"With understated humor, a gently pensive pace, strong performances, and an enchanting cinematic sweep, Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad nicely realizes Liana Badr's eye-opening story of survival under military rule." -- Robert Avila, SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
"East Jerusalem is only half a city, and that, Abu-Assad implies, is the problem." -- Emma Taylor, LA WEEKLY
"Ms. Khoury, often filmed in close-up, gives a deeply sensitive, unsentimental performance, and the feelings that crowd on her face (sometimes more than one at a time) run the gamut from despair to ambivalence to hysterical frustration to tenderness and joy." -- Stephen Holden, NEW YORK TIMES
"Excellent acting, and a plot that combines suspense, whimsy, and political resonance make this Palestinian comedy-drama an unusual treat." -- David Sterrit, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
"A small gem." -- V.A. Musetto, NEW YORK POST
Hany Abu-Assad's feature Rana’s Wedding is among the finest films made in the Middle East. This small, subtle gem offers a vivid portrait of life in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, presenting its message with an intelligence and vibrancy that celebrates the human spirit in an environment where humanity is routinely crushed and assaulted. Rana’s Wedding, coupled with the award-winning 2002 comedy Divine Intervention by Elia Suleiman, clearly signals the dawn of an exciting new Palestinian cinema that may be the next great center of global filmmaking.
Rana’s Wedding focuses on the chaotic single day in the life of a 17-year-old girl who faces an impossible situation. Rana's father is leaving Arab East Jerusalem for Egypt and he gives her two choices: join him abroad where she can continue her college education or marry a man from the list of eligible bachelors who've expressed interest in her. Her deadline is 4pm on the day that her father is due to leave for Egypt. Rana, sneaking out of her family's home in the wee hours on her deadline day, has her own plan: marry her boyfriend Khalil, a theater director in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
But locating Khalil is not easy at Rana hopes. Her calls to his telephone only reach his voice mail. She searches through his known haunts and hangouts in Jerusalem, eventually discovering that he is still in Ramallah. Rana makes her way through the military roadblock that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank, stopping only in a mini-intifada where little boys are throwing stones at Israeli soldiers (after a soldier shoots a boy in the leg, Rana briefly joins in with a lobbed rock at the military occupation brigade). In Ramallah, she located Khalil at his theater and, waking him from his sleep on the stage, announces her plan to marry him that day.
Under Palestinian customs, Rana and Khalil need to find a registrar and all three need to come to her father with the announcement that the couple will be married despite of the father's wishes. But finding the registrar in the midst of the West Bank chaos and carnage is one problem, and then getting back to Jerusalem before her father's departure in order to have the wedding that same day is another hassle.
The beauty of Rana’s Wedding is the fully dimensional nature of its main character. Rana, as played by the strikingly beautiful Clara Khoury, is hardly the plucky can-do heroine one would normally associate in wedding-related movies (especially of the American variety). She is impulsive, prickly, reckless, and often moody. She openly objects to Khalil's attempts at singing, claiming she hates the sound of his voice, and her jealousy of the attention paid to Khalil by one of his actresses nearly derails her plans. She is also selfish in a wonderfully powerful manner, whether bullying her way past the Israeli bullies who man the military checkpoints or abruptly announcing her need to visit the hairdresser in the midst of the day's turmoil, Rana's focus is strictly Rana and nothing is going to get in her way.
But through Khoury's deeply nuanced performance and Abu-Assad's skilled direction, Rana does not come across like a Palestinian princess but rather symbolizes a fully focuses (and very Westernized) young woman who answers to her own agenda. In many ways, she is the first modern heroine of Arab cinema --one who balances the need for stabilizing traditions of Islamic heritage with the contemporary realities of a modern society that demands intellectual and spiritual equality for women.
But Rana needs to fight constantly to achieve what she desires, and Rana’s Wedding carefully documents the emotional horror that greets the Palestinian people in their daily existence. From the humiliating checkpoints clogged with people trying to exercise their basic civil rights to free movement to the sweeps of Israeli soldiers harassing people engaged in no criminal activity to the quiet anger brewing in the funeral procession of a young man who was obviously killed by the Israeli military, Rana’s Wedding catalogues a nation living under conditions which no civilized people should ever tolerate. Yet the movie never becomes heavily political or reactionary -- the endless indignities, human rights violations and humiliations placed on the Palestinian people come without obvious comment from the characters in the film, which in turn makes their conditions all the more harrowing and heartbreaking. There is one exception, however: when a neighbor's house is being razed by Israeli army tractors, Rana's sister stoically declares "Don't worry, we will rebuild it tomorrow." It is obvious she is not talking about housing, and the barely-veiled meaning in this single sentence literally illustrates the nature of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Filmed in the streets, homes and stores of the Holy Land, Rana’s Wedding provides an in-depth and stunning glimpse into the soul of a world that has carried the weight of hatred and violence for too many years. But to its credit, the film never gets lost in anger or revenge. The fact that Rana can push through the limitations around her to achieve the goal of a wedding in white is clearly more powerful than any agitprop diatribe centered on socio-political issues. Rana's triumph is one of an indefatigable spirit that cannot be broken, delayed or denied by custom or checkpoints. In its quiet but highly focused way, Rana’s Wedding speaks volumes about the human condition and ultimately transcends its geography with a universal message that any right-minded person will recognize and cherish. This is an extraordinary film, with a rare blend of art and intellect that challenges without lecturing and emboldens without sloganeering. To be a guest at Rana’s Wedding is an honor for any moviegoer with a mind and a conscience.
You’re a young Palestinian woman in East Jerusalem, and you’re in love with a theater director whom your conservative father loathes. He wants you to marry from his list of men, and he gives you a deadline: Decide by 4 p.m. At that point, he leaves for Egypt, where he’ll be unable to give his personal OK to any man you’ve chosen.
Hany Abu-Assad has made a bittersweet film that tells the story of Palestinian life as eloquently as anything ever done. The characters in Rana’s Wedding are suffocated by Israeli checkpoints and restrictions, but that doesn't stop them from trying to lead “normal lives,” including the universal ritual of marriage.
Rana (Clara Khoury) isn’t some radicalized Hamas supporter; in fact, though her family is Muslim, she seems avowedly secular and prefers to wear form-fitting clothing that might as well be from an L.L. Bean catalog. Like her love, Khalil, Rana is used to following her bliss –– but unlike Khalil (who works in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where roadblocks pose a daily hardship), she lives a relatively sheltered and privileged life in Jerusalem. Her father’s ultimatum has the unintended effect of making her more defiant–– and more conscious (as she tries to visit Khalil) of the deep quagmire that defines Israeli-Palestinian relations.
It’s not giving anything away to say that Rana tries to beat the 4 p.m. deadline. The plan that unfolds features as many emotional detours (including Rana’s doubts about Khalil) as physical ones (including shortcuts past checkpoints). Rana’s Wedding works so well because Abu-Assad lets the narrative unfold in completely surprising and realistic ways, and he lets Khoury’s expressions and exasperations –– not heavy-handed dialogue –– set many scenes. Khoury, who is in nearly every scene, is formidable.
A piano motif adds a perfect layer to Rana’s Wedding. Rana learned piano as a child (we learn during the opening credits), and Abu-Assad adds evocative music throughout the film to signify Rana’s memories and feelings, and to emphasize transitions. The last scene (which incorporates Mahmoud Darwish’s poem "State of Siege" is an unforgettable coda to a film that deserves the acclaim it got previously at Cannes and other international film festivals.
Seeking Love Amid the Chaos
Clara Khoury delivers a performance that is luminous, fierce and intensely focused as the title character of Rana’s Wedding. Hany Abu-Assad's 2002 film about a young Palestinian woman on the verge of marriage depicts with subtlety and harsh realism the ambivalence of embarking on a future that not only is marked by emotional doubts, but also is fraught with the uncertainties of wartime. As a portrait of a young woman bravely, if a bit recklessly, finally daring to carve out her own life, Rana's Wedding is thoroughly universal; as a depiction of middle-class Muslim life under Israeli occupation, it is searingly –- but in the end, hopefully -– specific.
Rana's Wedding begins at dawn on a day in November, when Rana is to respond to an ultimatum given by her father: She is to marry one of the desirable men on the list he has composed, or she is to depart with him for Egypt at 4 p.m. that day. The opening sequence transpires in almost total silence as Rana wakes, considers her future, then impulsively packs a plastic shopping bag with a teddy bear and a cell phone. After a guilty glance in on her sleeping father, she makes her break for freedom, her ambivalence showing only when she grabs an extra bite of breakfast pastry before leaving her comfortable East Jerusalem home.
