Arab Cinema: Abu Wael's "Atash"

Realism in Unreal Places

The film "Atash" by the young Palestinian director Tawfik Abu Wael is about a family that has been living in seclusion in the no-man's-land of a former Israeli military base. Ingrid Arnold had a look at the film

​​A glowing-hot charcoal kiln catches fire. The flame hasn't been put out yet when the father tears down the wobbly fence surrounding a water reservoir in a dusty landscape. "I want running water, just like everyone else!"

The son runs away angry, the mother and the two grown daughters are resigned to remain in this ghost town somewhere in no-man's-land. They seem to be used to this kind of outburst, but they are not supportive of the father's demand for running water: "We can rent a house with the money instead," the mother tells him.

Exile in no-man's-land

The first scene of "Atash" lays bare several conflicts—but the biggest secret that keeps the family together only comes out gradually. This family of five is not living in these dire conditions voluntarily. And laying a water pipeline could mean setting up house in this barren place forever.

Ten years ago the father decided to move here to save the life of his oldest daughter. He was under pressure to give in to the social mores of the community and kill the "whore," Gamila, in order to restore the family's honor. Now they are able to survive by selling the coal from stolen wood, but the women never leave the valley.

By laying the water pipeline, the patriarch brings more change than he would like to see. The younger daughter is blatantly lazy, and Gamila frees herself from her isolation more gradually, but with greater determination.

Even the son, who attends school in the village against the will of his father, is increasingly defying his authority. A father who has plagued himself for years with the idea that he has made the four people he loves miserable is now also losing his sovereignty.

He stokes his fear of the outside world, specifically his fear of sabotage by the "Jewish land administration." So he keeps watch over the pipeline day and night. The son takes over this task during the presumed absence of his father…

A life under observation

"Atash" tells the tale of a timeless tragedy. The fact that the family lives in Israel and are Palestinian is only addressed in the margins, but then again, it does play a role. The family's state of fear and confinement is caused by and reinforced by the social power relations. This is also true within the family itself.

Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories most certainly has an influence on the social life of the Palestinians, including in the other parts of Palestine. It may even strengthen the traditional behavior of the villagers. This parable-like story represents the family as the smallest unit of society and as a metaphor for an entire people.

The fact that the story takes place in such a barren landscape is not an attempt to realistically portray Arabic life, it is instead an aesthetic choice. Constantly changing cinemascope establishing shots and odd perspectives prevent the viewer from gaining a sense of orientation amidst the few houses in the landscape, which has an unsettling effect.

There are no wide views, the viewer feels locked in and under observation just like the protagonists. But the ultimate origin of this surreal feeling is not the result of the chosen camera perspectives. "Atash" was filmed in a mock village near Um El Fahem, the home of director Tawfik Abu Wael, in what was once a training ground for the Israeli army.

Omnipresent conflict

Um El Fahem means "mother of coal" and is the second largest Arabic city in Israel, nor far from the border of the occupied territories. Collecting wood for making coal is one of the traditional sources of income in the region. In recent years Islamists have gained favor here, which has led to an increase in conflicts with Israeli security forces.

Abu Wael was born in 1976 and studied film directing at the university in Tel Aviv. He considers himself part of the "New Generation" of Palestinian artists who are no longer willing to allow the subjects for their films to be dictated by the occupation.

This stance paradoxically led to Abu Wael encountering difficulties in financing his first feature film. Apparently European film sponsors expect Palestinian films to clearly address the Israeli occupation and show soldiers or border walls.

"Atash" shows instead a society caught within its own patriarchal traditions, in which silent violence prevails and where it seems there is no movement or change.

Abu Wael shows that which he himself knows all too well. The cast is made up of non-professional actors from the same region represented in the film. Yet everything the film does not show is also somehow present. Another way in which this compact narrative is a metaphor for reality.

​​"Atash" - Israel, Palestine 2004, Script and direction: Tawfik Abu Wael, with Hussein Yassin Mahajne, Amal Bweerat, Roba Blal, Jamila Abu Hussein, Ahamad Abed El Gani, subtitled.

Ingrid Arnold

© 2005

Translation from German: Christina White

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Web-site "Atash"

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