Arab filmmakers and intellectuals are increasingly turning to fiction to help their societies clear away the fog of idealized longing and romanticized revolution in order to deal more pragmatically with the present. In his 41/2-hour film, "The Door to the Sun," Egyptian-born director Yousry Nasrallah also uses a novel to retrace the melancholy epic of Palestinian history.
The film, featured Saturday as part of the D.C. International Film Festival, is based on a book by Elias Khoury, a Lebanese Palestinian literary editor and writer who is also a professor of literature at New York University. Khoury's fictional story is gleaned from five years of interviews with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as from accounts offered by historians, Arab as well as Israeli, including Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe. The book, written in Arabic in 1998, has been translated into Hebrew, French and German.
The two-part film revolves around a love story that endures for more than 50 years, seen through the eyes of Younes, beginning in Galilee in the 1940s. Younes marries Nahila, but the two end up living apart. He goes into exile, presumably to become a fighter, and she is left to deal with raising a family in the shadow of Israelis living nearby.
They meet occasionally at a hideaway on the outskirts of the village, their disrupted lives briefly rejoined in a stone cave whenever he manages to journey across the border. The name of the book refers to the opening of their cave and is a metaphor for the life they cobbled together there with chaos all around them.
Over the years, their relationship triumphs over history: the establishment of the Israeli state, exile, the involvement of Palestinian fighters in the Lebanese civil war, the hardships faced by the residents of Galilee and the risks of guerrilla operations when Younes crosses the Israeli border.
The Israeli perspective is left out of the film, except for the occasional voices of faceless soldiers and the scenes of carefree children playing across the fence in an adjacent Jewish settlement. It is the Palestinian narrative that is highlighted through several characters.
At one point, as Nahila lectures her husband about daydreaming, she quotes Avi, an Israeli to whom she sells olives and wild thyme she gathers from the field and sells to survive. Her husband protests: "Avi? Who is Avi?" She explains, but he questions her with hostility. "What is he like, this Avi?" Matter-of-factly, Nahila responds with a shrug: "He is like everyone, like all the people we know."
"This is not a film about what you usually see in the media but about what my generation did to stay human, despite all the horrors we did to ourselves," Nasrallah, 52, said in an interview. His film was shown this year at film festivals in Cannes and New York, and has opened in Beirut, Bahrain and Paris.
"This is a work of fiction, but it is not a fairy tale," the director said. "This is one of the first novels that writes about Palestinians and not about the Palestinian cause, and it talks about individuals and how they survived."
The first part of the film evokes the bittersweet memories of the couple's paradise lost against the backdrop of the impotency of Arab armies.
The second half offers a harsh critique of what Palestinians did wrong and seeks to deconstruct the futile myths that politicians have exploited over the years, which led to defeats, among them the humiliating departure of Palestinian fighters from the port of Beirut in 1982.
"That part is much more intense," Nasrallah said. "It is about what Arabs did to Palestinians and what Palestinians did to themselves. This is the story of my generation. This is about the forty- to fifty-somethings. This is a generation that has not told its story yet and this is what we are doing."
In one scene set in Galilee, Nahila tells her husband that their son died after falling from a tree in a kibbutz where he was playing with Israeli children. Seeking revenge, Younes heads to an Israeli settlement with plans to blow it up.
Nasrallah juxtaposes imagined scenes of the explosions and billowing fires, accompanied by the screams of children from the would-be attack by Younes, who defuses the device and walks away into the night. Nasrallah said this scene addresses the issue of suicide attacks and the cult of death that has grown around Palestinian problems.
"The idea is not to encourage people to die or take their own life. All our work as thinkers, filmmakers and novelists has been to give some kind of alternative to violence or taking one's own life," he said. "For me it is a film about emancipation, of individuals redefining themselves outside the framework of victim and victimizer. They are accountable to one another as humans. This is where democracy begins."
At a session after the film was shown in Washington, three Palestinian American women in the audience criticized the film as being too pessimistic and one asked whether Nasrallah was declaring that the Palestinian cause was dead.
Nasrallah responded: "I don't think that choosing life is pessimistic. Renouncing the ideologies of death is optimistic, not self-defeating."