By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/9/21 – One of the more interesting films at this year’s Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles is Al Gharib (The Stranger, 2021), a first feature by Palestinian writer-director Ameer Fakher Eldin. The Stranger debuted at this year’s Venice International Film Festival and has been selected as Palestine’s official entry in the International Feature Film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. The story is about a doctor going through an existential crisis in the occupied Golan Heights and stars Palestine’s Ashraf Barhoum (The Kingdom, Paradise Now) playing an unlicensed doctor Adnan whose life takes an unlucky turn when he rescues a wounded man upon his return from the war in Syria. The Stranger is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy directed by Ameer Fakher Eldin. His second feature with the provisional title Nothing of Nothing Remains is being developed by the Syrian-German-Palestinian-Qatari production company Red Balloon, as was his first film. Al Gharib will have a second screening on Tuesday, November 9, 4:00 pm at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles. For tickets, go to: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/awff-2021-al-garib-the-stranger-palestine-in-competition-tickets-197031736227
Eldin’s film shares not only a title with the famous Albert Camus novel The Stranger (1942), but also its focus on a man immersed in an existential crisis when faced with the absurd. It begins with a woman’s voice asking the back of a male head staring out of the window, “France? They have delicious bread… Germany?” It’s a strange and mysterious opening that immediately suggests a yearning to be somewhere other than the occupied Golan Heights, Israel’s contested border territory with Syria and Lebanon. The man in flux, looking out of the window, is Adnan (Ashraf Barhom), who doesn’t want to leave the sloping, snow-capped mountains. A late and unseasonal fog is moving across the ruins of more than 100 Syrian villages destroyed during and after the Six-Day War in 1967.
The mist is a metaphor for Adnan’s state of mind. He is a man trapped by the weight of history, his own traumas and a crumbling patriarchal system. He doesn’t want to be like his stubborn father, Abu Adnan (Mohammad Bakri), but as Layla (Amal Kais), his long-suffering wife and mother of their daughter, argues, he is just like him. The feeling of animosity between father and son is mutual. The white-bearded Abu Adnan is writing a will, declaring that he will leave everything to the temple, including his house and apple orchard, disinheriting his only son, Adnan. Adnan barely talks to his father and wants to be different.
Like Golan Heights itself, Adnan has been marked by life. He is a destroyed, rejected person who has chosen to live on the margins. As a child, he was disinherited by his father (Mohammad Bakri), he did not complete his medical studies at Moscow University. Due to his feeling of unfulfilled duty and failure, he distances himself from his wife Leyla (Amal Kais) and daughter (Amer Hlehel). Adnan spends his days getting drunk and taking care of the farm and the few animals that remain on it, which seem to be a mirror image of himself. The cow gives milk with blood, and the three-legged dog is unable to defend itself against other, more aggressive animals.
Everyone who knows him thinks that Adnan is a former doctor who is now just the town drunk, blaming all of his woes on his broken family and harboring a sense that he knows best how to fix it. Adnan is in such a bad state that his brother-in-law visits him in his “shitty” orchard and wants him to divorce his sister, whom he knows loves her husband too much to leave him. Layla is a character used to suggest hope but is too peripheral for this message to really hit home. If his domestic troubles were not already big enough to deal with, then comes the sting in the tale: the town is occupied by Israeli forces. The protagonists must pass checkpoints if they want to come and go. They cannot do what they like. “What’s this checkpoint for?” is a question that even the person manning the blockade doesn’t want to answer, or maybe he can’t; it’s just the way it is. Adnan almost gets into an altercation with him, but the position of power is clear to see, and he is frustrated.
Is this the source of his feelings of worthlessness? He screams that he wants to go to Damascus, a place he’s been unable to go to for 50 years, and not even the war raging in Syria seems to deter this desire. It looks as if he’s going to fall off the edge, until his life takes a dramatic turn and the movie switches tone when Adnan must help a mysterious soldier (“the stranger”) wounded in the Syrian war. Director Eldin uses this meeting to bring some of his themes into context and to give Adnan a physical body to help him face the fog in his mind.
The key question in the context of the entire film is asked by Leyla – “How long can anyone live in the shadow of someone else?” The protagonist lives in the shadow of his father, the pressure of friends who try to help him, and the importance of national tragedies. The Stranger is a personal film conveying the feeling of powerlessness and nonsense of someone who remains at heart with his bleeding homeland and yet is unable to do anything for it, as much as he can do for himself. Eldin reminds us that every human being in captivity is a stranger. On the surface, The Stranger is a gloomy poetic film – in many ways, a male-centric, long, funeral eulogy lacking even illusory hope. Such a film can be difficult for many viewers but reflects an existential vision that harkens back to the work of Albert Camus.