June 27, 2006
The premise of a creating a film based on true events - particularly one for a deeply polarizing issue - can sometimes be a conveniently coded minefield for agitprop filmmaking, so it is particularly refreshing to see that Saverio Costanzo's Private manages to strike a bracing, yet thoughtful and delicate balance between sympathy and outrage for the complicated and seemingly inextricably morass that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Set in an upper middle-class Palestinian household situated between an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian village, the film opens with the immediacy of vérité-styled camerawork as the family of Mohammed (Mohammed Bakri), a gentle and unassuming English professor, is thrown into upheaval after a group of Israeli soldiers commandeer their home as a covert base of operations for monitoring insurgency at the nearby village. Arguing that life as dispossessed refugees is akin to surrendering to the will of transgressors, Mohammed rejects his family's entreaties to abandon their house to the soldiers and instead chooses to defy their order by remaining at home as an act of civil disobedience. Unable to force out the family, the unit commander (Lior Miller) decides to confine the family's activities to the first floor, locking them up in the living room each evening (presumably to control their movement within the household, but also, perhaps partly out of safety, as the darkness often brings its own share of enemy crossfire), while appropriating the second floor of their home as a outpost lookout and sleeping quarters for his troop. However, as the family attempts to retain some semblance of dignity and a continuation of a normal life of work, school, neighborly visits, family dinners, and housekeeping chores under their shadow of their private occupation, their children begin to retreat into their own means of figurative escape from their existential limbo of captivity, an alienating retreat into the inner workings of young, fevered imaginations and impassioned human hearts that can interchangeably sow the seed of vengeance or reconciliation, desperation or tolerance, myopia or illumination.
While the immediate attribution to the Israeli occupation is inevitable, perhaps what is most remarkable about the film is its ability to transcend this localized regionalization of conflict and converge towards a relevant, broader allegory for the psychology of dispossession and disempowerment that exists behind every form of imposed occupation - from colonialism to postwar reconstruction - that has haunted modern day consciousness with the global reality of destabilizing, inescapable terrorism. In addition to the hand-held, vérité camerawork that visually reflects the family's sense of imbalance, turmoil, and uncertainty at their private occupation (and the shifting of battle grounds that will invariably steer the deadly warfront ever closer into sanctity of their own home), the recurring sequences illustrating the son's fascination with booby traps and televised coverage of militant insurgency, and the eldest daughter Samiah's (Arin Omary) idiosyncratic observation of the soldiers from a crack deliberately left open between wardrobe doors in the hallway of the second floor perhaps best exemplify the nature of occupation, as their acts of defiance no longer reflect their emotional solidarity with their father's idealistic radicalization, but have instead metastasized into other - and potentially more self-destructive - forms of personal resistance. Within this context, the young woman's recurring surveillance of the soldiers' leisure activities through angular, sub-framed, "keyhole" glimpses of information can be seen, not only as visual representations of the rigid confinement of occupation, but also as a metaphoric representation of its moral legacy: the upended perspective of dispossessed natives looking out into the self-appropriated privilege of outsiders, where the observer's gaze from the darkness of (imposed) underprivilege is both implicitly defiant and curious, entitled and transgressive, familiar and out of reach.