Synopsis: Two Palestinian women, Lara (Clara Khoury) and Inam (Nataly Attiya), have moved to London to begin a new life. In the midst of the political turmoil of the 1st Intifada, they decide to break the curfew imposed by the Israel military, and sneak into the Jewish part of Jerusalem to see a movie. What begins as a youthful prank, soon evolves into a twisted set of events. Fifteen years later, they meet in London as adult women, and realise that what they remember from their past may not necessarily reflect what indeed happened.
Past overwhelms the present for two Palestinian women.
What ultimately occupies and consumes their feelings and memories is something out of their shared past that is violent and sinister
ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL: Filmmaker Jonathan Sagall’s Lipstikka, a dark, intricate and broody drama about loss and memory, begins on a dour note of grim resignation – a heavy feeling that never quite lets up over the film’s short running time. A kind of deep sadness seeps out of this film; the actors, all of whom deliver strong performances, move slow and tentatively like their bones are tired, and even the colour cinematography is tuned to a grim, two-tone like palette of black and grey.
As the film opens we hear in a voiceover, one that aches with the heaviness of betrayal, thirtysomething Lara (Clara Khoury) explain her current life as a nice London housewife. Based on appearances, it is a sweet existence. But the assets of a good son, a successful, handsome husband and a clean, beautifully appointed house cannot quite block out Lara’s pain. Lara drinks. Her husband cheats on her. And when an old friend and ex-lover Inam (Nataly Attiya) turns up suddenly unannounced in Lara’s life, it becomes clear that their shared past is one of failed promises and ugly truths.
With her nervy manner and fright wig hairdo, Inam makes for an unsettling figure; she seems too emotional, too demanding, too caught up with herself to set Lara at ease. Lara makes it abundantly clear that her old pal is far from welcome in her new life. Inam is ‘the past’, and for Lara that is a guest that cannot be accommodated.
Sagall splits the film’s action between the London scenes – which take place over a few hours in present – and sequences set in Ramallah in 1994, where Lara and Inam grew up. In the moments set in Palestine, we find that teens Inam (Moran Rosenblatt), a Christian, and Lara (Ziv Weiner), a Muslim, engage in all kinds of mischief. Outgoing, voluptuous and precocious, Inam experiments with group sex with teenage boys. Lara, reserved and lacking in confidence, watches Inam’s shenanigans with a combination of jealousy, disdain and envy, all the while smitten with her pal. It’s a situation destined for heartbreak.
Still, it’s not the mundane coming-of-age stuff of their teenage years that prevents Lara and Inam from moving on in their adult lives. What ultimately occupies and consumes their feelings and memories is something out of their shared past that is violent and sinister.
What binds and tears at Inam and Lara’s lives becomes the film’s key set piece. It is the time of the intifada. Inam and Lara, defying the curfew, have snuck into Old Jerusalem to catch a Mel Gibson flick. In the cinema, the pair catches the eye of two off-duty Israeli soldiers, Boaz (Ofer Hayoun) and Gadi (Gal Lev). These guys, sensing a bit of ‘sport’, follow the teenagers as they make off to head home through darkened streets. The soldiers approach Lara and Inam. At first, the girls pretend to be tourists. But the soldiers aren’t fooled. Once the girl’s identities are revealed as non-Jewish, the soldiers turn nasty. This stand-off between Jews and Palestinians ends with one of the men propositioning sex with Inam.
Sagall shows this incident twice. In the first instance, we see it from Inam’s rather romanticised point of view. Here, she’s cocky, in control and the sex is consensual. The second time we see it, the whole tone of this dramatic beat is entirely different. The girls are frightened; the soldiers are overtly bigoted and use their power, and the force of law, to exploit the girls for sex. Inam, who goads the soldiers with racist taunts, eventually surrenders to the soldiers’ demands… does she do it to save Lara from a similar humiliation?
Was that first version Inam’s ‘imagined’ version? Is the second version Lara’s ‘eye-witness’ account? Is it reliable, or is it just as ‘imaginative’ as the first?
Sagall never quite reconciles these questions with perfect answers. Early on, Lipstikka assumes the restless, punishing quality of a long disturbing dream, and Sagall’s refusal to neatly tie off the film’s disturbing psychological mysteries only accentuates its feverish mood.
I’ve read that Sagall had a lot of trouble on the London shoot. (The Ramallah sequences were lensed in Ramla and, by all accounts I’ve read, were issue free.) Apparently in England, there was some protest about the film’s political content and characterisations, so much so, these objections held up production. Sagall, a Canadian-Israeli, seems like he’s crossed the borders of a certain kind of political correctness – depending, of course, on one’s politics – in the way he’s used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here as a motivation for the soldiers bullying and violence. There is also the matter of a Christian and a Muslim engaged in a same-sex love relationship and having absolutely no interest in tradition and religious observation besides.
Is the film political? In the sense that the personal is the political, certainly. But Sagall does not seem to be malicious or destructive. He seems more interested in offering a rejoinder to the current zeitgeist that says it’s always possible to ‘reinvent’ oneself, no matter what the circumstances, no matter where we’re from or the history that has helped make us who we are. In the way the characters must revisit their life in Palestine, Lipstikka suggests that it is just not possible to divest our selves of the past (and its guilty secrets). Here, political conflict, fed by race, and nationalism, is poisonous, and inescapable. The wounds it creates may eventually heal, Sagall suggests by movie’s end, but the pain such trauma brings seems destined to last a lifetime.
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