Territoriality
A region 2 DVD review of PRIVATE by Slarek
 

"This house is occupied. I ask you to go and never come back."

 

Anyone making a feature film on something of the scale, complexit, and opinion-dividing potential of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has their work cut out for them. Even the most exhaustive documentary is going to look light on detail, and dramatic works have a tightrope of political opinion to walk if they are to avoid heated censure from either side of the debate and be dismissed by either one as propagandist. Part of the problem is that almost any story set in times of conflict is inevitably going to present one side in a more favourable light, but director Saverio Costanzo's Private arrives on the back of festival prize wins and positive reviews that talk of the film's remarkably even-handed approach to its situation and characters. Whether you agree with that assessment may well be influenced on your own political standpoint, if indeed you have one in regard to this particular hot potato. Certainly, with the Israelis as the invading force and the Palestinians as oppressed victims, even humanising the occupying soldiers is going to have only a partial balancing effect.

Based on real events,* the story concerns a Palestinian family who are living close to a settlement in the disputed and unstable Latrun no-man's land. All too aware of the danger of their predicament, the mother wants them to leave, but the father proudly refuses to be driven from his home and insists they stand their ground. One night their house is invaded by Israeli soldiers, who inform that family in no uncertain terms that the house is now under Israeli rule. It's occupants are subsequently confined to one small downstairs room, the upstairs being strictly off-limits, the kitchen area to be accessed only with the soldiers' permission. Anyone who even attempts to break these rules, they are informed, will be dealt with accordingly.

Working both as a microcosm of the conflict at large and an attempt to put a human face on a situation that has become long since buried under news reports and rhetoric, the film kicks off as a family drama, but with the arrival of the soldiers the tension is cranked up and the politics of the situation are pushed to the fore. Herein lies the film's bite. The house is situated in the Latrun area, a no-man's land that the Palestinians claim is part of the West Bank, something the Israelis have always disputed. It remains an area of constant and sometimes physical conflict between the two sides. As the property is taken over, the Israeli commander declares that it is now Israeli territory, effectively displacing its occupants and confining them to small area that they can still regard as home. You only need a passing knowledge of the the wider issue to appreciate the parallels with what's taking place outside of the house. Indeed, the initial disagreements within the family unit are driven almost exclusively by the politics of their location. The father refuses to be forced out of his home, while the mother prefers displacement to the danger that lurks constantly outside their door.

Once the occupying forces have settled in, though, the father's determination to stand his ground hardens, while the mother's reaction is to propose active resistance. As the father's resolve is increasingly tested, the children develop their own set of responses, which also plays as a microcosm of the conflict at large – the older daughter becomes a spy, sneaking upstairs and hiding in a wardrobe to eavesdrop on the soldiers, while the eldest son discovers a live grenade and takes the first step towards becoming a resistance fighter. With all communication with the family conducted in a neutral language (English) by the conflict-hardened commander, it is the daughter, listening in from her hiding place upstairs, who is first to see the human face behind the enemy uniforms, as the soldiers enthusiastically cheer their football team (on a TV raided from the living room in which the family is confined), pass the time playing musical instruments and get repeatedly scolded by the officer in charge. Later, when the commander threatens to follow through on his threat to punish anyone who breaks his rules, his own soldiers clearly regard his actions as inappropriate and extreme.

If the film is intriguing viewing on this level alone, it proves genuinely compelling when the conflict explodes, most notably when an undefined exchange of gunfire has the entire family scrabbling urgently in the dark for cover, a sequence that is both frightening and chillingly authentic. Shot handheld on digital video, the whole film has a documentary feel to it, but never more so that in this scene, where the panic and confusion of the characters is reflected in the frantic camerawork and almost complete lack of light, the soundtrack a blaze of urgent shouts and close-quarters gunfire. Only after the film is over do you realise that we never saw a shot fired in any of these sequences, and that all of this is achieved with suggestion and sound. Never, for one second, does it feel like a concession to the presumably minute budget.

Occasionally, the plot developments and political allegory are a little obvious (the small child who follows his sister upstairs, the symbolic rebuilding of the greenhouse), but are still rarely followed through to the expected conclusions. Perhaps the biggest problem, at least for Western audiences, is an ending that not only lands on us almost out of nowhere, but is accompanied by an English language song that feels musically so wrong for this location and situation and whose lyrics all too obviously spell out a message that has been handled cinematically with far more subtlety.

For the most part, though, Private is a gripping and, yes, thought-provoking work that deserves to be seen and talked about. That it achieves even a degree of balance is an admirable achievement and should make it accessible to those on both sides of the political divide, helped enormously by the use of both Israeli and Palestinian actors, all of whom are completely convincing and were here able to work together here for a common cause. Enough said.

sound and vision

As mentioned above, the film was shot on digital video with minimal lighting and some visible practicals (lamps, torches, matches, etc.). The result is an image that varies wildly in quality, being quite strong when outside in the day, but extremely grainy when dealing with unlit night-time interiors. This will prove a barrier in itself for a small portion of the film's potential audience for whom pristine 35mm is the only way to go (especially now they have DVD players and big TVs), but digital video has its own unique aesthetic that is highly appropriate for Costanzo's movie, visually aligning it with with the news footage that is our main source of information on the conflict in the West and lending it by association an urgent authenticity. Within these restrictions the transfer is otherwise as solid as you could expect, with decent contrast and black levels and solid enough colour, though it is inevitably drained in the darker scenes.

The sound may be Dolby 2.0 stereo, but has been impressive recorded and mixed, the gunfire in the above discussed scene having an alarming 'just outside the door' quality that really adds to the sense of danger. That said, I couldn't help thinking that this would have been genuinely terrifying with a more inclusive 5.1 track, when you would feel surrounded by the gunfire and every bit as trapped as the family.

extra features

Behind the Scenes – Not Only for Piece of Land (11:10) is a rather rough-looking and structureless collage of non-anamorphic widescreen footage from the making of the film, interesting in the main for seeing the actors in sometimes animated debate over the very issues the film is attempting to examine. Lead player Mohammed Bakri (who plays the father) in particular is very vocal on this, though a telling moment has the young actor playing his son asked "How do the Israeli soldiers make you feel?" to which he responds simply, "Angry." Even the youngest children on set already have very clear views about the politics of the situation.

Saverio Costanzo Q&A (34:21) is a one-shot (edited down and broken up with question title cards) recording of a Q&A session held with the director after a screening of the film at London's ICA Cinema in March 2005. This is a fascinating inclusion that has the director covering in some detail his approach to the film and the process of its construction. It kicks off, interestingly enough, with him explaining his decision to use the Roger Waters track at the end of the film. The debate hots up a bit when a few of the audience disagree with his decision to humanise the Israeli soldiers. He also talks about working with Mohammed Bakri and provides some interesting background to the real story on which the film was based. This is 4:3 DV.

Finally the theatrical trailer (1:43) sells the film rather well and is presented anamorphic 1.85:1.

summary

It is often the case that it takes an outsider to see things with a more objective viewpoint, and that is certainly the case here with Italian director Saverio Costanzo's first film. That said, it remains a persuasively political work, decrying the treatment of Palestinian families by Israeli forces, yet at the same time calling for an approach that involves both parties, concluding with the warning that the situation as it stands is self-perpetuating and potentially without end. Despite winning prizes at a number of international festivals, the film has not attracted the attention it deserves in the UK. It should be seen, and now it is available on DVD there's no excuse not to hunt it out and give it a look.



* The house in question was occupied in 1992 and remains so to this day.

Private

Italy 2004
90 mins
director
Saviero Castanzo
starring
Lior Miller
Tomer Russo
Mohammed Bakri
Arin Omary

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Digital 2.0
languages
Arabic
subtitles
English
extras
Behind-the-scenes featurette
Director Q&A
Trailer
distributor
Metrodome
release date
5 September 2005
review posted
16 October 2005