Freedom. Democracy. God. Discourse concerning the conflict in the Middle East is often saddled with vague terms and huge ideas, and often at the expense of a genuine understanding of what’s at stake for the people who actually live in the region. The Palestinian conflict, for example, is seen (depending on which writers you read or, better yet, which cable news outlet you turn on) as a clash of religions (Islam vs. Judaism) or, even bigger, a clash of civilizations (the East vs. the West). But more often than not, such broad prognostications on both sides of the spectrum are the result of ideology running rampant and spun by demagogues who earn their living and advance their careers by inflating the matter to epic proportions.
But what does the situation look like for those who must earn their living amidst the titanic cataclysm of their environs? Saverio Costanzo’s Private offers a revealing portrayal of the conflict as it affects individual lives both in Israel and occupied Palestine. For the characters of the film, abstracts like freedom and religion take a backseat to far more pressing issues such as education, jobs, family, and home. The last of these, in particular, serves as the inspiration for Costanzo’s largely allegorical rendering, shot with a handheld camera and presented in long scenes in order to instill a sense of the reality of life for one Palestinian family forced to confront the violence of Israeli occupation.
The film centers on Mohammad, a literature teacher, and Samia, his wife. The couple lives with their five children in a modest, two-story home in the Palestinian countryside — a dwelling that just happens to be of strategic value to the Israeli army. Consequently, in the dead of one particular night, faces blackened with greasepaint, soldiers kick in the door, brandishing fully automatic weapons and herding the family into their living room. After the yelling and screaming subside, the head soldier invites Mohammad to leave his house. Upon Mohammad’s refusal, the soldier informs him that the house now belongs to the Israeli army, and will be comprised of three areas: Area “A” is the living room, to which the family has full access; Area “B” is the kitchen and dining rooms, which the family can visit during certain hours; and Area “C” is the second story bedrooms, which are now off-limits to any family member.
The situation, of course, advances a strong parallel to the conditions in modern Palestine, which is administered entirely by a system of Israeli checkpoints. Palestinians must carry proper identification and credentials to travel between areas, and even then are allowed to pass only at the pleasure of Israeli soldiers who man (and frequently close) the checkpoints themselves. As such, when Mohammad asks to retrieve clothes for his family from the now-restricted area, the Israeli soldier’s reply of “Be my guest” takes on a perverse undertone. Mohammad and his family are now guests in their own home, just as Palestinians have been converted into guests in their own land by the Israeli military.
The majority of the film, though, centers on the way in which Mohammad and his family deal with their occupation. At its heart is the question of just how such an intolerable situation is to be tolerated. Mohammad, for his part, refuses to leave, rejecting the prospect of becoming a refugee and instead suggesting that the best way to resist occupation is to strengthen one’s ties to land and home. His wife and children, however, disagree. Samia, cut off from her community and forced to spend all day with armed, foreign soldiers stomping around above her, suffers terribly. The eldest son, Yousef, begs to be allowed to stay at a friend’s (unoccupied) house, while the eldest daughter Mariam decries the injustice of their situation and argues that fighting and dying as resistors would be preferable to putting up with occupation. Jamal, the middle son, dreams of becoming a martyr and wreaking revenge for the humiliation he and his family are forced to suffer — a poignant and arrestingly lucid explanation of how “terrorists” are born. Rather than hatred of freedom, or (more ludicrous yet) jealousy of Western privilege, it’s all too clear to see that fantasies like Jamal’s are created by oppression, violence, and hopelessness. To strike back becomes, for many, the only way one can restore the dignity stripped by the violence of the occupiers.
Such conclusions, however, are not made explicit by the film and, for this, Private is all the more successful. Rather than present a diatribe of ideology or an exploitative melodrama, the film instead traffics in subtleties. The occupation is not shown simply in terms of suicide bombs and F-16s. Instead, it’s more artfully rendered, like in a scene where Yousef is forced to concentrate on his homework above the roar of a fighter jet circling above. Later, the occupying soldiers fire their weapons from the family’s balcony in the middle of the night. Unable to get back to the family’s locked living room (their “prison” room, as it comes to be called), the youngest daughter, Nada, can only take comfort from the glow of her father’s lighter, shining softly through the keyhole amid the terrifying din of machine gun fire.
The soldiers, too, are shown as more than merely violent thugs. Watched secretly by Mariam as she hides in an upstairs closet, these occupiers are in fact so many young men, barely into their adulthood and at times bewildered by the position they are forced to take. Most of them would rather watch soccer on TV (one even prefers to play the flute) than make prisoners of a family of strangers. This portrayal, though, just underscores the double tragedy of Israeli occupation. Forced into mandatory service, Israeli soldiers are often as reluctant to participate in occupation as the Palestinians are to suffer its indignities.
The film, then, documents the individual cost of a conflict that is propagated from without. The United States, for example, bears a large portion of the guilt for the kind of heartrending scenes that populate the film by funneling billions in military and economic support to Israel without holding it accountable (like virtually every other country on the planet) for the resulting violence that such support makes possible. In fact, Private is essentially an Italian project, shot in Italy by an Italian director and crew, which speaks to the way in which the rest of the world sees this problem and the way that America does not. Sadly, allegations of anti-Semitism are quick to be hurled by supporters of Israeli occupation, effectively shutting down any substantive discussion of the crisis and allowing the cycle of oppression and revenge to continue unabated.
And it’s this concept of a cycle that Private most strikingly underscores for its viewers. The soldiers eventually do leave the house, called away to another mission, but are replaced later that same day by a fresh set of occupiers. As a group, the new soldiers move toward a booby trap set by Jamal, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters can be heard singing “And the Germans kill the Jews, and the Jews kill the Arabs, and the Arabs kill the hostages”, pointing to the endless repetition of violence that plagues the film’s characters. Finally, it’s to the enduring credit of Private and films like it that they are able to distill ideology and flag waving to the individual struggle for dignity and hope in the face of cyclical oppression and revenge.