Urs al-jalil

(Wedding in Galilee, Israel/France/Belgium - 1987)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Mohammad Ali El Akili, Bushra Karaman, Makram Khoury, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Anna Condo, Nazih Aklah, Sonia Amar
Genre: Drama
Director: Michel Khleifi
Screenplay: Michel Khleifi
Cinematography: Walther van den Ende
Composer: Jean Marie Senia
Runtime: 113 minutes

"What dignity are you talking about? Do you want to turn this wedding into a funeral?" - Abn Khalad

Set in an Arab village on the West Bank of Palestine that's controlled by the Israeli military, Wedding in Galilee begins with a meeting between the Arab mukhtar (elder) and the Israeli military governor. The mukhtar promised his people a grand full-scale wedding for his son would take place this month, but needs the governor's cooperation because such a wedding would well exceed the established sundown curfew. Both leaders act in self interest. The mukhtar (Mohammad Ali El Akili) is concerned with preserving his own honor and further validating himself through his son. The governor (Makram Khoury) is convinced by a second to agree as long as they accept the stipulation that the military be invited; it's the perfect opportunity to penetrate and spy.

Leaders can control relations when their people are separate, but that probably never happens in a military run area like this. The film could just be about the clash of cultures or the two sides trying to put their differences aside for a day of celebration, but it instead shows how everything snowballs from the decision of the leaders. One of the best scenes intercuts the reactions of the various Arabs to the mukhtar telling them the Israeli military will be present with the mukhtar looking out a bus window reflecting on the situation. The reactions are far ranging from "life has to go on in spite of their weapons and their emergency regulations" to Abn Khalad's "there can be no celebration without dignity. No dignity in the heel of the army." The groom says, "even a traitor would refuse to get married under such conditions."

The editing by Marie Castro Vasquez is equally exquisite throughout the rest of the film, which takes place on the wedding day (and night). Eschewing the typical linear structure, one or two events are shown simultaneously, intercut with scenes of the celebration. This format attempts to keep everyone and everything in focus, rather than focusing on a few stars and making it seem like point A leads to B or that one group is ahead of the other.

The soundtrack also isn't used in the traditional way. This is a film of extreme tension where people are so suspicious and jumpy that a child running by could set off a massacre. However, the soundtrack, like the film, remains more neutral. It is there when for scenes that lack dialogue, but it isn't trying to milk the situations. The soundtrack is actually secondary because singing is such a large portion of the celebration.

All the behinds the scenes plotting is there, and even some in the open with the men whispering to their allies and keeping an eye on their enemies during the songs. The plotting is here more to present perspective, as there are so many people who have their own idea of how to achieve their end. Though the film is political in a sense, it doesn't fall into the trap of making the characters stand for political concepts. It's about the interaction of the various villagers and soldiers, which of course are influenced by the political landscape but also by a so many other things. It understands that politics are one of the things woven into culture, not culture in and of itself (that's propaganda).

Not trying to remove or somehow separate the culture from the political issues is what makes the film stand out among all the partial portraits. A big reason Americans don't understand the situation is they never see anything that shows how the people live (though with what we produce today, it's extremely questionable whether American movies/shows are even willing to show how Americans live). The sensationalism I mean news is only concerned with government leaders and radicals, which tend to merge together accidentally or because part of Bush's agenda is doing things like morphing Hussein into Bin Ladden. It's not that surprising that American citizens don't know much about our "enemies", but we are allied with Israel, yet our perception of them is based on Jewish Americans that never lived in Israel rather than anything coming from their homeland. France gets plenty of, and in cases like this even co-produces Israeli films, but I make some effort to watch this kind of stuff and I've still only tracked down a handful. When we do get something on the Arab-Israeli conflict it's a terrorist action flick like Operation Thunderbolt, which essentially only shows insane Arabs and heroic Jewish special forces, both far removed from "normal" life, and terrified passengers that, like anyone from anywhere, just want to survive.

Further removing any cultural distinctions, the American made Entebbe films Victory at Entebbe and Raid on Entebbe featured performers as synonymous with the conflict as Linda Blair, Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfus, Anthony Hopkins, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Peter Finch, John Saxon, & Jack Warden. Michel Khleifi has instead used non- professional actors, which works because they are playing a version of themselves or at least a type they are familiar with. The film is not perfect in this regard though, as there is minimal involvement from actual Israeli's.

One of the reasons the film is so good is I have no idea whether or not it will contain violence. Khleifi has said he's "striving to unite liberty, dignity and pleasure." The entertainment here is the ceremony itself and the intimate portrayal of village life. It's also the threat of an attack, but there are actually people working against violence in the film that don't use or order violence as a potential method of preventing it. That's something really lacking in American movies today. In the 1950's women didn't have many rights and the only female director in Hollywood was Ida Lupino. However, you had directors like Anthony Mann who worked in violent genres but used their female characters to present a more logical alternative, and you had Lupino who managed to only make cautionary tales and social problem films that while not perfect displayed a great deal of intelligence as well as understanding, care, and sensitivity for humanity. Now women have gained so much but you just get mindless violence that they go along with or participate in, and if you don't have all the latest and greatest stuff like the people who exist in the Hollyplastic dream world you won't be cool isn't my idea of a cautionary tale. Even the praised "art" films are coming out with nonsense like violence is inevitable, and from France we got the wonderful revenge is man's right.

Though Arab women are thought to have relatively little power compared to American women, the film shows the Arab women to have their own world apart from the men's and to be quite resourceful in making sure everything in the men's proceeds as it should. At first it seems like the women's role is only to carry the ceremony, but you start to realize they don't have anything else going on in the open because they aren't up to anything. This doesn't in any way justify that they can't have much going on outside, but it does show their power behind closed doors in varying and sometimes surprising ways. The most effective is near the end when the bride (Anna Condo), who essentially hadn't even spoken, steps up and talks the groom (Nazih Akleh) out of killing his father the mukhtar. She also delivers a classic line, "If a woman's honor is her virginity, where do you find the honor of a man?"

Wedding in Galilee is a rare film not because we actually imported a work from Israel, but because a film sympathetic to the Arabs was made there. Director Michel Khleifi is a Palestinian who grew up in Nazareth and now makes features (this was his first) and documentaries, sometimes mixing the two like in Canticle of the Stones about the Intifadah which took place not longer after Wedding was released and obviously changed relations for the worse, out of Belgium. Here he sticks to what he's most familiar with, the life and customs of his people, but avoids making either side into heroes or villains. The film is about an attempt at getting along, but one never feels that overrides the people he is dealing with. The suspicion, disdain, and hatred are still there, and they are allowed to creep in. There's a good scene where the governor and his troops become suspect because everyone is passing a covered basket. The Arabs can see the fear and mistrust on the Israeli's faces, so the guy who receives the basket takes this as an opportunity to put the joke on them, emptying the basket to the Arabs can get a good laugh.

My favorite part is when a silly little kid lets the mukhtar's thoroughbred loose, and the horse eventually winds up in a field the Israeli's mined so the Arabs couldn't plant any crops. This segment seems to have everything that makes the film so good, melding the beautiful scenic shots with the tension between the two groups, and showing the differing perspectives and degrees of understanding. A younger Israeli soldier tries shooting at the horse to direct it to safety, but it winds up going every which way so the mukhtar is ready to risk his own life and go in after it. Finally, the sides agree to have the Israeli head give the mukhtar directions, which could somewhat compromise their small purpose in planting the mines but should at least postpone all hell breaking loose by keeping everything alive. Scenes like this don't feel like they are simply compromises to maintain order though, for brief moments the sides transcend and see living things rather than Arabs or Israelis.



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