toronto screening, june 27, 2002 _ press release

Review: Frontiers of Dreams and Fears

Palestinian film speaks to more than the choir

Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
May 10, 2001

Mai Masri's latest film virtually perfects the art of documentary film as advocacy. Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (Ahlam al Manfa) had its official premier on Wednesday evening at the Masrah Beirut's festival, Between Two Intifadas: Palestine in the New Cinema.

Frontiers follows two young Palestinians through several months of their lives: Mona in the Shatila refugee camp and Manar in Bethlehem's al-Dhaysha camp. Living in different camps - one ruled by the extreme economic marginalization of Lebanon, the other by Israeli military and economic oppression. The two girls represent variations on a theme of deprivation. But though they do have a tragic aspect, the stories aren't simply portraits of pathos. As in her earlier films focusing on kids, Children of Shatila (1998) and Children of Fire (1990) Frontiers exhibits an optimism that defies the circumstances of its subjects.

Frontiers isn't simply a sequel, though, not simply a parallel snapshot of two Palestinians on either side of the border. Masri's film shoot conveniently corresponded to the Israeli flight from south Lebanon and the outbreak of the second intifada. The propitious timing has transformed Frontiers into something more moving than it might have otherwise been. For the Palestinians, Israel's occupation of the South placed a kilometers-thick barrier on the frontier separating them. As is well-known here, the sudden evacuation reduced the border to a few strands of razor wire, making it permeable whether to bullets or words.

The change gave Palestinians on both sides of the line the opportunity to make contact for the first time in decades. Families disrupted by serial displacement had a chance to drive to the still-flimsy border fence to inquire after family members thought to be in Lebanon.

Whether they involved members of the same family or not, these meetings could be heart-rending stuff even when transmitted as news footage. Such emotionally charged encounters are putty in Masri's hands, and she takes full advantage of it here.

Mona and Manar, to that point only internet friends, are filmed meeting at the border fence. The encounter channels the emotional intensity of the event, making it emblematic of the plight of the Palestinians as a whole.

The emotional foundation of Frontiers isn't despair but hope. The film uses injustice the single moral imperative underlying the Palestinian condition to argue that this condition must change. Not surprisingly Masri's argument was convincing to the Masrah Beirut audience. More significantly, the films visual rhetoric is strong enough to win over an overseas audience as well.

Masri's Palestinian community is progressive and secular, one in which young men and women, Christian and Muslim, sit and joke about the opposite sex. There are those that might object to how representative this image is suggesting that it seems somewhat removed from the realities of life in the camps today, where the social mores of the youth have become increasingly influenced by Islam.

On the other hand, Frontiers very specific focus isn't prejudiced against Islamists. Like her other films, it is post-political, carefully avoiding any overt reference to any political party thereby ensuring its broadcast in Lebanon. Pragmatically speaking, it would be absurd to suggest that mixed-sex conversation never happens in the Palestinian refugee community. And what Frontiers representation of the camps lacks in universality, it makes up for in its strength as advocacy.

Arguably Masri's documentaries like those of Jean Chamoun, her husband and film-making partner have been aimed at liberal Europeans and North Americans as much as at the regional audience. They have, in any case, played a considerable role in putting a human face upon the ongoing turmoil among the Lebanese and Palestinians.

Frontiers cuts through the cynicism that ossifies in brains numbed by too much faceless violence on the evening news. In making it possible for the audience to feel, it fulfills a primary function of documentary film.

Frontiers of Dreams and Fears was produced in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) with funding provided for by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

biography of Mai Masri