematic formulas for success in an impossible place, or it could be seen as a complex commentary on the world of today (and ourselves as a privileged audience). However it is seen, seeing it is definitely an enriching experience," writes film critic Bert Rebhandl

In the world inhabited by Issa and Siham, marriage is a matter of social contracts. Issa's sister takes on the traditional role. When she hears of his intention to marry, she organises a line-up, showing up with five women – all ideal candidates, "not too fat, not too thin", all wearing headscarves. "Issa is a man with potential," she tells them, a rather exaggerated formulation with comic overtones that perhaps comes from the translation from the Arabic.

That someone could fall in love of his own free will, could set his heart on someone, as the saying goes, in this system of rules from which Issa stands out, is not how things are meant to happen. In other respects, Issa is, on the other hand, a classic figure from the kind of contemporary, arthouse drama produced all over the world, for example when he patiently dedicates himself to the creation of exquisite dishes by hand. Everything is "artisanal" with him; he has no choice; there are no other options available to him.

Siham, on the other hand, is dealing with a rebellious daughter who is dvorced and has had enough of men. She is now trying to expand her horizons through study. But first, she must overcome her cynicism.

The figure of Leila is key, because she is half participant, but also half audience. She sees the story told by the Nasser Brothers as though from the outside. She is sceptical of the soap operas and old Arabic films mirrored in the storyline of "Gaza mon amour" as well as their formulas, which get a refresh in this film.

There are a multitude of references to Palestinian cinema as there are to the Palestinian question itself. In classic fashion, the film portrays the entanglements between geopolitics and entertainment that always resonate through the Nasser Brothers' work.

The story of Issa (played admirably by Salim Dau) and Siham can be seen as an attempt to establish the classic cinematic formulas for success in an impossible place, or it can be seen as a complex commentary on the world of today (and ourselves as a privileged audience). However it is seen, seeing this film is definitely an enriching experience.

Bert Rebhandl

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon