TEL AVIV — The movie, called Atash (Thirst), is the only one at the film festival in Palm Springs containing no sex, less than 50 lines of dialogue (all of it in Arabic), a confusing ending, and action sequences that consist of people tending to giant, smoldering piles of wood. Atash is an odd, grim film that won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Award last year, was screened at Cannes, and also took first prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Its plot has gotten the young writer and director an enormous amount of flak.
The Palestinian father in the film is a tyrant who is slowly strangling his family in an effort to protect them, or maybe just himself. His oldest daughter years ago engaged in some never-explained sexual transgression that shamed the family, so the father exiled the whole household — parents and three kids — to a cluster of deserted concrete structures that used to be an Israeli military training camp; no other people live within miles. The family spends every day making charcoal and becoming increasingly charred. No one escapes (not even the donkey!), and everything gets steadily worse. Why, critics of the film asked, would a Palestinian make a movie focusing on the disturbing, private problems of one Palestinian family, rather than about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The critics answered themselves: The film is clearly a Zionist trick.
The trickster, Tawfik Abu Wael, is 29 years old, compact, soft-spoken and palpably determined. Like the characters in his movie, he has a double identity: He’s Palestinian, but is an Israeli citizen. There are more than a million Palestinian citizens of Israel; they make up almost 20 percent of the population, a greater percentage than that of African-Americans in the U.S. These citizens are an artifact of the 1948 War of Independence that followed Israel’s creation, when the surrounding Arab countries attacked. During that war, many Arabs were driven out by the Israelis or fled, but some stayed behind, and they and their descendants became citizens of Israel: Israeli Arabs. Abu Wael said that the concept of Israelis who are ethnic Palestinians is one part of his movie that many audiences, as well as potential funders, could not get their brains around. Abu Wael is the youngest of 10 children from a Muslim city in Israel called Umm El Fahm. The city is so feared and disliked by many Israelis that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year floated the idea of trading it to the Palestinian Authority in some future peace deal. Other Israelis don’t even realize Umm El Fahm is an Israeli city; they think it’s part of the West Bank.
In Umm El Fahm, “filmmaker” is not a typical career choice. The city has no movie theater. Religious men run the city government and they want young people in mosques, not theaters. Abu Wael once heard two city leaders bragging to each other that their greatest achievement was keeping movie theaters out of the city. When Abu Wael was 10 years old, his father died. One of his older brothers took on the father role, and that brother went after Abu Wael with a knife when he heard about his youngest brother’s plan to study film.
“For them, to go and study cinema is to be nothing,” Abu Wael said. “You won’t have a job and you will make nothing. You’re lost.” He doesn’t blame them for being angry. Most people in Umm El Fahm don’t worry about whether they, or their children, will have fulfilling careers. They worry about being poor.
“People there wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, go to work in darkness and come back in darkness,” he said. “They work in very tough jobs. Every day they drive hours for their work. It’s just survival.”
As a teenager, Abu Wael was restless and moody, even by teenage standards. He had a talent for math and physics, but when he was 15 years old, he started feeling bored by them. He’d been attending an advanced high school far from home and he left after a year, returning to school in Umm El Fahm. The change didn’t help. School made him want to go to sleep. He didn’t know why he was doing anything he was doing. He didn’t know what he wanted — maybe just escape from his family’s loving but firm expectation that he would be an engineer or a doctor? He dropped out of high school and started working odd jobs during the day and taking courses at night, studying for the matriculation exams Israelis have to pass before they can go to college. To appease his family, he applied to university engineering programs. He also applied to film school, without telling them.
Attending the film school at Tel Aviv University thrilled him: It was a world of people who loved movies, talked movies, made movies. Tel Aviv was luxuriously open, after the strictures of Umm El Fahm. Gay people could be gay in Tel Aviv. Women wore what they wanted, slept with whom they wanted. Abu Wael made Jewish friends: people who cared about films as much as he did. But he found there were limits to Tel Aviv’s openness when it came to Israeli Arabs.
“Nobody will rent you [an apartment],” Abu Wael said. “Even if you have money, you make films, they know you, it’s impossible. Every time you speak, you are the Arab. You are the enemy. You need a good [Jewish Israeli] friend who’s willing to go rent a flat as though he’s renting it for himself but it’s for you.”
Abu Wael said he hasn’t once been able to rent an apartment on his own, and he’s lived in Tel Aviv for 10 years. When it came to making Atash, Abu Wael encountered different problems. He needed money. He found no Palestinian or Arab system for underwriting films, so he tried to raise money in France and Germany.
“They said, ‘It’s beautiful, but where is the conflict [with Israel]? Where are the soldiers?’?” he said.
In one meeting after another, people suggested that if he wanted their money, he should add scenes with checkpoints and soldiers; that was the real story, as they saw it, not this weird, internal family drama. Abu Wael began to have the disturbing feeling that, since he was Palestinian, he was expected to do a sort of victimhood shuck-and-jive show, forever. “This is what sells,” he said. “People eat it like junk.”
Instead, he made a movie in which the members of a Palestinian family play not only victim but also aggressor with each other, just like in families all over the world. The father sees his oldest daughter — sexy, in spite of being clothed from chin to toe — lying on her back in the sun reading a book, while the hose she’s supposed to be using to water the garden dribbles nearby. She’s chewing absent-mindedly on the end of a stick. He watches her for a while, then grabs the hose and douses her, screaming, “Take it out of your mouth! Take it out of your mouth!” Later in the film, when he tries to make peace with her, she humiliates him. No soldiers, no checkpoints. The film ended up being paid for by the Ravinovitch Fund, an Israeli organization.
ABU WAEL BELIEVES THAT ANY ARAB ARTIST who creates something worthwhile is accused of treason and conspiracy against his fellow Arabs. Even so, he was surprised by some of the reactions to his film. Atash ran into trouble at the Arab World Institute in France, the most important film festival in the Arab world, because some judges had dismissed it as an “Israeli movie”; two judges saved the day by threatening to walk out unless Atash was shown. An essay in the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat made the contorted argument that Atash is a Zionist movie that mocks Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli occupation because the movie doesn’t mention the occupation at all. Egyptian critics alleged that the Israeli security services had cooked up the film, and that it was a call to murder Yasser Arafat, because — the logic went — the father in the film symbolizes Arafat. As for the fact that the movie was made with Israeli funding, well, that was the smoking gun: Atash, with its subtle, seemingly apolitical plot, is, without question, a stealth political attack on the Arab world.
Abu Wael doesn’t mind provoking ideologues, or anyone else, with his film. If anything, he wishes it could provoke more people. In Umm El Fahm, his hometown, the film still hasn’t been screened publicly.
“[The film] changed maybe the actors, the people who worked on it,” he said (most of the actors were ordinary people from Umm El Fahm). “But it won’t change the situation [in Umm El Fahm] because there needs to be a lot of waves of creation and films. And I am a pessimist about this because it should come from the people, and they are impotent to make anything for themselves. It’s not just a need to build a theater in Umm El Fahm. You need to build the people.”