Venice Film Festival 2020: 200 Meters is a potent dramatisation of what the Wall does to Israelis and Palestinians
In Ameen Nayfeh's directorial debut, the Palestinian protagonist does not get himself an Israeli ID. It is like how some NRIs do not get themselves an American passport because they still want to feel “Indian.'
It seems like a very ordinary scene out of the very ordinary life of a very ordinary family. Mustafa (Ali Suliman) is fooling around with his wife, Salwa (Lana Zreik), in the kitchen. She’s doing the whole mock-angry “stop it, the children will hear” thing. She’s also worried about his back, which has been acting up for a while, and she’s concerned that trying to lift her is going to aggravate his condition. For the same reason, she doesn’t like him working in his physically demanding construction job, but a job’s a job. She’s tried telling him she’s there and she can take care of things for a while. But he says, “How about you also give me pocket money?”
So let’s expand that opening line. It seems like a very ordinary scene out of the very ordinary life of a very ordinary family, where the husband is perhaps a bit patriarchal. But there’s something else, which is why Mustafa doesn’t know his son, Majd (Tawfeeq Nayfeh), has been hurt in a school fight. He asks the boy what happened. The boy says, “They started it. They called me a rotten West Banker, and they said really dirty words. I hate this school. I don’t want to go there.” When Mustafa asks why Majd didn’t tell him, he replies, “You are not here.”
And we think back to the opening image, which had Mustafa smoking a cigarette on his terrace, during the day. He seemed to be gazing at nothing in particular. There are just some anonymous buildings in the near distance. Only at night do we learn that his family lives in one of those anonymous buildings, which is on that side of the West Bank wall, on the Israeli side. Mustafa is a mere “200 meters” away, on this side of the wall, in Palestine. He has refrained from getting himself an ID that would allow him to live full-time in Israel, with his family. (The wife shuttles between two jobs there, so it makes no sense for her to move in with him.)
Apart from phone calls, Mustafa “communicates” with his kids, at night, by turning a light on and off on his terrace, and watching them turn a light on and off in their room 200 meters away. It would be a game if it weren’t so tragic, if this wasn’t a forced separation. The more practical-minded among us may wonder why Mustafa doesn’t just get himself that damn ID!
The Palestine-born director, Ameen Nayfeh (this is his first feature film), leaves that unsaid. But we can make a guess. It appears to be something about not wanting to give up one’s cultural identity for the sake of mere convenience, like how some NRIs won’t get themselves an American passport because they still want to feel “Indian”.
There's a potent metaphor in the film that tells us how strong Mustafa’s Palestinian roots are. Every time he has to cross the checkpoint and go to Israel, he is asked for a fingerprint check. But the machine never recognises his prints. He is asked to clean his fingers and try again. He licks his finger and wipes it on his shirt and tries again. No luck. His very being appears to resist — you could even say “reject”, or “rebel against” — the other side across the wall, and only a “government-sanctioned” work permit (for construction work in Israel) allows him through. And one day, even that expires.
Anyway, the real point is whether such an ID should be needed just because someone decided to build a wall. In the press notes, Nayfeh narrates this anecdote about a friend, who was a construction worker like this film’s protagonist. This friend said: “Before the wall, I used to light a cigarette and I’d be home before it was finished. It’s a mere 200 meters away! Going to work now is like travelling around the Cape of Good Hope.” Nayfeh himself experienced his share of separation as his mother is originally from a Palestinian village on the other side of the wall. After the wall was built, they were cut off from the rest of the family, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and childhood friends.
200 Meters dramatises this forced separation — “the story of thousands of Palestinians”, Nayfeh says — when Majd has an accident. There's no time for Mustafa to get a medical visit permit, so he attempts to get to the other side in a van operated by smugglers who do this for a living. Along with Mustafa is a German documentary filmmaker, Anne (Anna Unterberger). When they find out what she does for a living, the smugglers laugh. “So what?” one of them says. “Let her show the world our ‘happy life’.” They are amused at their grimly ironic joke. “Maybe she’ll take us to Hollywood.”
Indeed, a film that so-far seemed like a social drama takes the shape of a Hollywood thriller — though a more muted, “realistic” one, devoid of pulse-pounding music. En route (it’s a really roundabout route that reminds you of the “travelling around the Cape of Good Hope” remark), they get messages like: “They’ve shot a guy at Zaatara checkpoint.” Mustafa and the others being smuggled have to hide in trunks of cars. There’s a situation with a man pointing a gun. There are frayed nerves.
And in the midst of all this, there’s a small geopolitical tour for us outsiders, courtesy Anne, who’s the film’s “outsider”. One of her subjects says: “There are more than 200 settlements spreading like cancer in the West Bank, and more than 500,000 settlers. Those people go in and out of the West Bank whenever they want and they control 80 percent of our water...” Does Mustafa make it across, safely? Does Majd survive? And in the larger sense, is there a solution to the core issue? The director says, “I can say that maybe 99 percent of Palestinians have to go through a similar journey in overcoming such absurd obstacles in their daily life.” Is there an end in sight?
200 Meters has won the Audience Prize at Venice Days.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).