After twenty-plus years since the initial Israel-Palestine peace talks, Rashid Masharawi’s (“Haifa,” “Laila’s Birthday“) 1998 film “Tension” is an apt reminder that war is not all blood and gore. The short film peels back the thin veil of Israeli occupation to expose repressed agitation, sewing together a seamless montage of the Palestinian subconscious. In a tour of Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, Masharawi tightly weaves together a patchwork spread of poverty and violence against the disillusioned backdrop of “peace.”
“Tension” collapses twenty-four hours into twenty-four minutes. It records the everyday lives of civilians within the region amidst the 1996-1999 tit-for-tat between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Israel. The film opens with a long shot of Palestinian workers marching towards the border gates at dawn. Traditional folk music tempts the viewer into the lull of the everyday: hopeful workers clamber into buses; marketmen peddle their goods; old men watch passerby from their stools. The same characters repeatedly show in each city, reinforcing the rhythm of the ordinary…
However, it is precisely the mundane that is the most jarring. Neatly tucked into scenes of peaceful life are vivid suggestions of disparity. Children play out execution scenes in refugee camps; families romp around in sewer water; military men casually shoot down bawdy civilians. Gunfire interrupts the hypnotic cadence, inviting screeching metals, cars, and voices to creep into the score. The selective ambiance is a powerful indication that true peace cannot survive in a region of constant surveillance.
Masharawi’s short grapples with raw documentary and arthouse tendencies. Perhaps most striking is its struggle with open clarity. In a film peppered with Israeli military investigations and impositions, the camera lingers upon the unnamed faces of Palestinians. The close-ups grow so overwhelming that they even muffle the truth. At one Israeli checkpoint, the camera keeps to the faces of worried women passengers on a bus. By doing so, the film just barely cuts out the main event – the blurred form of an ejected passenger forced out of the bus by soldiers. Masharawi reminds the viewer that the documentary is not an open book; it is still an edited sliver of reality.
As a grassroots reply to the politicians above, “Tension” – like many documentaries – is a product of its time. Nonetheless, its underlying distress call is more relevant than ever. The politics of peace are far more removed from home than the everyday realities of war – or at least, so suggests “Tension.”
“Tension” has previously been shown in Yamagata International Documentary Fest, documenta11, and in the Sharjah Art Foundation.