This film review of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 May 2019 (Melbourne edition) and 30 May 2019 (Sydney edition).
Directed by Muayad Alayan; written by Rami Alayan; starring Adeeb Safadi, Sivane Kretchner, Ishai Golan and Maisa Abd Elhadi
Following last year’s premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” opens this week in Australia, one of the few places in the world where the film is screening. This strong thriller-drama is a cracker, and deepens the range of films that show how the Israeli-Palestinian social, economic and political divide is often not a divide at all, but more of a porous and shifting blur.
This first feature from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan and his screenwriter brother Rami Alayan illustrates a tragic sequence of events arising from an illicit affair between Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), an East Jerusalem delivery driver, and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the owner of a West Jerusalem café. She’s married to an up-and-coming army officer (Ishai Golan) – who is about to be transferred to the south – with whom she has a bright and articulate daughter, and he to an attractive pregnant woman (Maisa Abd Elhadi).
Their romance – one night a week, mostly in the back of Saleem’s delivery van – is fuelled by the passionate risk-taking each one goes through. Sarah’s family can afford a nanny/helper, but Saleem’s struggles financially. That motivates Saleem to moonlight at night as a delivery person, no questions asked, dropping off “whatever people ask for”.
One night Saleem is sent to Bethlehem for a delivery, and takes Sarah with him, convincing her to go out for drinks “because nobody knows us”. Just speak English, he says, and everyone will assume you are a foreigner. An incident in a bar leads to Saleem’s entanglement with Palestinian secret police, where he is forced to pretend that he was recruiting Sarah for espionage (“the reports”) so that he can escape punishment and detention. Once the Israelis catch on, the plot becomes “thicker”, and Sarah and Saleem are caught in a web of deceit, power and conflict.
The director/writer Alayan brothers both studied in the USA, and grew up in East Jerusalem, experiencing their teenage years during the second Intifada. They put to good use the adage of “write what you know”. The experience of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and the interactions between the characters are naturalistic with an unforced realism that imbues every scene with power. For comparison you would need to cast back to Martin Scorsese’s early “Mean Streets”; the directing and editing is spare (although the film runs a full two hours), with a coiled energy getting ready to strike.
There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”. The film feels astonishingly straightforward and objective in its political approach to the characters and their situations. Many of the scenes are claustrophobic, but that’s part of the film-making style. I would have liked more “back story” – more detail as to how Sarah and Saleem arrived at where they are – but the Alayan brothers take a European approach and just start the action. The result is a mature and accomplished narrative by film-makers who are likely go on to tell much bigger stories in the future.