In the Israeli production “Strangers,” which screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival, a young man from Tel Aviv named Eyal (Liron Levo) meets a Lebanese woman named Rana (Lubna Azabal). Both of them are in Berlin to see the 2006 summer football championships (that’s soccer to you yanks!). In spite of the fact that their respective homelands have been at war for decades, Rana and Eyal fall for each other.
After they part, Rana (who lives in Paris, having fled Lebanon), gets into some trouble, and Eyal shows up to help her out. They attempt to overcome the difficulties in their romance, but things prove challenging for them. After a heated discussion, Rana says “We (Israel and Lebanon) have tried to find a solution for two generations. We’re not going to find one tonight.” This is what defines their romance; they are individuals who do not want the ongoing fighting of their homelands to continue. They both want their love to flourish, but have trouble seeing each other’s point of view. They mostly dodge the political issues as much as possible, but sometimes they just can’t avoid the ugly truth.
Watching this film from an American perspective, I imagine that most of the audience will see a tale of love overcoming boundaries of nationalism, war, and religion. Mortal enemies who are willing to work through the many, many obstacles that life has placed before them. Perhaps some people will see a message of hope here.
It is interesting to place ones self in the position of an Israeli observer, however. This film was a product of Israel, not of Lebanon, and thus, it has a decidedly pro-Israeli slant. The first indicator is that the subtitles are in Hebrew, but not Lebanese. More tellingly, Eyal is portrayed as a kind man. He is good hearted, responsible, and courageous. He reads the poetry of Nathan Zach, so we know that he is sensitive and literate too. Eyal even makes some light-hearted jokes about the Lebanese which would probably play as hilarious in Israel, but would be slightly insensitive to politically correct American sensibilities.
Conversely, Rana is a single mother (implying that she is unable to form lasting relationships). She is in trouble with French immigration, and she is also rather forward with Eyal (a fast woman). Her personality is a bit coarse, and for most of the film she appears as a bit of a tomboy (with one or two exceptions). So, as seen by an Israeli audience, we have a good man, a sterling example of a son to be proud of, getting mixed up with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, an irresponsible harlot who has been born of the enemy.
Rana can also be seen as manipulative. She takes Eyal to meet some of her leftist friends, knowing perfectly well that his views will be unpopular with them. The scene provides a fair amount of exposition, and attempts to bring the uneducated viewer up to speed on both sides of the conflict, as Eyal argues with Rana’s friends. The friends state their argument first, and it seems to make a lot of sense. However, Eyal’s rebuttal is intelligent and convincing. Tension builds, and the scene ends with Rana’s friends rejecting her for her association with Eyal. Later, her manipulative ways become apparent when she tells her friends off for not being there for her, but she also tells Eyal that she sacrificed her friends for him, working the situation in her own way to gain sympathy from both parties.
Thus, from a certain point of view, Lubna Azabal’s Rana is portrayed as not quite a villain, but perhaps as an unfortunate victim of her backwards country who can be “rescued” from her unsavory ways by the heroic Eyal. As such, hers is the more interesting character. She has to deal with her French immigration problems, an asthmatic son (Eyal rescues him, natch), a hometown that is in disputed territory, questionable friends, an escalating war, and her relationship with Eyal. Azabal has a lot to chew on here, and manages to play the part convincingly, seducing Eyal one moment, rejecting him the next, then needing his help, and finally just giving in to her heart. It is a complex role, and she never falters.
The film is presented in an especially shaky and low-res format. In fact, it looks as though it was shot on someone’s cell phone. This visually disappointing look is partially redeemed by a nicely edited scene in which the screen splits into two, then four, and then six segments, each showing scenes from the football match. Then, some of the screen divisions flip over to scenes of the escalating Israel-Lebanon conflict. The screen drops back to four zones (now mostly showing the war), and then two, and then a single image of military violence as the 2006 Lebanon War commences. This segue between Eyal’s favorite form of recreation and the much more tragic issue of the war in his homeland is quite effective. One can only wish that the cinematographer had been as inspired as the editor.