Filming the Occupation. Director Saverio Costanzo presents Private

Filming the Occupation. Director Saverio Costanzo presents Private


The mother on the other hand has a more detached position (a “weaker” point of view, as Costanzo describes it) that at first glance disorientates, maybe because one is expecting mediterranean melodrama, the tears, the wailing, desperation externalised and taken to the extreme. On the contrary, she remains composed, almost frozen by the fear that encircles her and that seeped into her, paralysing her reactions and making her preoccupation for herself and her children a type of outer skin to protect her from the madness. Perhaps the most dramatic scene, in which we'd expect her involved and desperate, is that in which the youngest daughter is locked out of the living room where the family are forced to spend the night, right in the middle of a fire fight. The mother manages to go back to sleep when the gunfire stops, defeated by fatigue and once more hiding herself from reality, nor is she the first to rush out the door in the morning searching for her baby. Perhaps we’d like her to be more western. We’d like her to oppose herself to her husband, to convince him to leave, but she remains subdued and a victim of his decision.

The children, five in total, whose ages span from infancy through to adolescence, rebel against the injustice of this cohabitation imposed, in their eyes, by their father. The eldest daughter, seventeen or eighteen years of age, comes to understand her father’s stance, and develops towards the end of the film, if not a desire to comprehend, then at least curiosity in relation to her uniformed tenants, only slightly older than herself. The two sons in the middle however, each in their own way, embody the violent reaction of the Palestinians to the Israeli occupation, one with his plans to blow up the greenhouse with a bomb put together who knows how, the other, more timid and introverted, daydreams in front of the TV, imagining himself with the black and white kefiya, gun and ammunition belt, celebrated as a martyr for the cause in one of the many ‘educational’ videos shown on the Arabic TV.

For much of the film, we encounter the soldiers only in the scenes in which, in their turn, they come into contact with the family, until the trick of hiding in the wardrobe: the eldest daughter gets into the habit, dangerous as it is, as one of the conditions of their staying in the house is the complete ban on going upstairs, where the military have set up their headquarters, on pain of death for the family’s father, of hiding herself in a wardrobe upstairs and spying on the Israelis, giving the director the opportunity to humanise them. And so we see them joking amongst themselves, we catch them scared, bored, resigned to their destiny as 'invaders', or questioning themselves on the justice and ethics of the orders they have received from above.

Without revealing the ending of the film, suffice to say that things don’t end up rosy: in one scene heavy with the emotion the director spoke of, the head of the family and Commander Ofer find themselves face to face sitting at the kitchen table where they ask each other if it’s not time that the other left. Then they return, each to his own corner, the Palestinian to the living-room-bed-room, and, after having locked the door, the soldier to the upstairs. The director doesn’t impose a moral, he doesn’t give judgment, limiting himself to telling the story. In the era of the reality show and the return of the documentary to the big screen (see Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, SuperSize Me, up to the recent March of the Penguins), maybe this is what the public is looking for: we want to see to believe, to make up our own mind on things. Mohammed Bakri is harsh towards this suggestion: “Italians see only what Italian television shows them. And it’s false. Here [in Private] we have more details [...]. I was scared that the film would be somehow ‘sweet’ while working on it, because the Italians try to be balanced, always diplomatic. But day after day, working together, discussing, during and after work, I had less and less fear of that”.

Costanzo as well admits that “all the actors [...] made a brave choice, I believe, because working on a film like this isn’t easy. Trusting in a small group of Italians is a testament to their courage, above all in a film where they were asked not only to do their job, but to put themselves naked in front of us, without any escape route”. There were, it seems, moments of tension between the actors during the shooting, precisely because of the forced living conditions and the themes dealt with in the film. And perhaps this contributed to the sincerity of the scenes dealing with occupation or the clashes between the family and soldiers.

