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Follow Cameras into the Mideast

July 21, 2008

By Jonas Beals, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

Jul. 21–”9 Star Hotel,” a 60-minute documentary, airs tomorrow on PBS as part of the acclaimed POV series.

Like many of the independent non-fiction films the series has showcased since 1988, “9 Star Hotel” provides a glimpse of a place and culture foreign to most United States citizens.

Tension between Palestinians and Israelis is common news fodder, familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of world affairs. Decades of struggle and strife have desensitized the world, but there are still lessons to be learned from that corner of the Middle East.

Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar fixed his lens on a group of young Palestinians who risk arrest by sneaking into an Israeli city to work. Haar discovered people stuck between cultures and governments, doing their best to provide for their families. For these men, basic needs trump political ideology or border guards.

In “9 Star Hotel,” opportunity is a job laboring on new construction in the budding Israeli city of Modi’in. The obstacles are the Israeli border patrol, a coming border fence and diminishing prospects for success in a country struggling for an identity.

By day, the men pour and grind material for new houses in the planned Jewish community. By night, they sleep in makeshift shacks on a hill overlooking the city, constantly watching the horizon for soldiers and police.

In between, they scrounge through Dumpsters, looking for gifts to take home to their families. They tell stories and jokes. They question ineffective government policies on both sides of the border. Everyday-life scenes like these should be familiar to any viewer.

As in many documentaries, the tight focus of the subject matter speaks volumes about society in general, including ours.

It’s never made clear whether or not these Palestinian men are being exploited by their employers, but there is a clear demand for their labor. Likewise, it is hard to figure just how dedicated the Israeli border patrol is to hunting down these workers who live exposed on a hillside outside of town.

What comes through is an apparent universal desire for people to improve their lot in life. One can imagine migrant field hands having similar experiences here in the United States.

Critics may disapprove of the one-sided story, but “9 Star Hotel” is more cinema verite than message-driven documentary. Characters tell their own story through words and action, without talking heads offering their 2 cents. Fans of Michael Moore’s insistent films might have to stifle a yawn or two, but the end result is something just as engaging — and perhaps more thought-provoking — than a Hollywood product.

Haar simply lets the camera roll, capturing action as it unfolds. The footage is raw, but the film is a rather intimate slice of life from one of the world’s most troubled regions.

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