Mohamed Ben Attia’s competition film Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) and Elite Zexer’s Panorama-selected Sufat Chol (Sand Storm) deal with similar themes: the importance of marriage within traditional structures and the desire to escape from oppressive families. Both would make a fascinating double-bill; however, Zexer’s first feature, which won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the latest Sundance Film Festival, is by far the more immersive of the two efforts.
Set in a Bedouin village in Southern Israel, Sufat Chol opens on wedding preparations: Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour) is duty-bound to host her husband Suliman’s (Haitham Omari) second marriage and during the ceremony, she discovers that her daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) has been secretly carrying on a forbidden relationship. From then on, we witness the clash between daughter and mother: the latter believes that sticking one’s head in the sand is the best way to survive, while the former has faith in her seemingly progressive father.
What sounds like a well-worn tale of a young woman trying to break free from suffocating traditions is actually anything but. Beautifully shot against the backdrop of the Negev Desert, the film proceeds to show the tension between the modern and the traditional, with Zexer operating a gradual shift in family dynamics.
At the centre of what makes Sufat Chol so unique are the Bedouin rituals that Zexer so vividly brings to the screen, with certain sequences so stripped down that it seems like a documentary. The wedding ceremony in particular stands out, with older women (including Jalila) wearing fake moustaches because tradition dictates that men are not allowed to be present. This distanced and passive humiliation later comes to define Suliman’s role as a weak despot, a man who hides behind “have-to”s and is almost paralysed by surface impressions that are at the heart of the archaic structure he belongs to.
Sufat Chol’s impact also depends on the performances, notably Blal-Asfour’s. Her nuanced turn as a humiliated woman who tries to silence her simmering pain for the sake of her children is terrific, showing she can do more with her eyes than most seasoned actors muster with a monologue.
All in all, this powerful drama about how women individually discover how far they push the limits from inside a patriarchal system is not one to miss. Only one sequence featuring a tunnel metaphor strikes a clumsy note, but it is more than redeemed by a compelling final beat which leaves the audience questioning: Does that final word simply imply a warning or nascent hope for future generations?
And now for something completely different… From the Israeli deserts to the corrupt cops of New Mexico: writer/director John Michael McDonaugh returns to the Panorama section with War On Everyone.
Sounding like something a Fox News anchor might casually suggest as a solution to… well, all of life’s problems, War On Everyone is McDonaugh’s first feature set outside of Ireland. It sees two corrupt cops (a bland Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña doing his level best) indiscriminately bribing the city, whilst finding the time to “go fuck some scumbags”. One’s obsessed with Glen Campbell; the other enjoys picking on his youngest son because he’s the weakest.
Think Starsky and Hutch gone feral.
However, their drug and alcohol-fuelled antics come to halt when they get in over their heads with an unscrupulous British and Billy Zane-looking lord (Divergent’s Theo James, who is less threatening than a plimsoll).
Brass tacks: War On Everyone is an underwhelming mess. It’s a pitch black action-comedy which falls short on laughs (despite the occasional zinger) and fails to register dramatically. It yearns to be satirical and but only manages to tip its hat to the buddy cop format, all the way to the grumpy police chief giving last warnings, à la Riggs and Murtaugh. Beyond that, it’s not much else.
Shame, since the tragicomic has always been one of the director’s fortes. Alas, his newest script noticeably lacks Calvary’s carefully balanced crossover between the bleakly fatalist and the mordantly comedic. More importantly, the bent duo’s shenanigans don’t hold a naughty candle to Brendan Gleeson’s crass tricks as Gerry Boyle in the far superior The Guard. They also pale compared to James McAvoy’s drug-addled deeds in Jon S. Baird’s underrated and far more provocative Filth. And there was only one of him…
The Berlinale has previously rewarded McDonaugh with an Honourable Mention in the Best Debut Film category in 2011 for The Guard and with the Ecumenical Jury Prize in 2014 for his brilliant whodunit Calvary. The chances of film number three continuing his winning streak are slim.
“If you ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got shit”, nonchalantly affirms one character. As cheekily meta as the line is, it sadly resumes McDonaugh’s bid to export his craft stateside quite well. Maybe he’s too old for this shit?