‘like twenty impossibles’ Review – The Struggle of Seeing / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


In the introduction to Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, Edward Said wrote that this national cinema has form, despite the conditions of mass displacement and occupation, due to the need to confront an existential lack of visibility. Palestinian cinema has grown out of a culture and people that have had to struggle, for over 70 years now, against corrosive invisibility, a cultural erasure perpetrated by the state of Israel alongside the blunter and bloodier expressions of its colonial project. 

Annemarie Jacir is one of the most astute artists actively perceiving past this veil. In her first film, like twenty impossibles (2003), she directly depicts Israel’s violent and bureaucratic denial of the very existence of Palestinian images through a metatextual imbroglio. 

It opens at the site of calculated inertia, as a Palestinian film crew waits in their van, queued up to an IDF checkpoint on the way to Jerusalem. The checkpoint closes, but undeterred, they decide to bypass it.  This leads them into a greater fix as they encounter a squad of IDF soldiers out in the hills. The bulk of the film, then, is the unraveling of this tense encounter, constantly teetering on the edge of bloodshed, as the crew attempts to navigate and deflect the soldier’s interrogation and arraignment, all seen from the point of view of the crew’s cameraperson. 

Everyone in the van is Palestinian, but under official eyes, this single identity is dismembered, and the pieces cordoned off and re-designated, much like the land itself. Their imposed identities, how they are defined by a piece of paper and according to the whim of those armed with guns and the top-down mandate to use them, dictate their movements. 

Annemarie (Reem Abu-Sbaih), the onscreen fictionalized director, grew up in New York and holds an American passport, which offers a degree of protection not available to her compatriots. While they are manhandled almost instantly, she is hardly ever touched, even when she defies the commander (Rami Mussalem). She contends with their verbal hurdles and their “sovereignty” over defining the situation—in other words, their ability to decide the nature of what is happening and its conditions, at the drop of a hat and to their liking. 

At one point, the commander presents their detainment as mundane: “I’m just trying to do his job,” he says. Still, she tries to fight bureaucratic fire with fire by presenting their permits, but he refutes her by simply stating the vague differences between “Area A” and “Area B.” It’s gibberish but with real-world and potentially lethal consequences. 

Mohammad (Ashraf Abu Moch), the sound man, is an Israeli citizen, a legal status that is acknowledged when he is told by one of the officers that they are here “for his own security.” Ultimately, they treat him like a Palestinian, fining him 2,000 shekels and detaining him. Rami (Ismael Dabbag), the actor, is in the most precarious position, as a Palestinian from Ramallah. He is not only legally deprived but, because of this status, judged an innate threat. While attempting to get him released, Annemarie is offhandedly told that he is a suspect. A suspect in what? It doesn’t matter because his mere existence is an infringement.

As the encounter escalates and both Mohammad and Rami are arrested and separated from the rest, the film’s form breaks down accordingly. The image and soundtrack disconnect from each other, then even these atomized elements become increasingly difficult to decipher. It’s the violent disruption and distortion of a Palestinian filmmaker or crew’s ability to express themselves through a stable point of view and aesthetic, but also an attempt to honestly depict a colonial act of sabotage by expressing disarray through disarray. The commitment to “keep filming,” as the unnamed cameraperson is repeatedly told, is a creative act of defiance against the command to keep silent and to misrepresent.

“The commitment to ‘keep filming,’ as the unnamed cameraperson is repeatedly told, is a creative act of defiance against the command to keep silent and to misrepresent.”

The tragedy of the crew’s detainment and forced separation isn’t just physical or psychological. It also hurts community and career—it denies the crew the pleasure of new relationships and lessons that artmaking can birth. During the film’s slow-burn opening, the tension of the checkpoint waiting game is intermingled and countered by the crew’s camaraderie and their shared sense of anticipation that they’re about to embark on something possibly fun, interesting, and educational, as individuals and as a collective. 

Rami seems to be the most excited about not only rekindling his friendship with Annemarie—they haven’t seen each other in 5 years—but also having the rare chance to practice his vocation, where opportunities to do so are otherwise limited. “It’s important to me. I love acting,” he says. His joking comment that he hasn’t been able to actually practice his art so far, because they have only been shooting incidental scenes, is a troubling foreshadowing of his arrest. He feels more like an object than a human being, literally pushed to the very edge of the frame and out of earshot and left to an unknown but likely terrible fate.

To make like twenty impossibles was a daring and dangerous act. Jacir shot the film in Palestine in 2002, when the often-impassable hoops that journalists, artists, and filmmakers had to jump through were ramped up with the heat of the Second Intifada. The film’s obstacles were many, including the reels being held up at Tel Aviv Airport on their way back to New York. But it was made, against the odds.

Jacir’s choice to use the road to depict the daily realities of Israeli oppression is poignant since it is a system that has purposely problematized movement, from the initial mass forced displacement that marked the beginning of the Nakba in 1948 up to the building of the West Bank Barrier. The over 700 kilometers of concrete, which began construction before the film’s release, has aided and abetted settlers while it simultaneously constricted and cut off Palestinian towns and neighborhoods, all in the name of defense.

In her later work, Jacir would use cars and the road as a means of exposing these inscribed injustices. In her debut feature, Salt of this Sea (2008), the main characters disguise themselves as Jewish Israeli citizens and venture north, out of the West Bank, to discover and recreate a Palestine corporeally lost in 1948 but summoned up and stitched together from collective memory and their individual imaginations. In Wajib (2017), a car becomes the concentrated field of conflict and possible reconciliation between a father and son but also a deeply expressive conduit for wider society as it travels through the various Arab neighborhoods of a Nazareth shaped by Israeli rule.

Since like twenty impossibles, Jacir has been making cinema about the often-horrifying reality of living under an ever-present iron boot, about extinguished visions of the past, present, and future. However, her films grow within themselves a hard-won optimism, a belief that if one, and ultimately many, were to remain steadfastly alert to injustices and strive to persist past them, then despite all odds, a better world could emerge. 

The urge to keep filming, repeated throughout the film, is not unlike the plea at the end of Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Letter from Gaza,” to not move away but to return, to witness a young girl’s amputated leg and to learn from it “what life is and what existence is worth.” To keep on filming is to put into action the desire to be able to be seen and plant roots, not be rendered invisible and expelled, and to build anew without destroying. In short, in impossible circumstances, to film is to live. 

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