While Rana frantically calls and searches the neighborhood for an unnamed person, it quickly becomes clear that she's trying to contact the man she really wants to marry. He turns out to be Khalil (Khalifa Natour), a theater director living in Ramallah. Unlike the engineers, doctors and lawyers whom Rana's father had in mind, Khalil is far too bohemian and unreliable a prospect to qualify as marriage material; undeterred, Rana takes a bus to find him, bring him back to Jerusalem and begin a new life.
What she encounters are roadblocks, both metaphoric and literal. The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah is routinely congested and sometimes comes under fire from Israeli bullets and stones hurled by Palestinian youths. As Rana travels back and forth, her journey serves as a lens on the pressing –- and oppressive –- realities of life in Israel. But even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict defines the warp and woof of her existence, Rana's immediate concerns are purely of the heart. Only when she crosses paths with a Palestinian funeral does she confront the tension between politics and her more personal, albeit legitimate, preoccupations.
Those two forces finally come to a head after Rana eavesdrops on her father as he decides her fate. Soon thereafter, she puts up a fight with soldiers guarding a roadblock, and she seems to lash out not only at the political forces that circumscribe her life, but also at a stifling paternalistic tradition that she can't seem to escape. During the film's most eloquent scene, Rana examines her wedding dress at a friend's house while a backhoe destroys a home next door. "They're demolishing houses on the day I want to build one," she says.
As forthright as she was at the beginning of the day, by afternoon Rana is giving full expression to her fears: Is Khalil really the man she's meant to marry? Is building a future together nothing more than futile? Is she trading life under one man's thumb for life under another's? The strength of Rana's Wedding is that it doesn't pretend to answer any of these questions. Instead, it portrays with equal parts lyricism and unsentimental candor the leaps of faith it takes to act without knowing all the answers.
A Palestinian Director Subverts a Symbol of Oppression -- Twice
“When I travel to Park City," says Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, on the phone from the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, "I am a filmmaker. There is a car waiting for me at the airport. But when I go back to Israel, I have to stand in line three to four hours in the sun just to get to my destination. You become a dog." He adds, "Even dogs have more rights."
The 41-year-old Nazareth-born director brings a sharp-edged wit and exasperated perspective to the Israeli occupation in his two latest works, Rana's Wedding (a drama opening August 22) and Ford Transit (a documentary that played the Human Rights Watch festival in June). Israeli-controlled checkpoints are the prime loci for both—a site of inconvenience, violence, and in the former film, a bittersweet marriage ceremony.
For Abu-Assad, the checkpoints are not just a symbol of oppression but also represented a huge obstacle in making Rana's Wedding. "It was really hell," he recalls. "We couldn't pass the checkpoints in our cars, so we were forced to use the Ford Transits," he says, referring to the former Israeli military personnel carriers now used by the Palestinians as taxis. A resourceful driver named Rajai—who would become the subject of Ford Transit—saved Rana's Wedding, according to the filmmaker. "He was a superman. He always said, 'No problem.' They were even shooting at us, and he'd say, 'No problem.'"
The fiction of Rana's Wedding and the reality of Ford Transit mix in innumerable ways (the bulldozing of Palestinian houses first appears in the drama, for example, and is confirmed in the documentary), but it's Abu-Assad's satirical approach to his subject matter that unites the two movies stylistically. He calls his sense of humor "a surviving method. By exposing your suffering with jokes, you say to your occupier, 'I am beyond being insulted.’”
His filmmaking is an act of resistance as well. But he says it's not by his own choosing. "I am forced to be political," he says, "because there is a war against the Palestinians to make them invisible, so you must make the Palestinians very visible in your movies, in your interviews, in your everything."
Drama Finds a Palestinian Filmmaker
When Hany Abu-Assad was directing Rana’s Wedding, a film about a young Palestinian woman who resists her father's attempts to marry her off to a man of his choosing, a typical day began with a discussion among the crew members and their driver about where it was possible to film.
