Mustafa stands on his mother’s apartment balcony chatting by phone with his wife and children. He can almost see them across the way. We gather that the highlight, for the three kids — 9-and-under — comes at the end of these conversations. That’s when they and their Dad flash the lights of their respective apartments as a nightly message — “I love you.”
They’re separated by a bulldozed field and a wall topped with barbed wire, “200 Meters” and two cultures riven apart and kept that way by the omnipresent strife between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Writer-director Ameen Nayfeh’s film is a harrowing road picture about a two-household Palestinian family and what the husband and father must do to get to his child’s side when the boy ends up in an Israeli hospital.
Nayfeh makes his feature debut about daily life for a lot of Palestinians, families forced to live apart for better schools and job opportunities, living lives of “permits,” “Israeli ID” and endless checkpoints and road blocks which ordinary people must navigate and endure just to make it through the day.
Nayfeh and his star, Ali Suliman (“The Kingdom,” “Huda’s Salon”), personalize this daily trial by taking us into Mustafa’s simple quest to be by his kid’s side in a hospital in Hadera.
In Mustafa and Salwa, played by Lana Zreik of “Lemon Tree” and “Miral,” we see a loving, bickering and struggling couple who dote on their kids and want what’s best for them. Salwa works two jobs and keeps the kids in a decent school on one side of the wall. Mustafa, a construction worker on the edge of aging out of this backbreaking labor, lives on the Palestinian side, a man who refuses to move, refuses to kowtow to Israel and bristles at anything that would put his life and his children under Israeli control.
“You want Madj (their son) to play with Israeli kids (in Arabic with English subtitles)?” He sees the dangers inherent in a Palestinian boy attending an Israeli school, Israeli soccer camps and the like. One childish fistfight and his world could end.
But weekdays, when they’re apart, Mustafa faces the gauntlet of check points, fingerprint ID, the works, just to work on the crew building another Israeli house.
When his guest-worker ID expires, it all threatens to come undone. There goes the job, the easy access to his family. Even though they can still travel over to see him, this is a fraught situation.
And then the boy is injured in an accident, and Mustafa has to brave the pricy, inconvenient, slow and dangerous “smuggling” route into Israel. He must locate a veteran smuggler, meet his price and hop in a van with other folks who absolutely have to be in Israel, no matter what their “papers” allow.
Nayfeh, whose feature debut comes with some of the same messaging and situations as his short about “The Crossing,” puts an increasingly frustrated Mustafa at the mercy of dallying, cagey and unhurried shadow economy types like Nader (Nabil Al Raee) who has to take his time, fill his van to make a profit and meander up and down back roads towards a point and the right lax-security moment in which he can get his passengers into Israel undetected.
The trip is nerve-wracking and infuriating, with delays planned and unplanned, overly-helpful fellow passengers with lots of questions and offers of bad advice. And then, some German woman (Anna Underberger) shows up with a camera to film her Palestinian friend (Motaz Malhees) as he makes his way to a relative’s wedding in Israel, and things promise to get even more complicated.
Nayfeh maintains suspense via the mystery of exactly how these Palestinian versions of “Coyotes” do their daily work-arounds to get a big chunk of Israel’s illegal workforce on the job.
We fear for Mustafa, his son, his marriage and his sanity as he does something that could get him banned from ever entering Israel again, and cannot instill his sense of the urgency in his situation in anyone around him.
We share his fury at the driver and wary alarm at the German filmmaker/passenger who has shown up and could derail things at any number of junctures and in any number of ways.
Suliman plays the whole movie on simmer, about to boil over with rage, outrage and verge-of-tears frustration. Unterberger gives us a gutsy but naive filmmaker with a sense of mystery and no compunctions about ethical or moral shortcuts.
With every detour, every drive past protesting/threatening Israeli “settlers,” a Netanyahu/Trump billboard, every confrontation and every unplanned stop, we see that “200 Meters” gap growing wider and ponder the fates of those struggling to get to the end of this never-ending journey.
Rating: unrated, some violence, smoking, profanity
Cast: Ali Suliman, Anna Unterberger, Lana Zreik, Motaz Malhees and Nabil Al Raee
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ameen Nayfeh. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:36