Review: Arabani (Adwan, 2013) – SVJFF 2014

Still from the movie Arabani

For many people, one of the primary reasons for watching movies or reading novels is to acquaint oneself with a different culture, perspective, or topic in an entertaining way. Simultaneously, many writers and filmmakers capitalize on this impulse by creating works that attract (predominantly Western) audiences with a tacit promise of a “first-hand” glimpse into their culture (or sometimes the culture of another). This inclination may not be as as overtly opportunistic as I make it sound here, but in some of the more commercially successful works (e.g. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, or Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese), cynical readers may detect a tendency to both magnify and interpret the exotic and, especially, the more tragic elements of a society. As a result, audiences often walk away feeling satisfied that they have experienced something new, may even be lulled into believing that they know about that region now.

Subtler authors and filmmakers, however, forego this pedantry and allow audiences direct access to the narrative. The cultural backdrop may indeed be new to most and even central to that narrative, but there is no intervening layer of false romanticism, of explanation. These artists run the risk of losing audiences who can’t or won’t do the work of entering into the story as a stranger without a guide, of pushing through silences in search of some kind of narrative truth, and yet, their works are ultimately much more worthwhile.

I place Adi Adwan‘s first film Arabani (mostly) in this latter category. For those unaware of the Druze religion and culture, Arabani will undoubtedly provide that tantalizing peep into the unfamiliar. But this is a sparse–one might even say spartan–movie. Because its style is so minimalist, viewers are viscerally connected to the world of the film. Understanding unfolds slowly but more satisfyingly. Much is conveyed in looks and tones and silences. There are no direct answers, mostly conjectures. But if you feel comfortable with this kind of ambiguity–indeed, if you enjoy it–you will appreciate Arabani.

The movie follows a recently divorced man, Yusuf (Eyad Sheety), who returns with his two adolescent children Smadar (Daniella Niddam) and Eli (Tom Kelrich) to the Druze village where Yusuf grew up and now hopes to begin a new life. The three move in with Yusuf’s mother Afifa (Zuhaira Sabbagh), who is initially reluctant to receive her son and his children but who eventually, if grudgingly, begins to care for them. By degrees, we understand that Yusuf’s unwelcome is due to his former marriage to a Jewish woman, which is apparently taboo in this insular society. As a result, the presence of Yusuf and particularly his non-Druze children provokes a quiet hostility among the villagers that gradually builds into a terrifying threat. Meanwhile, Smadar and Eli attempt to befriend the local youth, who greet them with either aloofness or a sort of menacing friendliness. Their efforts, which seem fruitful at first, nonetheless also deteriorate into animosity.

Arabani‘s cinematography reminds me of the Greek film we watched at SFIFF, Standing Aside, Watching, but without the narrative confusion, random effects, and plodding slowness. As I mentioned, this film is quiet, withheld. Much of the drama is conducted off screen, and we must guess at the history and pain of the characters. But whatever has happened in the past, their implications for the present are clear. And it is the present that Adwan would like us to focus on. Nothing distracts us from the immediate tension, the growing unease, the complicated web of relationships.

Nothing, too, distracts us from the actors’ faces. The performances, for the most part, are competent–particularly in the case of Sabbagh, who plays the grandmother. But where there are flaws, they are that much more glaring. My husband couldn’t help getting stuck on an uncoordinated slap-in-the-face that took place early in the movie. I admit it was bad enough to be rather startling. Also, Yusuf’s pursual of the married Yusra (Lucy Aharish) feels clunky and ill-fitting, though I suppose it helps to effect an important plot point.

These small defects aside, Arabani is an interesting first film and well worth watching.