By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 11/18/2023
One of the more interesting films at the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles this year was Firaz Khoury’s Alam (Palestine, 2022), which has been picked up by Film Movement for distribution and is Palestine’s Oscar bid for Best International Feature Film for the Academy Awards in 2024. Alam is a coming-of-age story set in a politically volatile village in Israel-occupied Palestine (West Bank), in an area where new Israeli settlements continue to be built and former Palestinian villages eliminated.
The film takes its title Alam from the Arabic word for “flag” and the film asks us to consider what flags symbolize and how the meaning of a flag alters based on where it is flown. Alam does not raise these questions directly but stimulates its viewers to formulate questions of similar nature on what and what not constitutes the underlying meaning and value of similar national symbols, how these symbols have gained their meaning and if this meaning is eternal or evolving.
This debut feature from Firaz Khoury follows the antics of a young man named Tamer (Mahmood Bakri) and his friends as they experience a normal set of activities for high school youths who are in their senior year of high school. Tamer is a bit of an artist and has gotten in trouble at his local high school a few times so that the threat of dismissal sits over him. He lives in the back house on his parents’ property – in what used to be his grandfather’s house, furnished with elegant old furnishing that predate the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Tamer and his Palestinian friends are not much focused on their studies but like to spend their time drinking and searching for the cheapest outlets of weed, fakebook stalking, gaming, partying, and trying to graduate with the least effort possible.
Tamer’s mundane life as a high school student, mostly unaffected by the traumatic history of the Palestinian people but nonetheless a recipient of its turbulent aftermath, is injected with excitement when he develops an adolescent attraction towards his new classmate Maysaa’ (Sereen Khass) and develops a friendship with Safwat (Muhammad Abed Elrahman), a young man with more anger about the displacement suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Unknown to Tamer, Maysaa’ and Safwat plan to host the Palestinian flag over their school on Israeli Independence Day, which also happens to be the day remembered as “Al Nakba” – the day Palestinian residents were forced to migrate from their former villages, as Israeli troops forced them eastward. Tamer and his friends join in on the plan as the rest of the film follows the many pitfalls of their flag replacement operation and the sense of national duty and political awakening they develop and experience along the way.
The film Alam requires that the viewers have some know about the bloodshed and political history between Israel and Palestine. Hence, the setting is crucial. Memory and erasure of memory are predominant themes of the film as we witness some of the young Palestinians vehemently attempting to uphold the position of themselves as survivors and rightful owners of the land on which their families have lived for generations. We see that the history of Palestine is being rewritten in the school curriculums, as some of the students confront the Palestinian history teacher about the veracity of his lecture material, which narrativizes a history of Palestine from an Israeli perspective,
We also see telecasting TV channels also operated by Israeli television as propaganda about the beauty of Israel as a Jewish homeland, negating any positive aspects of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and their culture. We see a group of Israelis led by an Israeli tour guide, visiting a planted forest of non-indigenous trees, adding to the Israeli claim that growing forests is a sign of social and economic progress – but some of those forests are on former Palestinian orchards and grazing land.
Safwar gets in trouble in class or pointing he inaccuracies of the history curriculum, explaining that his grandfather was killed by the Israelis and his family forced to move as the Israelis destroyed his former Palestinian village. The constant waving of Israeli flags on Israeli television and the presence of Israeli flags in public places (schools and hospitals) in the West Bank only serves to emphasize the blatant propaganda in the media. We hear about many Palestinian villages were destroyed to grow trees, which is part of the Israeli myth of “rebirth.”
The film introduces multiple characters presenting nuanced perspectives on the protagonist and his comrades’ complex situation. While not shown in depth, Tamer’s father (Amer Hiehel) is depicted as a successful, educated modern Israeli Arab hesitant to engage in dissenting actions against Israeli institutions. He embodies a more bourgeoise outlook as his upper-class status ensures some form of comfort despite being a victim of ethnic segregation. He also warns his son against getting mixed up in any political unrest. This may arise from the brutality his parents were subjected to during the initial conflicts of the late 1940s and especially the torture undergone by his brother (Saleh Bakri), who was a proper revolutionary. Tamer’s uncle spent 20 years in an Israeli prison and clearly lost his mind and like to set things on fire.
Contrary to Tamer’s father, the local revolutionary Adel (Riyad Sliman) educates his fellow Palestinians on their ancestral history and the rights they can exercise in case of arrests by the Israeli police. Adel openly challenges any attempt made to rewrite the history of his Palestine, as demonstrated by the instance where he rebukes the history presented by a guide to Israeli tourists on the trees grown over land previously belonging Palestinian citizens.
The focus Khoury gives students to further this narrative against the forced erasure of history and memory underlines the value he puts on educational institutions as a dissenting body that has the potential to question and rewrite history. At one point, the students of Tamer’s class walk out in protest, stating that the syllabus they are being talked about, the history of their country, is false and biased towards their oppressors. They call out their teacher for being part of the problem.
Despite the volatile topics the film deals with, what is surprising is its ability to be charming and, at times, even warm, with many scenes that center around the ironic immature naivete and innocence of high school life. Scenes like those showing Shekel collecting money to donate to a campaign against drugs when in truth he does so to buy drugs himself or when a drunk Rida dances senselessly at a wedding only hours before they conduct the flag swap operation, which may not only get them expelled from school but even imprisoned are small pockets of humor that the film showers on its audience.
The film weaves together a tale of love, friendship, and freedom under the iconography of the flag. Safwat is the initial planner of a stealth operation to replace the school’s Israeli flag with a Palestinian flag. Safwat shares how he finds pride in the flag but recognizes it only as a tool. He claims that the start of liberation is hoisting the flag, but the highest point of release is burning the flag. The success or failure of the flag replacement plan is ultimately less important than the later brutality of the Israeli soldiers at a protest in a former Palestinian olive orchard. The scars of Israeli occupation will haunt Palestine youth for life, and this should be a grave reminder that the Israeli attempt to rewrite history will continue to be challenge. Alam asks audiences to ponder the ever-changing meaning of iconographies and the meaning of flags.