Indie Watch: Ismail
Sometimes, seemingly small moments in a person’s life can have an enormous impact on their future actions. This is the crux of Ismail, the new short film from Palestinian filmmaker Nora Alsharif. The film documents one day in 1948, immediately following the Palestinian exodus from Israel, in which real-life Palestinian painter Ismail Shammout (Khaled Al Gwairi) and his much younger brother Jamal (Nizar Idrees) try to make a quick buck in Gaza in order to feed their starving, recently-exiled parents. While returning from Gaza to their refugee camp, the duo wanders into a minefield and discovers how absurdly thin the line between life and death can be.
In its own plain and plaintive way, Ismail shows how terrifyingly precious the gift of life is. When Ismail and Jamal enter the minefield, they don’t give up and wait for death to come. Instead, the brothers are helped by a stranger and his friend, encouraged to cross the deadly stretch of insidious sand. Ismail slyly depicts the scorched landscapes and dangerous living situations of the marginalized people – past and present – living along the Gaza strip without finger pointing and moralizing. The life-or-death situation in which Ismail and Jamal find themselves is presented as something the two people must endure in order to live another day. This matter-of-factness makes Ismail a disturbing, enlightening, and powerful film.
Everything in Ismail, from its cinematography to the performances of Gwairi and Idrees, is excellent. The film’s opening sequences manage to simultaneously capture the intimacy between Ismail and Jamal and the vast desert of Palestine in just a few remarkable long takes. The script, written by Hatem Alsharif, is tight and concise, telegraphing Ismail’s future career as a famous painter without making him seem like a pawn of heavy-handed destiny.
Like all successful political stories, Ismail makes you care as much about the characters as what they represent. Despite her film’s obvious political underpinnings, Alsharif makes sure that the story of Ismail and his brother is not undercut by her implicit criticisms of wartime violence and the trauma it inflicts on innocent people. Ismail’s story and theme are inextricably linked, resulting in a film that is both emotionally touching and politically stirring.
Smaller, yet meatier, than a standard biopic, Ismail depicts the turning point in an artist’s life, the moment when he realizes that he is meant for bigger things. Without fanfare or hagiography, Alsharif patiently sketches Ismail Shammout as an ordinary man who went on to do extraordinary things. The tragic circumstances of his young adult years certainly affected the artist’s life and art, but Ismail wisely refuses to paint the whole picture for us.
A Gallery of Images from Ismail