It’s one thing to make the film, difficult no-doubt, but certainly realisable with an interesting script, a group of good and motivated actors, a sensitive and professional director. A different thing may be the critical reactions, the participation in 'arty' Festivals, the praise from cinema experts. But what questions are posed, for a film like this, in relation to financing and distribution? Mario Gianani, producer, with his OffSide company, along with the Luce Institute (responsible for the Italian distribution too), Cydonia and Rai Cinema, outlines, not without a hint of polemic, the background: “Cinema is a crazy and universal medium. We had in our hands the credibility of the story, a story that in Italy, France, Czechoslovakia [sic], the US would have the same meaning, if it has a meaning. More than that we had a story that is the story of our times: the conflict in the Middle East. So already with these two elements we had enough to give us the possibility of making the film. Then, immediately, as everybody who works in this field in Italy knows, the moment we said that the project was a non-Italian film, we had refusals, they thought we were mad, but we were sure that, if done well, a project like this would be guaranteed to recoup all that had been invested in it. We couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t listen to us, why they wouldn’t give us the money. We did it in a kind of old fashioned way: we went to the bank and mortgaged our houses, they gave us money, and we started on our own. Slowly but surely others came in behind us, first the Luce, then RAI; by the time we won the prize [at Locarno] we had become extremely popular! It’s been a great example that you can make movies in this kind of liberal way”.

The film has been distributed in more than thirty countries and has been shown also in Israel and Palestine. In particular, Costanzo tells us about when he participated, in September 2004, at the Haifa festival “a bit worried because it was the first time that people who were close to that war would see the film, but it was a huge surprise. We were at the projection in this cinema and afterwards there was a discussion. There were the actors, all the cast, [...] there was an old man who had been a soldier in the British army during the first occupation of Palestine, there were people from the generation in between, a teenager who had yet to enter the military, there was a cross section. And it was moving because they felt that it was a film that represented them sensitively. There was a girl who was crying, she couldn’t stop crying. I was terrified because I thought she w
ould be angry with me, and instead she couldn’t stop crying because of the film”. But the Israelis present at the screening of Private were under no illusions about the possibility of finding the film in their cinemas or on DVD and “one person for example came and asked me where he could find the film and I said I didn’t know, and they, the teenagers, said ‘well, do we have to look for it on the internet?’ That’s to say, they were already convinced that the film had no hope of a cinema release in Israel. And that’s a problem [...]. An Israeli, the daughter of the owner and co-owner of one of the big distribution companies in Israel, saw the film and said straightaway ‘I’ll buy it’. But returning to Israel, she talked with her father, from a different generation, and the father said no. A further development, Eytan Fox, the director of Walk on Water and Yossi & Yagger, who’s an important director in Israel, very young and international (distributed in Italy as well), is opening a distribution company for this film, so that it can be released in Israel”.

Costanzo hopes that the presence in the cast of Lior Miller, a TV icon and teen idol in Israel, will be a sufficient appeal for at least the newer generation to see the film. But Mohammed Bakri, last january here in Bologna was more pessimistic: “I believe that Saverio will find it very difficult to get this film released, that maybe in the end he won’t find a distributor, and to explain to you why, I’ll tell you a story: in Israel the means of communication are in the hands of the government, as in Italy, I believe. A year and a half ago I was on the couch watching TV with my splendid wife, and we saw the news on the Israeli channel Channel 1. They were showing a piece on 20-30 thousand Palestinian workers who every day at 1.30 in the morning leave the Gaza strip to be in Tel Aviv by 7 in the morning. You could cover the distance in perhaps an hour, and they take five because of the difficulty in passing through check points. But the shocking moment was when the reporter approached a man who was stretched out on the side of the road, with his hands covering his face, and asked him ‘Why are you covering your face?’, and the man responded ‘I don’t want to humiliate my children’. After two weeks the reporter was chased out of TV. This, I believe, explains why Private won’t get a distributor in Israel. The Israeli people don’t really know what’s going on in the Territories, the government doesn’t want them to know, because if they knew they could have a revolution, a peaceful revolution.”

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