Films about Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, while not exactly a dime a dozen in the United States, are enough of a staple of world cinema that upon hearing of a new one the first question is usually not “is it good?” but “does it distinguish itself?” Mars at Sunrise‘s distinction comes from its experimental style, fusing poetry and visual image to create a mood piece rather than a political polemic.
That is not to say that the film is apolitical. Khaled (Ali Suliman) lectures a class on the meaning of different color identity cards, a distinction he prophesies will one day be irrelevant. As an artist, he is trained to see things before representing them, and his filtering of the political conflict through something as primal as color defamiliarizes the story just enough keep it from feeling rote.
Eyal (Guy Elhanan) is a soldier whose path intersects with Khaled. He is conflicted after the modern fashion, which generally means in these sorts of films that he struggles to repress his guilt and confusion about how he has found himself stuck in the role that his conscience tells him is that of the oppressor. In one of the film’s best hallucinatory scenes, he is questioning people at a check point and they begin deflecting his questions back on him. As with many of the best satirical or hallucinatory scenes in film, this one’s power hinges on the irony that the differences between what we accept as true to life and what we come to identify as absurd or surreal are so slight as to momentarily avoid detection.
Mars at Sunrise is the first feature length film from Jessica Habie, who also earns a writing credit on the film. It is an accomplishment, but like many first features it sometimes feels as though individual scenes are more fully realized than the film as a whole. The film’s conclusion, for example, relies much more on the written word than the visual image (or on a fusion of both). The introduction, with shots of the dead sea shown during a poetic voice over is more successful, but it plays like a preamble rather than a part of the narrative. Any time a film simply tells you by way of announcement what its themes are, you are more likely to feel preached at.
Yet those scenes that are successful are so well executed that they make the film worth seeing.
Mars at Sunrise opens on February 7 at the Quad Cinemas in New York City. For more information about the Fajr Falestine Film Collective, click here.