Ahmad and Muhammad are running. Though they’re obviously encumbered by their bulky backpacks, bent over and clambering over rocks and brush, they move quickly. “Eyes on the road,” one of their party instructs. “Cross that road fast as a rocket.”
They’re on the lookout for the police who patrol Israel’s border. Ahmad and Muhammad are Palestinian day workers, hired to help construct the city of Modi’in (a project initiated in 1992) and granted temporary IDs toward that end, but always in danger of being picked up, arrested, and sent home. (When this happens, they come back, still in search of work.) In order not to have to cross between the nations each day, the workers make rudimentary shelters in the craggy hillsides, sleeping in boxes or under tarps, cooking tomatoes over campfires. Each night, the loosely affiliated group members share their stories: “That bitch at the checkpoint wouldn’t let us through,” someone grumbles. “It’s the same girl who caught us last time, the one with the small mouth.” The guys nod and agree: she’s the one.
9 Star Hotel
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
US: 22 Jul 2008
As they talk, the camera bobs uneasily, anticipating, along with the group, the police raid that might come at any moment. The possibility of panicky flight hangs over Ido Haar’s affecting documentary 9 Star Hotel, as even the workers’ respites are shaped by discussions of police, potential detention, and their current hardships. On the construction site, they take turns weighing themselves on a scale they’ve found in a garbage container, the occasion for jokes about how marriage can help a man gain weight (“It depends on the wife”). When Muhammad notes that he’s been working at the city-to-be for some five years, Ahmad remembers his own history on the site with his father, working as night guards. Since his dad died four years ago, he says wistfully, he’s “the only breadwinner” for his family. Though he has a brother who is studying abroad, Ahmad can’t imagine such an opportunity for himself; when he asked friends in Egypt about pursuing dentistry or pharmacology, he was informed he needs $4,500 a year, for four years. “Where am I going to get $18,000?” he asks.
The film (a 56-minute version of the original, 78-minute theatrical release, airing as part of PBS’ POV series on 22 July) is the result of a year Haar spent with the workers, observing their diurnal routines, darting through the black night when the group is chased by cops, the soundtrack filled with shallow breathing and clattering stones. While the film offers no judgment or even much broad context, it does point out that even this semi-stable arrangement—hard manual labor by day; fitful, frequently interrupted sleep at night—is at risk. Once the Israelis complete the wall on the West Bank (Israel calls it a “Separation Barrier,” Palestinians call it the “Apartheid Wall”), the workers know, “We won’t be able to sneak in.”
Until that imminent, life-changing date, they concentrate on single moments, their dreams if success tied to families back home, of providing for them as men must do. When it rains at night, the workers hunker down in cardboard boxes partly protected by sheets of plastic; following one scamper through the dark wet night, Ahmad bends over to remove his shoes before bed, his pants legs covered in slick mud, his socks full of holes and soaked through. Haar’s camera remains at a respectful distance as Ahmad climbs into his box, hoping for a few minutes of rest before the next alarm. Later, when the weather clears, Ahmad shows off some of the detritus he’s collected, a toy ride-on truck for “my kid brother,” he smiles, a paint set and computer boards.
The threat embodied by the police is ever-present but remains mostly unseen, as distant figures or cars positioned at checkpoints indicate the limits of the workers’ movements. Such limits are not only physical, but also cultural and psychic. As rain pounds outside, they discuss their options and their hopes. “Our problem is that at 12, we already think about women and marriage,” says Muhammad. A coworker agrees: “That’s right,” he says, “Arabs only think about their dicks”—encouraged by fathers, grandfathers, and centuries of tradition to focus on work and immediate ends. “You’re stuck in the same rut,” laments Muhammad, “You never talk about anything new.” As they talk, their general resentments of politicking and war-making come to the fore: “It’s all our own fault. Because when the Palestinian Authority came in to power, we all cheered. Liberation! Liberation! Liberation, my foot. Countries can’t stand up to Israel, so you think we have a chance?”
The film leaves its own political analysis at this level, showing the terrible daily effects of endless discord. Both specific and vague, the systemic exploitation of impoverished and displaced workers is hardly unique to this conflict. Feeling frustrated and worn down, the workers don’t so much lament their situation as they wait for it to end or erupt. “If you shut a cat in a room, won’t it jump at you?” They nod their heads, perhaps ready to jump, but without a clear target.