Rana’s Wedding, which will open the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center tomorrow, is set in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, a city on the West Bank, and was shot there in late fall 2001, when Israeli-Palestinian violence was growing. For Palestinians, moving from place to place, when permitted, often meant passing through Israeli Army checkpoints. At times Mr. Abu-Assad and his crew had guns aimed at them while they were working.
The story line of Rana’s Wedding is simple. Rana's father disapproves of the theater director she loves, so he plans to take her abroad at 4 p.m. on the day the movie takes place unless she agrees to marry a man from a list he has prepared. Rana has other ideas: she plans to find her lover and marry him that afternoon.
"The film is based on a true story," Mr. Abu-Assad said by telephone from Park City, Utah, where he was attending the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers Lab. "When I heard the story, I thought, 'Wow, this would be great for a movie.' First, there's movement; Rana's searching for her lover, and she has to move from one place to another. Second, it's the story of a Palestinian girl from a conservative family who is becoming an adult. And last is the narrative of the place, about living under occupation."
The Human Rights Watch festival, which runs through June 26 at the Walter Reade Theater, will include films shot in Brazil, India, South Africa, Cuba and the Kurdish region of Iraq, covering subjects including AIDS, poverty and the aftermath of war and genocide. Mr. Abu-Assad will receive the Nestor Almendros Prize for courage and commitment in filmmaking, named after a founder of the festival, a Spanish cinematographer who died in 1992.
On Saturday the festival will present another film directed by Mr. Abu-Assad, Ford Transit, which he shot last summer and which takes place largely in the van of Rajai, a driver he hired while working on Rana’s Wedding. (The title is the name of a European model of a Ford van.)
"The Ford Transit is a metaphor for the theater of the Palestinians, a people without a homeland," Mr. Abu-Assad said. Passengers -- politicians, children, fellow filmmakers, a psychologist, day laborers -- come and go. There are jokes and disagreements; there is a slow-motion interlude at a checkpoint with American gangsta rap on the soundtrack.
"When occupation becomes daily life, reality becomes like fiction," said Mr. Abu-Assad, 41. A Palestinian who was born in Nazareth, he lived and worked in Amsterdam for several years and now lives in Israel.
"I like to say that my work is 100 percent documentary and 100 percent fiction," he said. "People's lives change. In documentaries people will tell you what they think at that moment. Maybe later they will think differently. And the news deals with one side of a story in a sensational way; in a good feature film a problem is seen from all angles, which makes it much closer to reality.
"In Ford Transit some people were there naturally, some I invited into the car," he said. "I want the audience to ask themselves, 'What is real and what is not real?'"
Addressing this blending of fact and fiction, Bruni Burres, the festival's director, said: "Hany is using this in a place where everybody's trying to say they have the truth about the land. Balance? I usually don't use that word. I know that every filmmaker comes with a point of view."
Mr. Abu-Assad's point of view is clear. In conversation he speaks of living not in Israel but in Palestine. "I will accept Israel as a legal state only when Israel accepts Palestinians as equals," he said. He said that he mistrusted the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and that he found hope in the next generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, not this one. He derided the Palestinian suicide bombers for a lack of intelligence.
But his primary focus is on his films. At Sundance he is working with actors, testing scenes from a film he is preparing about two friends in Gaza. Working conditions on that film will probably not be much easier than those on Rana’s Wedding and Ford Transit.
"Working on Rana’s Wedding was a hell," he said. "A whole culture has grown up around these checkpoints. From East Jerusalem to Ramallah is about 10 kilometers. If there is no barrier, it can take 10 minutes. With the barriers, it can be two hours. So you have to find a way to avoid them."
Clever drivers, like clever filmmakers, take alternate routes. He said that Rajai, the driver for Rana’s Wedding and the star of Ford Transit, was -- "how do you say it? -- our Messiah?" He continued: "He delivered us. I'd say, 'I want to be someplace at 1 o'clock,' and he'd say, 'No problem.'" He laughed. "Can you imagine? Always it was, 'No problem.'"
