Chawki al-Merji brings Palestine into hearts and minds of Lebanese cinema goers

Published September 11th, 2012 - 01:05 GMT
Saba Mubarak during a scene from 'Mamlakat al-Naml' (The Kingdom of Ants).
Saba Mubarak during a scene from 'Mamlakat al-Naml' (The Kingdom of Ants).

Palestinians have deep-rooted traditions. Although they have not yet been able to beat their oppressors, they have not yet learned the philosophy of defeat. Their enemy saw this in them and director Chawki al-Mejri wanted to show it to the entire world.

Mamlakat al-Naml (The Kingdom of Ants), coming soon to Lebanese theaters, is a poetic portrayal of Palestine in cinema.

The film does not document the Palestinian struggle. Rather, it weaves legends that touch the heart and not the mind.

The Tunisian director has made a populist movie that aims to enrapture supporters of the Palestinian cause more than the critics. But who said that a film’s success is based on the opinions of critics?

The film is about struggle that passes from generation to generation. It is about early death that forces parents to bury their children, breaking the natural order of life. It is the tapestry of a cause, from one intifada to another.

Mamlakat al-Naml is about a family struggling to survive on land being carved up piece by piece and a dream that is crushed night after night. The struggle is the family’s heirloom, just like ants inherit the daily scramble for means of survival.

A father puts his life in the hands of the resistance, being chased and apprehended regularly. He offers his son to the intifada, while the mother surrenders to her fate. The grandfather lives in the graves, collecting the bones of his comrades that keep him company in an underground kingdom.

The film falls into exaggeration. It is full of fables of infinite heroism, where the family has no life outside the struggle. It does not explore the details of daily life, which are present in every society, even the Palestinians’.

The director stuffed his film with Hollywood’s illogic. Shells fall a few meters from a wedding, but it continues with anyone getting injured or their clothes getting stained.

In a shot that wanted to be symbolic, a dying child smiles to his friend, but the scene looks like a caricature. The affected manner of the film begins with its script and continues to its characters and cinematography.

It is also full of errors. There is no logic in the sequence of events and the muddled plot is full of digressions that exhaust the viewer.

Mejri, who directed al-Ijtiyah (The Invasion) and Hoodoo Nisbi (Relative Calm), did, however, succeed in choosing a professional cast. This is especially true of Jordanian actress Saba Mubarak, who deserves a prize for her role, and Jamil Awwad with his remarkable performance.

Mejri is a popular television director who entered the field of feature films without shedding the style of television drama. This goes some way towards explaining the slow pace and the abundant cliches.

His style is similar to Lebanese productions likeKhaleh Warda, the series al-Ghaliboun (The Victorious), and others. He often eschews approaching the resistance from an objective point of view, opting for insipid pretentiousness and contrived posturing.

But the film did not succumb to the shallow view that sees resistance as just Islamic. The heroes do not recite verses of the Quran before each operation.

The film is a beautiful painting of Palestine. Mejri created a virtual world which showed the occupied territories as we have never seen before.

It paints the fertile land ingrained in the memory of Palestinian refugees dreaming of return. It is not crowded and the streets and buildings are not in a state of chaos.

The major production also allows for some excitement, with the inclusion of military vehicles and helicopters, as well as various audiovisual effects.

Can Mejri put his emotions aside to make a film that reflects reality, away from shallow cliches? The director can certainly do better than this.

Mamlakat al-Naml starts on 20 September 2012 at an Empire theater near you. For information: 01/616600

The Man behind the Movie

Chawki Mejri, born in 1961, began his career making short films. He produced eight films while living in Tunisia and Poland.

But he became famous in television, directing several highly popular programs and collecting several awards, including an Emmy in the telenovela category for the best international drama series for al-Ijtiyah(2007).

He became known in the Arab East with his series Ikhwat al-Turab(Brothers of Sand), before he started focusing on costume dramas likeAbu Jaafar al-MansourOmar al-Khayyam, and al-Amin wal Mamoun, and novel adaptations like al-Arwah al-Muhajira.

He helped launch his ex-wife Saba Mubarak who acted in many of his works before they separated. It seems their professional relationship is still intact, attested by Mubarak’s role in his latest film.

Mamlakat al-Naml was filmed in 2010 between Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, where he lives, but its release was delayed due to the events in those countries.

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