Lessons from a failed ‘Palestinian’ film

What went wrong with Mohamed Diab’s ‘Amira’?

In a scene from the film Amira, two women seen talking to an incarcerated man on the phone
Directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab, Amira (2021) is a family drama that was shot in Jordan in 2019 and co-produced by Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine.[MAD Solutions/Youtube]

Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with the making of a feature or documentary film would know too well what a Herculean task mounting any such project is – whether it is brilliantly or poorly done, whether it ends up being highly successful or a huge failure, critically acclaimed or a commercial flop.

Over the decades, I have seen a number of world-renowned filmmakers at work; from Ridley Scott to Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Suleiman, Amir Naderi, Hany Abu Assad, Ramin Bahrani, Annemarie Jacir, Shirin Neshat, and many others. I learned from these filmmakers that there are so many financial, logistical, strategic, and practical issues at work that the actual ideas at the heart of a film are almost lost to all involved except for the visionary craftsman called the director who stands (or sits) behind the camera and shouts “action,” and then “cut!”

It is easy to find fault with a final product, understand how and why it has failed, where it went wrong – but one should be cautious and circumspect in categorically dismissing a film no matter what an unqualified failure it might end up being.

A recent film about a crucial Palestinian issue made by an Egyptian filmmaker has become the subject of such intense controversy.

Directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab, Amira (2021) is a family drama that was shot in Jordan in 2019 and co-produced by Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine. The film tells the story of its eponymous lead character, Amira (Tara Abboud) – a Palestinian teenager who believes she was conceived from the smuggled-out sperm of an imprisoned Palestinian freedom fighter named Nawar (Ali Suleiman). The drama begins when Amira’s young mother, Warda (Saba Mubarak), agrees to conceive another child with her still imprisoned husband. This second attempt to smuggle Nawar’s sperm out of the Israeli prison leads to the revelation that he is in fact sterile, and thus cannot be the biological father of Amira.

The main culprit

When Amira started making the rounds of international film festivals in Italy, Tunisia and Egypt in late 2021, it received some praise from critics and even won a few minor awards. But when Jordan selected it as its entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards, the quiet whispers of people unhappy with the film began to get louder. Eventually, Jordan’s Royal Film Commission announced its decision to officially withdraw the film from consideration for an Oscar “in light of the recent huge controversy that the film has triggered and the perception by some that it is detrimental to the Palestinian cause and out of respect to the feelings of the prisoners and their families”.

The commission, however, added that it believes “in the artistic value of the film and that its message doesn’t harm in any way the Palestinian cause nor that of the prisoners; on the contrary, it highlights their plight, their resilience”.

But how could this film “harm” the Palestinian cause anyway? It is just a film. Neither the Palestinian cause, nor the immense sacrifices of Palestinians deeply engaged in a prolonged and historical battle against the theft of their homeland can ever be damaged or devalued by any film, or book, or poem. And hurting “the feelings of the prisoners and their families” – or anyone else for that matter – should be pretty low down on the list of reasons why a film ends up being a failure. The Jordanian Royal Film Commission needs to muster better prose to explain its decision.

Indeed, the failure of this film is not that it harms “the Palestinian cause” or “the feelings of the prisoners”. It is that it has crucial narrative and cinematic issues. That it lacks some of the most elementary qualities that make up a good film.

The main culprit, in this case, is the film’s script which begins on a flawed premise, keeps running after its own tail, and finally collapses flat on its own face.

Jessica Kiang perfectly summed up the problem at the heart of this film in her review in Variety magazine: “A clumsily cranked-up collision between paternity, patriarchy and Palestinian identity”. She further explained: “Biological revelations lead to increasingly convoluted and decreasingly credible behavior in a queasy, ill-judged Palestine-set melodrama.” That is the end of discussion. Do you see any reference to the Palestinian cause or its justice or any other such highfalutin rhetoric? No. It is just a bad film. That’s it.

Joseph Fahim, the distinguished Egyptian film critic put it even more bluntly: “Amira is a highly contrived, ridiculous melodrama seeping with endless implausible details that rob the story of any credibility it may have had. The biggest crime of the film though is its portrayal of Palestinian society.”

Sometimes a cigar, as Freud is believed to have said, is just a cigar. Sometimes a bad film is just a bad film and does not do any other damage than to the reputation of the filmmakers.

Instead of engaging in nonsensical discussions about the nonexistent damage the film inflicted on the Palestinian cause, the Jordanian Royal Commission, the filmmakers and anyone else for that matter should try the figure out the real reason why the film is so hated – and why it failed.

Third cinema

Let us first clear the air of any blanket dismissal of this film. Here we have to make some judicious distinctions. The three lead actors – Tara Abboud, Ali Suleiman, and particularly Saba Mubarak – stage some spectacular pieces of acting.  Mohamed Diab is a gifted director who can tease out extraordinary acting from his actors. The cinematography of Ahmed Gabr is exceptionally poignant and effective.

The main culprit is the script that just failed to reflect Palestinian (or indeed any other) reality. This is where the insularity of a filmmaker comes into play.

This does not necessarily have anything to do with the politics of the filmmaker. A filmmaker could be politically committed to the Palestinian cause but just write a bad, convoluted, and ill-fated script. Simple as that. Few people were as committed to the Palestinian cause as Yasser Arafat. Yet I doubt he could make a good film, or write a decent script.

But why did Amira’s script go so wayward? Let us move out of the Palestinian context for a moment. Back in the 1960s, a group of Latin American filmmakers came up with the idea of “Third Cinema/Tercer Cine” that they proposed both thematically and formally took the hegemony of Hollywood (First) and European arthouse (Second) productions to task. The kind of cinema they proposed and envisioned was not just potently political but pivoted to explore the aesthetic and poetic dispositions of that politics. Filmmakers like Mai Masri, Nizar Hasan, Rashid Masharawi, or Elia Suleiman (among many others) tap into the hidden aesthetic dispositions of that brutish fact.

Amira’s script failed because it just lost touch with that overwhelming fact of Palestinian existence. Works of fiction must emerge from facts and lived experiences before they take us to vistas of truths we are otherwise unable to see – otherwise they become not just delusional but a sheer act of frivolity.

Palestinian and Arab, like any other, filmmakers from around the globe must go to Cannes, Locarno, Berlin, or New York to teach their audiences what they do not know – not just about the substance of realities they have experienced, but about the manners of storytelling beyond the reach of the cliché-ridden Hollywood or now Netflix.

You don’t have to go to Hollywood and live there to lose touch with the reality of a people or their lived experiences. You can carry your colonised mind and careerist vision all the way back to Palestine, Egypt, Iran, or Timbuktu. Stay home and be rooted in the truth of people’s lived experiences, then go out and show the world what you have seen.

Amira was just ill-conceived. That’s all. Every drop of pun intended.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.