Samak fawqa satah al-bahr [A Fish above Sea Level]. Directed by Hazim Bitar. Jordan, 2012.
Recently I had the opportunity to view the independent film Samak fawqa satah al-bahr (A Fish above Sea Level) at the University of Jordan. This is the first feature-length film by Hazim Bitar, who both wrote and directed it. He is a prominent presence in the Jordanian film community, having produced more than six shorts, both narrative-driven and documentary, in addition to founding the (now suspended) Amman Filmmakers Cooperative, which provided an array of support (including equipment, distribution, promotion, and people-power) to both aspiring and accomplished filmmakers. In April 2012, the members of the cooperative decided to suspend the cooperative, according to the website, “as a statement of protest against the cold-blooded murder of peaceful protestors Khairy Jamil, Mohammad Ajouri, Najem Azyzah Zoubi who were killed by pro-regime gangsters, while engaging in peaceful protest….[and] to express our solidarity with Jalal Ashqar who was paralyzed by a pro-regime sniper bullet during a peaceful protest.” Furthermore, the statement continued:
“the absence of non-propaganda films by Jordanian filmmakers focusing on critical issues related to Jordan`s Spring is very telling. These murders and violent attacks have had an adverse effect on freedom of expression in Jordan. It would be morally and intellectually dishonest to pretend independent Jordanian cinema can exist under such hostile circumstance where even peaceful and civilized protest is met with lethal and life threatening force.”
To know something about Bitar and the film community he operates in is to begin to know something about his film, Samak fawqa satah al-bahr. Shot and produced for under one thousand dollars (by Tashkeel Productions), the film is truly a cooperative effort. Everyone involved volunteered their time, including painting the set (the house in which the narrative revolves is painted a conspicuously bright blue by the actors) and contributing food. The film tells the story of two discordant men: Talal (Rabi’ Zariqat), urban and wealthy, and Da’ud (Abdallah al-Daghimat), rural and eking out a subsistence living. The film opens with Talal sitting in his lawyer’s office listening to him explain that his father had basically lost everything in the stock market—the means by which Talal had been subsisting. The bank will soon repossess both his house and his car if he does not come up with the payments, leaving Talal just two thousand dollars worth of stocks, along with the goldfish his father gave him to teach him responsibility. At the end of the meeting, the lawyer reveals one possibility for Talal’s economic revival: Talal’s father had spent the last few years of his life at his farmhouse in Ghur al-mazra’a in al-Karak province; if Talal sells that house, he may be able to hold off the banks. Of course, there is a caveat: there can be no one living in the house. And so now the story begins…
We witness Talal, now penniless and alone, literally descend heights, first from the hills of Amman to a downtrodden hotel at the base of the city in wust al-balad, and second from an urban high-life to the geographically low region of Jordan’s agricultural valley. This journey from high to low is the metaphor that allows Bitar to construct a socially conscious narrative, while at the same time it undermines itself as a meaningful metaphor by inverting expectations. From the onset, the film would appear to set up a familiar set of dichotomies—rich/poor; urban/rural; white/black; high/low—in which some sort of transformation or reconciliation between the two might be expected. Instead, individual needs and desires trump transcendence, and the poles remain intact.
After stopping by the regional governorate office to pick up the documents that testify to his family’s rightful ownership, Talal and his goldfish arrive at the house. Needless to say, someone is living there. Da’ud had taken care of Talal’s father during his last years of life, and before dying he passed the house on to Da’ud, as witnessed by the elders of the town. The house is Da’ud’s now, as it had been his family’s two generations before. This act of bequeathment by Talal’s father is actually an act of reparation: Talal’s grandfather had repossessed the house when Da’ud’s family could not pay back their loans to him. The two men are brought together, then, not by chance, but rather by economic and ethical circumstances. Their mission is to reconcile who in the end is the rightful owner of the house: the one with the papers, or the one whose life is intractably attached to it.
The film does not resolve this enigma simply; it reminds viewers that choices are not pre-determined, but rather pre-meditated, resulting from a network of interactions that, while not fixed in any psychological sense, consist of recognizable components. The film sets up a dynamic between the two men that begins to resemble a kind of friendship, or at least a relationship based on a modicum of mutual understanding. Thanks to Da’ud’s laid-back hospitality, Talal begins to find comfort in the environment, or at least appears to enjoy the diversions: picnicking together on the coast of the Dead Sea; picking tomatoes with Da’ud’s relatives; playing soccer with the local kids; being feted and serenaded one evening. These episodes suggest to us a kinship growing between the two men, and an affinity for the place growing inside Talal.
The narrative eventually leads us (or this viewer, at least) to reason that this house belongs to Da’ud and his family, a conclusion that Talal must concede as well. In the end, though (and without spoiling too much), the film reminds us that a fish cannot survive outside the jar it has been placed in. We become conditioned to live a particular way, and to transcend these boundaries requires fortitude and a capacity to envision one’s place in a social economy much larger than ourselves.
On a narrative level, the film interrogates a rarely discussed chapter in modern Jordanian social history: the theft and exploitation of Ghur al-mazra’a and its people. As Bitar remarked during the post-screening question and answer period at the University of Jordan, “the history of the region is written by color discrimination.” It is a history of a systemic pilfering of farmland, both officially by ruling authorities and unofficially by individuals who parlayed the economic system in their favor. This amounted to a form of loan sharking, which left the inhabitants of the region to work as day laborers on the land their ancestors had originally owned. Bitar acknowledges that the film was inspired by his reading of Khaled Karaki’s Arabic translation of Peter Gubser’s study Politics and Change in al-Karak, which treats this issue in detail.
Furthermore, the actors’ engagement with the issue does not end with the film. Each in his own way remains engaged with the region: Abdallah al-Daghimat is from Ghur al-mazra’a and continues to live and work there, and Rabi’ Zariqat, who now lives there, is the founder of Zikra Initiative, an “exchange to change” program that supports sustainable development through micro-loans, exchange tourism, and recycle/reuse projects, to name a few.
Samak fawqa satah al-bahr succeeds on many levels: astute acting; effective directing; aesthetically charged cinematography; and a decisive narrative whose characters embody both the good and bad. It also succeeds where many socially-conscious films fail, by delivering a film that narrates a socially relevant issue without being didactic. The narrative is quiet and minimal; the effect is consuming and complicated. There is a cohesiveness between vision and sound, perhaps due to the actors’ unscripted lines. and also to the music that is a collaboration between the poet Mohammad Shreigi, from Ghur al-mazra’a, and the composer Aziz Maraqa, from Amman.
The film elicited a rich discussion after its screening, and the questions bore witness to the fact that viewers were both pleased and challenged by it. This was especially so in their confrontation with the reality of ethnic discrimination that is put forward in the film, but also in questioning one’s agency to change or contest present conditions. For an audience of mostly college-age students, this certainly is a potent debate, yielding perhaps the director’s design: not to entertain per se, but to engage and challenge.
A truly independent film, in both budget and spirit, Samak fawqa satah al-bahr is a film that foils its own simplicity. As we watch the characters play out their destinies, we are reminded that injustices cannot be erased, but can be recognized and redressed. At the same time, we can sense the complexities of characters’ motivations, even if we do not agree with them morally. In this way, the film takes viewers through the processes of enacting agency within a framework of determinism. We are both products and producers of our living conditions, and as such, should not limit ourselves to the fishbowl that we live in.