“Inch’Allah,” Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s feature about Israel-Palestine, may be the strongest effort yet to convey the emotions of the supercharged struggle over land and dignity in the present period. For nearly a half-century, those who wanted justice in Palestine hoped that some representation of their narrative could reach the screen. They lived in the shadow, of course, of the epochal power of “Exodus,” probably the most effective propaganda film in world history. A great many years ago I recall Andrew Sarris telling a Columbia film class that the Palestinians were enthused when Jean-Luc Godard got funding to make a movie about their struggle, but were disappointed by the results. What they had in mind was something like a modern western, with the fedayeen in the role of heroic good guys, a project which was never really in the French auteur’s wheelhouse.
Numerous films have sought to convey something of the moral ambiguity of the struggle, including Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” I haven’t seen Julian Schnabel’s “Miral,” based on the novel/memoir by Rula Jabreal, the story of an orphanage for Palestinian girls whose parents were killed at Deir Yassin. Many had high hopes for the film, perhaps because of the widely acknowledged talent, warmth, and celebrity of Schnabel, but for one reason or another the movie never really took off.
“Inch’Allah” can’t boast the star power of Jean-Luc Godard or Julian Schnabel; its director, Barbeau-Lavalette, is young and highly regarded in the Quebec film world, but not any sort of household name. But her movie deserves the hopes and access to screens granted to “Miral,” and more. It is a tough, gritty, and intense portrayal of Palestinian life under the occupation and the moral dilemmas faced by those—like the Canadian doctor played by the gorgeous Evelyne Brochu—who get involved trying to help them. The Palestinians, three generations ago a rural and pacific people, have been ghettoized and hardened. More than any movie I’ve seen, “Inch’Allah” conveys the something of the feel of Palestinian life, sarcastic and bitter in the younger generations, old-fashioned in the older ones, trying cope under a system of domination and control far more sophisticated than anything South Africans could dream up.
The protagonist, Chloe, represents an element that has become a significant part of the struggle for Palestine, the Westerners who have gotten involved, often putting their lives on the line because however they might have felt about the establishment of Israel, they refuse to accept that this should mean Western complicity in Israel’s stamping on the Palestinians, forever. As Margaret Thatcher put it with precision, while Israel deserves to live in peace with secure borders, one must also work to fulfill legitimate Palestinian aspirations “because you cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people.”
Barbeau-Lavalette’s Chloe figure has thrust herself into the lives of the oppressed as a doctor. But she is, as some of her patients remind her, “white” and can straddle the two worlds; when not with her patients and boyfriend in Ramallah, she pals around with an Israeli army conscript who shares her West Jerusalem apartment building. The latter, played expressively by Sivan Levy, tells her, “it’s not your war.”
This is a gripping movie. I’m not going to engage in spoiler-alert descriptions, but there are two scenes—one no more than a conversation between two women, the other a portrayal of a well known consequence of the occupation—which are as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. In terms of acting and production values, it is accomplished: you really do feel immersed in the texture of life, the sounds, the smells of the camps around Ramallah. It is sometimes slow, as indie films are. But at the very least it reaches the entertainment level of “No,” “Barbara,” “Rust and Bone,” “A Separation“—all widely available in theaters that show foreign and independent films, the last a winner of an Academy Award.
I mention this because as of this writing “Inch’Allah” has been consigned to film festival purgatory; I saw its single showing at Filmfest D.C. It was released last fall in Canada, and there is no guarantee that it will make into American theaters. This would be a tremendous shame.