review by Dan
Lybarger, 16 January 2004
On paper, Randa Chahal-Sabbag's The
Kite would seem a typical story of teens from opposite sides of
the tracks who are doomed to fall madly in love. It's the kind of
familiar setup that could seemingly occur in any area or time
What makes The Kite special
is its setting along the Golan Heights region of the current
Israeli-Lebanese border. In this environment, a Romeo and Juliet-style
match is more than unlikely, and some of the film's strongest
moments come from acknowledging that mere attraction won't
necessarily drive the distant lovers into each other's arms.
Sabbag concentrates primarily on an
adventurous 15-year-old girl named Lamia (Flavia Bechara). Her
independent streak emerges early in the film when she chases after a
kite that has fallen on the Israeli side of the border near her
village. Her pursuit is both brave and foolhardy because she's
dodging mines, crawling through barbed wire and provoking nervous
Israeli soldiers who don't have any idea what to make of her
seemingly fatal pursuit.
Lamia's days of playing hooky from
school and goofing around with her brother Nabil are numbered
because the village's elders have determined she should marry her
cousin Samy. Her Druse community is split between the two sides of
the border, and all of the potential suitors are on the Israeli
Marrying someone on the other side
means that Lamia will have to move there permanently. Because of the
armed checkpoint that the locals have to cross to get from one side
to the other, moving back and forth is a difficult proposition even
in calm times.
Watching over this arrangement is a
bored 17-year-old Israeli reservist named Youssef (Maher Bsaibes).
The locals don't have phones and can't casually stroll from one side
to the other to chat, so the people on both sides pick up megaphones
to yell messages back to each other. Because he, like them, is Druse,
Youssef, perched in his watchtower, has the odious task of jotting
down everything they say to each other.
The locals certainly notice Youssef,
but his Israeli uniform immediately fills them with contempt. Even
Lamia, who fancies the lad from afar, finds his involvement in the
"enemy's" army shameful.
From here, Sabbag could have taken
her story into tediously overplayed territory but thankfully
doesn’t. The writer-director has described her film as a somewhat
stylized presentation of the situation at the border. In The Kite,
the conflict is presented a potentially volitile situation that
winds up becoming, at times, absurdly comic.
Sabbag doesn’t deny the tragedies
that have occurred in the region and can’t be accused of
whitewashing them. For obvious reasons, she filmed The Kite
in a more tranquil region that’s geographically similar to
the Golan Heights.
Nonetheless, Sabbag concentrates on
her characters’ surprising quirks than on any ideologies. When the
women on Lamia’s side of the border disparage the scarf a woman on
the other side has purchased. At first, they express disgust that
she bought it on the Israeli side. But it later turns out that they
are dismayed because she could have bought something snazzier in
another Israeli city.
In addition, Samy, who would be an
unbearable ogre in most European or American movies, is an earnestly
likable lad who tries to make the disastrous marriage work. At
times, a viewer almost loses sympathy for Lamia because she has been
treating the undeserving Samy with contempt ever since she was
forced to make a prenuptial videotape.
It can take a while to get oriented
into The Kite because some of the cultural idiosyncrasies are
little tough to figure out, and because Sabbag diverts the viewers
attention for sideplots and dream sequences. This isn’t necessarily
a flaw because in the world Sabbag has created, the animosities are
so strong that it’s an adventure to merely fantasize about loving
someone from the other side.
Nonetheless, you won’t need a tour
guide to appreciate Sabbag’s humor or her affection for her
characters. The Kite took home three awards at last year’s
Venice Film Festival, and it’s the official Lebanese candidate for
this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar. Sabbag’s uniquely Lebanese
take on life and love in the middle of conflict has a refreshingly
orignal appeal that crosses some formidable barriers.