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Zindeeq, directed by Michel Khleifi. Palestine/UK/Belgium/UAE, 2009.
Michel Khleifi is the acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker, director and producer of such award winning films as Wedding in Galilee (1987) and Route 181 (2004). His films and work as professor at the Belgian Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle helped him become one of the mentors for the new generation of Palestinian filmmakers today. Given this reputation it comes as no surprise that his most recent film, Zindeeq (2009), was chosen to be screened at the historical inauguration of the Columbia University Center for Palestine Studies—the first center of its kind in a US university. Unfortunately, the film failed to deliver.
The film follows, for a day and a night, an unnamed Palestinian filmmaker from France visiting his hometown of Nazareth. The protagonist arrives to shoot a film about the Nakbah but soon finds himself implicated in a bloody family feud that somehow compels him to spend his time wandering around the city, brooding at every turn and sleeping in his car. Khleifi wraps into his contorted plotline a series of meaningless sexual escapades that do nothing beyond highlighting the fact that the lead actor, the legendary Mohammed Bakri, is no longer the dashingly handsome man Arab viewers once considered him to be, and that the director is far from the feminist he claims to be. Instead Michel Khleifi’s film appears to be the latest installment in an emerging sub-genre of Palestinian experimental films that see nothing in the Palestine-Israeli conflict but a surrealist, incoherent and absurdist muddle.
Entitled Zindeeq, meaning atheist, nonbeliever or blasphemer, the film is supposed to highlight the main characteristic of the protagonist; the fact that he is someone who has rejected not only religion but also the “tribal” customs of his ancestors as well as the violence that modern Palestinians level against one another. The attempt at self-critique, however, fails miserably.
The environment of the film is mediated not only through the eyes of the protagonist (whose face the audience are obliged to stare at for the duration of too many, painfully long, close-up shots) but also through his camera. This use of meta-film techniques not only helps make the viewer aware of the twice removed and filtered representations of Palestinian reality that appear on screen, but they also stress the one-sidedness of the filmmaker’s world-view.
Seen through the eyes of Zindeeq’s protagonist, Palestine, and especially Arab Nazareth, which currently lies inside Israel, is a chaotic dystopia. The film is peppered with nearly every form of intra-Palestinian violence, each one rendered as though Khleifi were going through a checklist. Organ trafficking? Check. Deadly family feuds? Check. Low-level gangsterism? Check. Homeless children with fathers imprisoned by Hamas? Check. Fatah corruption and collaborationism? Oops, he missed that one. While Khleifi dramatizes many pathologies of Palestinian society, he offers little in the way of socioeconomic and political context, although he alludes to the Nakba at various points.
The protagonist, who is actually an autobiographical rendition of Khleifi, is a worldly intellectual/artist, someone who not only has a foreign (in this case French) passport but who can also pass for being foreign. In one scene he is able to fool traffic police into thinking that he is French and incapable of speaking either English or Hebrew. The protagonist’s snubbing of traditionalism and his deracination help stress the point that he is a well-cultivated outsider with enough inside knowledge to observe his gloomy surroundings without losing sight of the big picture. The masses, meanwhile, are stuck in their limited world with its meaningless violence (committed by the young) and its nostalgia for a golden past (reminisced by the old).
Just as one becomes aware of the worldly intellectual’s aloof perspective on the condition of Palestinians inside Israel, one also begins to realize that, for an atheist, his worldview is still parochial. Indeed, Khleifi is captivated by feminized symbols of old Christian Nazareth, undermining his proud claim to have transcended the pettiness of religion, nationalism and the traditional way of life.
With a surprising lack of self-awareness, Khleifi brings flat female characters to the screen to embody roles that are anything but progressive. Throughout the movie the aging protagonist goes on a libidinal rampage, bedding as many nubile young women as he can lay his hands on. Once again, Khleifi goes through his checklist. Desperate Palestinian housewife? Check. Naïve Jewish Israeli girl who has never kissed an Arab before? Check. Shapely bar girl? Check (but to be sure, they only make love with their eyes). It is every dirty old man’s fantasy.
The protagonist’s love interest, the one he keeps fantasizing about, is his camera assistant, Rasha (played by Palestinian-Israeli actress Mirna Awad). At first, she rejects his sexual advances, leading him to drive her to a woman’s house, where he leaves her outside while he and a random Nazarene woman (who never appears again and is never identified) are seen tearing each other’s clothes off . Then Khleifi’s lothario swaggers back out to the car, silently staring at the woman he “loves.” She stands there impassively, offering the viewer no insight into her state of mind—or his.
Later in the film, the protagonist remembers his deceased mother as a saintly matriarch. Before her ghost he becomes infantilized, as her only preoccupation was with feeding him, taking care of him and nuzzling him in her warm breast, as all good mothers do. This brings to mind Sigmund Freud’s famous quote that “a man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of conqueror.” In other words, mama’s boys more often than not grow up to be womanizers who think that all women should dote on them like their mothers did. Directors like Federico Fellini may have made the womanizing, lonely male character an archetype, but at this point, he is just a stereotype.
The symbolism of the film grows more and more obscure as the protagonist searches desperately for a place to sleep—no reason is given as to why he is denied a room in all hotels. Through his futile searches and vain attempts to sleep in his car, he fantasizes about his assistant in visions that fuse religious symbolism with forced experimental theatre techniques. Finally, the assistant informs him in a text message that she forgives him—no reason is given for this sudden change of mind either.
The film ends by the Sea of Galilee, the shimmering body of water that provides the setting for one of the Bible’s most dramatic tales. There, the elusive assistant appears in the middle of the sea, dressed in white like the Virgin Mary. And like a deity, she walks on the surface of the water just as Jesus once did before his disciples, stepping towards the protagonist as he charges towards her from the shore. The woman is thus turned from an object of love and lust to an object of worship and salvation; his lost mother, his savior. She is a higher being, but an object nonetheless.
As with the patronizing critique of Palestinian society, the problem of objectifying women characters was completely lost on the director. During the discussion that followed the film (before the screening of which Khleifi was introduced by a male professor as a noted feminist) Michel Khleifi announced with pride and satisfaction that “the first to walk on the water was a Nazarene, so it’s fitting that the first to make a woman walk on the water is also a Nazarene.”
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