[ on Cannes 2002 ... ]
The competition had Elia Suleiman's deadpan, fantastical meditation on life under Israeli occupation, Divine Intervention, and Amos Gitai's failed cinematic poem about the founding of Israel, Kedma. Suleiman's film was one of the most talked-about in Cannes, and it is brilliant throughout, a series of interlocking, crisply executed blackout sketches that forefront the frustration and ingrained hostility of Palestinian life. Whereas nothing really works in Gitai's movie, absolutely everything works in the Suleiman. But in the end, the film has a slightly airless quality, with its many moments of vacuum-packed conceptual genius. There's no denying its brilliant delineation of personal and cultural anger, but I preferred a smaller and more modest film that covered many of the same issues, Hany Abu-Assad's Rana’s Wedding. Abu-Assad is a documentarian, and for his first work of fiction he stuck with a classic neorealist gambit: a young woman whose father is threatening to take her away to Egypt before sundown must search across Jerusalem and Ramallah for her fiancé and marry him immediately. Abu-Assad's movie, despite a couple of missteps, is a nice job, with a gentle lyricism and a keen eye for offhand details and incidents. There's a terrific moment in which Rana (acted with a winning adolescent determination by Clara Khoury) has to cross through a confrontation between rock-throwing Palestinian kids and Israeli soldiers. Every action is carried out in a believably desultory manner, as though everyone has been through the same thing many times before: the rocks, the gunshots, the wounded boy picked up and carried away. For the climax, Rana herself picks up a rock and hurls it over her shoulder for good measure as she runs on in search of her beloved. This small, simple scene speaks volumes, and it's turned out to be one of my most lasting memories of all the wares on display in Cannes's vast, frenzied, hectoring, 24-hour bazaar of cinema.
Run Rana Run
"My Big Fat Palestinian Wedding" this is not.
Rana, an attractive and headstrong 17-year-old living in her family's Jerusalem home while her father earns a living in Egypt, wakes up one November morning knowing one thing: She must get married -- today.
If she doesn't, she has a problem, and that problem is a single folded-up sheet of paper.
"You're too young to get married," says a letter from her father. "But if you do, choose a groom from this list."
But Rana has her own groom in mind -- however scandalously inadequate he is, compared to the doctors and lawyers on the list. Khalil is a mere theater director, and there's one more problem with him as she sneaks out early in the morning past her sleeping father, who is due to return to Egypt this afternoon with her in tow. He's vanished.
Thus begins Rana's odyssey through Palestinian life, finding Khalil in Ramallah, lining up an official registrar, finding out where dad went back in Jerusalem, getting a marriage license, getting grandmother's blessing, assembling the family, finding the registrar all over again, and fighting off the urge to simply have a nervous breakdown.
Along the way, they run into constant impediments -- an overeager army battalion, a young man's funeral, an Israeli house demolition, slow-moving lines, and ever-present roadblocks. At one army checkpoint, Rana runs right into a stone-throwing, bullet-firing standoff between West Bank youths and Israeli soldiers. She stands impatiently on one side of the road and waits for the firefight to end as if waiting for a "don't walk" sign to change. In New York you wait for the taxi cabs to pass; in the West Bank you wait for the bullets to clear.
The really elegant thing about Rana’s Wedding is how thoroughly the personal is infused with the political. Superficially, it's just a story about a young woman in love, in whose path to the altar fate keeps throwing roadblocks. But literally, the roadblocks are roadblocks. The frustrations of occupation that are a routine part of ordinary life for a law-abiding Palestinian on the way to work or to visit relatives become all the more desperate as each one pushes Rana critical minutes closer to her 4:00 deadline.
With two exceptions, the politics of the situation are merely understood. It's not necessary for Rana to explicitly speak out about any of this -- she stops only twice, briefly, on her dogged trek back and forth across the security zone to acknowledge her feelings after confronting harsh realities. Mostly she just keeps moving. This turns the movie from one about hopelessness and anger to one focused on the ultimate act of hope, and love. If Rana and Khalil can defy the odds against their union, maybe that's a way of defying the odds against peace and justice too.
Whether they will succeed or fail awaits the end of the film, which you will have to see for yourself, but the final scene packs a huge impact. Simple but surprising, intensely personal and yet symbolic of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the film is as eloquent a statement as can be made on war, peace and humanity in Israel. It's very much worth seeing on both sides of the divide.
As a footnote to Rana’s Wedding, director Hany Abu-Assad has another very worthwhile film in this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, called Ford Transit. It's a documentary about the ubiquitous "Fords" -- rickety Ford vans that shuttle commuters back and forth between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Fords form a backdrop to Rana's Wedding as well, and it's worth seeing both films together.
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