Movie with a message: Sabbath of the suicide bomber
Israeli director Dror Zahavi's latest film is an uncompromising yet moving study of the Arab-Israeli relationship through the story of a Palestinian terrorist. Donald Macintyre reports
The Israeli director Dror Zahavi succinctly describes the plot of his latest film Shabat Shalom Maradona (Sabbath greetings Maradona): "It's the story of the 48 hours spent in Israel by a suicide bomber who gets stuck in Tel Aviv and doesn't know what to do until the switch of his bomb has been repaired."
Arresting - and accurate - as Mr Zahavi's summary is, it hardly does justice to the complex emotional, psychological and, albeit indirectly, political layers of what is certain to be the one of the most unusual and daring feature films due to screen next year.
Tarek, 20, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Tulkarem with a promising career as a professional footballer at Maccabee Nazareth, has been chosen to carry out a suicide bombing in the crowded, open-air Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. The title is a nod to the protagonist's passion for football.
He's an eligible candidate for the bombing because his father, by persuading the troops to keep allowing his son through the checkpoint to get to the club, has soon become obliged to do favours for the Israeli military in return; to become, in other words, a small-time collaborator. Now, with the intifada under way and the borders sealed, Tarek's footballing days are over and his father all but ostracised by his own community. To clear his family's name as well as help the Palestinian cause, Tarek agrees to do the bombing. But the explosive belt he wears fails to detonate because the switch has a fault and burns out.
He finds an electrician, Katz, a 70-year-old Auschwitz survivor, to fix the switch - in total ignorance, of course, of its true purpose. But Katz warns Tarek that he won't be able to do the repairs until Sunday morning, because of the Sabbath, and invites him to stay over in his flat until then.
Slowly Tarek discovers something of Jewish life on the other side of the separation barrier that usually serves to make Tulkarem and Tel Aviv, only 25 miles apart, as alien and separate as if they were on different planets. Katz's wife rarely gets out of bed any more; their beloved son died during army manoeuvres while doing his national service many years ago. Finally, on this strange weekend when according to the plan, he should have been already dead, Tarek meets Keren, a 17-year-old Jewish girl who has broken out from her ultra-Orthodox family to live a secular life - and has been beaten by religious members of the community for doing so. The young couple begin a friendship which, with time, might blossom into something more. And he learns a little of the deep-seated Israeli fears of suicide attacks like the one he has crossed the green line to perpetrate.
It wouldn't be fair to future audiences to reveal the ending. It's hardly a happy one, though as Mr Zahavi explains: "This is the story of a suicide bomber who comes with hate and leaves without it." And at least two dramatic yet plausible twists of plot underline the challenges this Israeli-German co-production poses to the received wisdom of many cinemagoers, especially in Israel itself.
Mr Zahavi says that at the wrap party when shooting ended in May he put together - as he usually does to say thank-you to the crew for their hard work - around 15 minutes of rushes from the film for them to watch.
"I guess there were about 60 to 70 people there, mostly people who worked on the film and a few special guests. When the showing finished, there was complete silence. For about five or six minutes nobody was able to say anything. Then they started talking among themselves at first and then people started to come up to me saying: 'I was emotionally impressed. I was so moved by the film. But I didn't want to be moved because it was about a suicide bomber.'"
Mr Zahavi, an experienced 47-year-old Israeli director who has worked - mainly in television - in Germany up to now and for whom this is his first feature in Israel, says this contradiction is bound to manifest itself within sections of the public. For by depicting the bomber as a human being rather than a monster, with palpably human as well as nationalist motives, the film is an "emotional trip" which asks the audience to feel empathy for someone they would normally reject and hate.
Saying that he and the film's veteran Israeli producer, Zvi Spielman, were well aware of the risk they were taking with such a subject, he recognises that not everyone will have the open-mindedness to take easily to the film. " You are breaking a taboo not just politically but emotionally. Some will reject this and some will love it."
But it's clear that Mr Zahavi and Mr Spielman were determined to make a film that in the director's words, would "build a bridge" between Israelis and Palestinians and offer a hope of reconciliation. The dialogue will be in both Hebrew and Arabic. Tarek, the film's leading man, is played by Shredi Jabanin, a young Israeli-Arab actor, who admitted earlier this year that the part was a challenge: "I have to play a character that everyone hates, yet I have to try to make the audience love him. It's complicated."
Both the director and producer are broadly on the Israeli left-Mr Zahavi's parents were Israeli communists and a picture of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime minister who took the greatest risks for peace and was assassinated by an extreme right wing fanatic in 1995, still hangs outside Mr Spielman's office in the Herzilya studio complex, Israel's Cinecitta. Mr Spielman says the story focuses on "36 hours with the enemy, in which both sides learn to find out about the other. That's what fascinated me about the story. "
The history of the script is almost as remarkable as the plot itself. Invited to meet graduating students at the Tel Aviv university script writing department, Mr Spielman was particularly struck by one student's proposal in the booklet produced for the event - and even more by how he presented it under a grilling from a team of TV professionals.
Mr Spielman took the student, Ido Dror, aside and asked him to come to his office the following Sunday. "Much later he confessed that he had nothing written except this one page." But he worked furiously over the weekend and by the Sunday had produced a "kind of treatment."
The student had intended the idea as a 60-minute TV drama. But Mr Spielman gave him a $1,000 down payment and told him to come back with the script for a 90-minute feature. And so Shabat Shalom Maradona was born. "I fell in love with the idea of the script," says Mr Zahavi. "It was a very happy hour for me when Zvi called me and asked me to do the film."
The film, which Mr Spielman and his German co-producer Heike Wielhe-Timm hope will get its first showing at the Berlin Biennale, has been three years in the gestation and was already in story development when real life imitated art in an especially violent way. A suicide bomber recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blew himself up in the Carmel Market at around 11.15am on a fine November morning in 2004, killing three Israelis and injuring some 30 others. If nothing else, it was a reminder that - after a period when suicide bombings have long been much fewer and further between than at the peak of the intifada - as Mr Zahavi frankly says it would be a "disaster" for the film if one were to occur during or in the run-up to distribution.
By another grim coincidence Shlomo Vishinsky, the well known Cameri Theatre actor whom Dror Zahavi successfully asked to play Katz, had lost his own son Lior, an army sergeant, in May 2004 when his APC was blown up by an anti-tank rocket as his unit prepared to detonate a weapons smuggling tunnel into Gaza.
But like the character he plays, Mr Vishinsky is no hater. Recently telephoned by a reporter for a reaction after the Israeli military said they had killed the militant suspected of killing his son he says: "I said that I was sorry for his mother. It wasn't going to bring my son back. I hate the German Reich; I don't hate Arabs. I have Jewish friends and Arab friends. And I don't believe the Arabs hate us either." Using the word " neighbours" to describe Palestinians he added: " In a way the tragic thing about this war is that it's a war without hate."
Mr Vishinsky is active in a campaign to stop people, including some high-profile showbusiness figures, from evading army service. But but he is, like Mr Zahavi and Mr Spielman, an equally ardent supporter of an equitable two-state solution to the conflict.
Mr Vishinsky, 64, says he does wonder what Israeli audiences will make of the highly personal - rather than political - motivation of protecting his father ascribed to Tarek in the film but then he reflects that in a sense the motives of his own son, a leftist, were not so different. "He wanted to protect me too. I asked him why he was in that troop and he said 'to stop buses being blown up in Tel Aviv'."
And the director, who made a close study of the backgrounds of suicide bombers in preparation for the film, agrees that the motives are often complex. "In 2004 the army produced a profile of the typical suicide bomber - young, male, fanatic. Then came the women, the intelligent people, the religious. There is no one profile of a suicide bomber. I have even talked to women in the occupied territories who told me that sometimes personal marital or other problems cause women to do bombings."
Referring to the armed struggle for establishing the state of Israel in the late 1940s, Mr Spielman says while suicide attacks played no part in it, " we tend to forget" that acts of what was then called terrorism certainly did. Not that the film remotely condones suicide bombing or anything like it. Rather, by showing the human interaction between Israelis and a Palestinian, it sets out to expose more clearly the wounds on both sides - and perhaps the possibilities of healing them.
Answering the inevitable question about Paradise Now, the Palestinian film that won a Golden Globe, in which suicide bombing is also a central theme, Mr Zahavi says it was a "cinematographic poster," in which the politics and rights and wrongs of bombing were much discussed. Mr Zahavi eschewed overt political discussion in his film preferring to locate the story at the purely human level.
He said: "Paradise Now, which is a film I like and appreciated a lot, represented only the Palestinian point of view. Our film represents the Israeli point of view as well as the Palestinian point of view."