To savor the full irony of the Israeli documentary 9 Star Hotel, you need to know something more than director-cinematographer Ido Haar tells you. He's a practitioner of direct cinema, committed to whatever evidence his lens and microphone might capture; and so he plunges straight into the horrid absurdity of his story, assuming that his primary audience needs no instruction about its setting. Everyone in Israel is familiar with the new city of Modi'in, a vast project being constructed midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem according to a master plan by architect Moshe Safdie. But for those who could use the information, I quote from the city's promotional brochure: "Ever since the establishment of Israel, the country's leaders have dreamed of reviving the ancient Jewish town of Modi'in, a symbol of Hasmonean heroism and of the conservation of the Jewish and national identity of the people of Israel. The establishment of the city of Modi'in in the 1990's was the ancient Jewish dream coming true."
9 Star Hotel records a few details about some of the laborers who pour concrete, hammer lath and lay stone for this dream. They are young Palestinian men who have no jobs in the occupied territories but no permits to work in Israel. So they live in shanties hidden in the hills and dodge three distinct security forces every day, going back and forth from building Modi'in.
You see them from a distance as the film begins, two or three at first, then as many as a dozen pouring down a grassy hillside at dawn. From afar, they seem a part of the landscape. But then the camera is suddenly in their midst as they hurry through a pine forest, each lugging a knapsack or duffle bag, and then dash across a highway. You hear their heavy breathing, and the lookout's warning about police patrols. Not for the last time in 9 Star Hotel, the image becomes a jerky assemblage of pavement, sky, somebody's back, then the temporary respite of tall grass. At this stage, early in the film, all you know of the characters is this collective blur. But after some shots of the construction site, the scene changes again to the men's encampment. They cook tomato stew in the communal pot. They retire to their shelters: a hive of wooden crates, covered variously in plastic tarps and salvaged draperies. They chat deep into the night about the homes they've left, their families, their memories; and so these official non-persons take on names, characters, individuality.
As you come to know these people, you may wonder: How invisible are they? Surely drivers on the busy highway must see them; Haar shows you scenes of the men running across traffic. Sometimes Israeli children see them, too--as when the men come across three Jewish kids in a field outside Modi'in, who cadge some construction materials for play. And even though Haar recorded no interactions between the laborers and their foremen, somebody on the building site must have looked at these people long enough to hire them. Everybody sees--but nobody chooses to notice, except for the cops who are charged with running the men down.
Thanks to Haar, though, you also notice. You find out where these men bathe, which songs they sing, how much they earn, what happens to them when they're sick or injured, what they think about the Israelis. (A hint: They're not big fans.) You stay with them through the long nights of watching headlights pass on the distant highway, and through days on end when it's raining and there's no work to be had, so they just hole up, useless, in their boxes.
Why did these frustrated, hunted men trust an Israeli to camp out with them and bring along his camera? Maybe it was a way to keep their spirits up. You see throughout the film how they sustain themselves through joshing, bull sessions, scavenging, reminiscence. Perhaps they found one more outlet in Haar, who gave them a way to show themselves. It's the least they could want--but more than the promoters of Modi'in are willing to allow.
9 Star Hotel is having its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, through June 5.
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Emmanuel Bourdieu's excellent drama Poison Friends is now opening in Los Angeles, which is, ironically enough, the Promised Land for its clique of James Ellroy-obsessed Parisian college students. Led, or rather dominated, by the dark and swaggering André (Thibault Vinçon), this cluster of friends believe in literature as only the French still do, and so are enthralled by André's brilliant, sadistic insistence that they abandon it altogether.
Bourdieu's strength as a director precisely matches his instincts as a screenwriter: He loves to watch groups interact. Poison Friends is alive with the nuances of young people getting along, or not, as they learn from one another. It also shows the shifts in the group when André makes good on his ideas and breaks decisively with writing. He discovers what his friends don't want to know: that only a particular section of French society makes an idol of literature. Outside that charmed circle, it seems, there's garbage on the street, and somebody's got to pick it up.