The well-meaning international co-production set in the Middle East has become something of a formula. There were at least four movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival in which equally sympathetic characters are recruited to represent the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Canadian entry was Inch’Allah, a more or less successful drama by Quebec director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette that tells the story of a young francophone doctor who works in a Palestinian clinic but lives in Israel.
Chloé (Evelyne Brochu) tends to mothers and babies at a women’s health clinic behind the infamous wall. There, she has befriended the vivacious Rand (Sabrina Ouazani), a pregnant woman whose absent husband is awaiting sentencing by an Israeli court while her brother, Faysal (Yousef Sweid), churns out posters of the latest martyrs in his little print shop.
Back in her more comfortable apartment in Israel, Chloé chats to her mother in Canada or visits with her downstairs neighbour and drinking buddy, Ava (Sivan Levy), a young woman unhappily performing her military service checking Palestinians’ documents at the border.
On either side, Rand and Ava are trapped in the ludicrous geography of the conflict, and so Chloé gets to see both sides sympathetically personified. It is all too tidy, of course, and if Barbeau-Lavalette, a director who began her career making documentaries before turning to feature films with Le Ring in 2007, manages to rise about the rigidity of her own script, it is through her insistence on filming with a documentarian’s eye. The camera is often hand-held, shaking and swerving as Chloé observes this confusing place, but also lingers on particularly grim details, especially in the dump where Rand and her young son earn a living by picking through the garbage of Israeli settlers.
More optimistic entries in this genre demand that the two sides learn to appreciate the other’s perspective and recognize their shared humanity, often by focusing on some symbolic point of union or contention rather than on the war itself: Those films can fall prey to the same naiveté that they note in their best-intentioned characters.
Inch’Allah is not so simple. After Chloé witnesses the death of a boy who jumps on an Israeli armoured car patrolling the dump, Faysal gently presses her to take sides. The film never portrays a recalcitrant or vengeful Israeli or a fanatical Palestinian, but it does become increasingly sympathetic to Palestine’s murderous frustration.
When Chloé, whose confusion, compassion and grief are finely played by an understated Brochu, does try to help her Palestinian friends, the results are disastrous – at least, on paper. On screen, the grief one should feel for the bitter outcome that Rand and Faysal face seems a bit perfunctory. Partly this is because the only character, and the only dilemma, that have really come alive are Chloé and the difficulty she faces in playing bystander; Rand, Faysal and Ava are as much representatives of their warring peoples as they are breathing individuals. And partly, it is because Inch’Allah very firmly departs from the formula in offering little hope for any way out: It is a film that replaces naiveté with despair.
As a fragile ceasefire holds after the latest round of violence, one can hardly blame Barbeau-Lavalette for her pessimism.