Rana’s Wedding (2002)

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At the Gun-Mouth of Time

Rana (Clara Khoury) is a 17-year-old Palestinian student, happily, if jealously, in love with her theater director boyfriend, Khalil (Khalifa Natour). Although she lives in the uneasy peace of Jerusalem, she also has the run of her family’s apartment, where she listens to pop music, dresses with a low-key aplomb, and misses her mother who died when she was a child. Even the return of her father (Zuher Fahoum) from Cairo, where he works, doesn’t disturb her life too much. Until, that is, he offers her the unpalatable choice of returning with him to Cairo to continue her studies under his watchful eye, or an arranged marriage to someone picked from a list of suitors whose families are willing to ally with his.

Only when dawn lights on her father’s very last day can Rana force herself to act. If she has to marry to stay in Jerusalem, she decides she will marry her lover, Khalil. The only problems she faces are finding Khalil, who isn’t answering his cell phone, tracking down a registrar who will marry them in spite of her father’s prohibition, negotiating the everyday hazards of life on the West Bank, and gathering al the key players in one place for the wedding.

Yet where independence is not an option, even the thought of marriage to someone one loves is a compromise. Palestinian novelist and documentary filmmaker Liana Badr and her collaborator, Ihab Lamey, thread this notion subtly throughout their script. As Rana attempts to marry Khalil in the 11 hours before her father’s 4pm departure, director Hany Abu-Assad follows her not only through the spirit-sapping tribulations of daily life under post-1967 Israeli rule, but also through the limited options open to young women, however adventurous, in Palestinian society. Caught between foreign occupation and her own culture, Rana literally has nowhere to run.

That does not, however, stop her from trying. As Rana strikes out for Ramallah to find Khalil (a distance of barely 10 miles that can easily consume two hours and carries the risk of temporary detention and confiscation of papers), her journey quickly becomes a fable of human resistance to the status quo. Rana’s Wedding welds love and the politics of occupation into a potent work of art, brought to life via the intimate, naturalistic acting of the three principals, Khoury, Natour, and Ismael Dabbag (who plays Khalil’s charming best friend, Ramzy).

Much of the movie’s power lies in its portrayal of the relentless ingenuity by which the inhabitants of the West Bank subvert the political “realities” of Israeli military government. When the minibus on which Rana is traveling to Ramallah grinds to a halt before a major checkpoint, the riders climb down and start tramping to the other side of the barrier. So inured are they to the inconvenience caused by exchanges between troops and protestors that they simply wait for a lull before sprinting across the line of fire. Even the tangential images here are compelling: a delivery man, balancing a loaded pallet of patisserie on his head, zig-zags balletically but purposefully, determined to get his load to Jerusalem.

Rana’s return is equally fraught. Tucked into the backseat of Ramzy’s ancient Beetle, she almost falls into despair at the gridlock blocking the route between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Ramzy, however, reverses the car, and drives confidently onto one of the bone-jerking, winding, and sometimes dangerous “alternative routes” carved out by Palestinians. As they bounce along dirt roads and cling to the edges of stark hillsides, Abu-Assad uses the contradictory landscape of the West Bank — from the austere, luminous beauty of the Judean hills that run from the outskirts of East Jerusalem to Jericho and the Dead Sea to the abandoned, bulldozed rubble of Palestinian homes and businesses — as a metaphor for the personal and political complexities of Rana’s life. In one particularly poignant sequence, as the trio draw close to their destination, they drive back and forth in the valleys between Jerusalem’s hills, in sight of the Dome of the Rock mosque, yet tantalizing barred from it by the apparently impregnable walls of the old city.

In their determination to let the normal texture of daily life persist, both Ramzy and Rana reveal the futility of Israeli actions. And by keeping these experiences as quotidian as the gridlock of New York City, Paris or London, Abu-Assad avoids the danger of wearing his nationalist heart on his sleeve, and transforms these passages with a much more subtle and thought-provoking agenda. For it is the burning uncertainties, physical, playful and, until this moment, not terribly serious, of the love affair between Rana and Khalil that fires the politics in this movie.

The delicate pride of physical lovers emerges first as Khalil, on the journey back to Jerusalem, teases Rana about the increasingly desperate messages she had left on his cell phone as she futilely searched East Jerusalem for him. She retaliates by blasting him about the sultry voicemail message from another woman she happens to hear when she snatches his cell phone from him. Apparently talking only to each other, they are in fact performing their intimacy for Ramzy. Still, for every moment when they display light-hearted but resolute solidarity in the face of vanishing registrars, elusive fathers, and impassable roads, another arises when they snap and bicker.

In fact, neither Rana nor Khalil is really sure of what is happening, only that it has to happen very quickly indeed. Early in the afternoon, Abu-Assad frames the two in a long shot beside a fountain, sitting apart on a stone bench, gazing in opposite directions. As an Israeli security camera turns to examine them, Khalil slowly draws Rana into his arms. It is as if, in her acquiescence to his comfort, Rana finally surrenders to the trade-off that West Bank society in 2002 imposes on her — that she can only live where she wants to live under the protection of a man, however generous, talented and enamored of her he might be.

The intricacy of the script, and the patience with which Hany Abu-Assad realizes it, illuminate the fragility of new beginnings attempted under internal and external coercion. In a typical romance, all contradictions are resolved, all distractions erased. In Rana’s Wedding, Abu-Assad leaves (almost) everything to be decided, yet conjures all the more powerfully the human resilience that draws hope from the flashes of joy, glimpsed once and lost forever, that illuminate the present. Having earned both the loftiness and the complexity of his aspiration, Abu-Assad closes the movie with the words of Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish:

Here on the slopes before sunset and at the gun-mouth of time,
Near orchards deprived of their shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
What the unemployed do:
We nurture hope.