A Film About Bedouin Life, Sans Cliches

Director Ami Livne recalls the trials of finding a convincing actor to play the lead in 'Sharqiya,' which opens this week.

Kamel Najr, the protagonist in the film "Sharqiya," lives in one of the Bedouin shantytowns, officially called "unrecognized villages," in the Negev. Every day he comes home from work to a plywood shack with tin sheets for a roof that has no electricity or running water. A noisy generator allows him and his family to turn on lights and watch television. To get water, they must hook up a large container to the back of a tractor and drive for several hours to the nearest water dealer.

Kamel, who served in the Israeli army, works as a security guard at Be’er Sheva’s central bus station. During the second intifada, with its deadly suicide bombings on buses, he, a Bedouin, was the one who protected Israeli citizens from such disasters. Friendly even with his Israeli boss, at work he is considered one of the hevre, the guys — but none of this helps him when he returns home one day to find a demolition order on the wall of one of the homes in his village. Although Kamel and his brothers try to get the order revoked, the Israeli authorities refuse to back down, and Kamel realizes he must act.

“Sharqiya” is director Ami Livne’s first full-length feature film. Shot on a low budget, it was shot in only 12 days and uses actors who did not know they were actors until they stood in front of a camera for the first time. It tells the story of a life quite different from the life Livne, who is from Tel Aviv, knows. Yet despite all that — and despite its minimalistic plot — Livne has made a delicate, unpretentious and sensitive film that fortunately succeeds in skipping the stereotypical desert cliches about Bedouin life, and shows the painful conflict that is part of the daily routine of many of the Bedouin who live in the south.

Several months after its premiere screening almost two years ago at the Berlin International Film Festival, “Sharqiya” was awarded the prize for best film at the Jerusalem Film Festival — and on Thursday it will finally reach Israeli theaters.

Memories of war injury, skateboarding

Livne, 38, recalls that as a teenager in Tel Aviv, he had difficulty fitting into the school environment and went from one school to another. He finally took the matriculation tests as an external student and devoted the rest of his time to skateboarding. He served as a tank commander in the army. In 1997, two weeks before he was to be discharged, his tank was hit by a shell in Lebanon. His face healed, but his right arm is still scarred from that incident.

The memories of his skateboarding days and the skateboarding videos he used to make with his friends spurred him to begin studying film at Hamidrasha, the School of Art at Beit Berl College. Afterward, he began working as an assistant television director and began attending Idit Shchori’s School of Screenwriting, where he met Guy Ofran, who wrote the screenplay of “Sharqiya.” At the time, Ofran was working on an idea he developed that comprised three stories set in Be’er Sheva’s central bus station. Livne became enthusiastic over one of the characters in the screenplay, a Bedouin security guard who works at the bus station, and suggested to Ofran that they collaborate on the screenplay of a film in which the security guard would be the protagonist.

Ofran and Livne began working together, and at the same time started looking into the lives of Bedouins living in the villages of the south. “We went to the villages, met with the Bedouin, went on tours with Dukium, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, went to see demolished villages, read everything we could find on the subject, and saw documentary films about it,” Livne says.

Identifying with character

At the time, he says the character of the Bedouin man in the film was “a symbolic wrapping” and no more. “Back then,” he says, “I didn’t really understand the importance of making a film about the Bedouin. I didn’t realize what a responsibility it was. For me, the character of the Bedouin man was a symbolic situation of rejected people living on the fringes of society. Maybe I connected with it because something within me felt that way, because as a teenager I had been on my own, not into any organized activity, without many friends, pretty much a loner. Kamel, too, is a loner in some ways, an underdog on the margins of society.”

The more deeply Livne and Ofran probed, and the more they learned about the lives of the Bedouin, the more Livne understood the responsibility he had taken on in making the film. “Very slowly, I began to realize that the film would be representing an entire sector of the population, even though it doesn’t pretend in any way to depict that sector in all its variety,” he says. “I started to be afraid and be tormented by self-doubt. What was I thinking, doing something like this? After all, I was just a young man from Tel Aviv. What did I think I was doing, making a film about the Bedouin? The more I felt the film coming closer, that it was really happening, the more I felt the responsibility that lay on my shoulders, and I felt I needed to be as exact as possible and tell the truth on the screen as much as I possibly could.”

Some people tried to persuade him not to make the film, telling him that he could not make an authentic film about the Bedouin because he was not a Bedouin himself. Livne understood the challenge he faced, but did not give up. He learned Arabic, cast the film with Bedouin actors who know the lifestyle from up close, and made every effort to ensure that the film would provide a faithful depiction of at least some of the Bedouin living in the unrecognized villages.

Livne recruited producer Eyal Shiray after seeing “My Father, My Lord,” the film he produced for David Volach. He knew that the film had been shot on a low budget, with few shooting days, and believed that his film would be made similarly. Shiray joined the project, followed by the French producer Elie Meirovitz and the Israeli producer Itay Tamir, and in 2009 the Israel Film Foundation agreed to fund “Sharqiya.”

From amateurs to pros to amateurs

The search for actors was long and arduous. Livne contacted the amateur theater in Rahat and held auditions. When he did not find suitable actors, he began a long series of auditions for Bedouin non-actors. When these auditions turned up no suitable candidate, Livne, under pressure from the producers, held auditions for professional, experienced actors. “We did auditions for almost every Arab actor in Israel who was of the right age, and we almost hired a few of them,” he says. “But I didn’t feel at peace with it. I told myself: I’m not a Bedouin, the actors aren’t Bedouin, and I felt that the film was steadily losing its authenticity. So I decided to go back and look for Bedouin people to play the leading roles. I started traveling around the south, at fuel stations, in cafes, in villages. I went to people’s homes and filmed auditions with them there.”

One time, when Livne was in the south to audition a young Bedouin man, the prospective actor did not show up. When Livne called, he said he was busy, and Livne, refusing to go home empty-handed, asked him to think of someone else who would be suitable for the part. The young man referred him to his friend, Ednan Abu Wadi. “I called him and we met on the road shortly afterward, near the Beit Kama junction,” Livne recalls. “I told him I was making a film and wanted him to audition. I suggested that I go home with him, but he said it wasn’t possible because he had no electricity. Instead, he took me to an underground passage for sheep beneath some road, and we filmed his audition there, by the light of the car headlights.”

Livne admits he was not impressed at first, but his producers were. “We saw that he could act. He was good on the screen, touched our feelings and conveyed emotion. In the end, we were enthusiastic and decided to cast him in the leading role,” says Livne. “He turned out to live in an unrecognized village himself. He had seen the homes of his own relatives demolished, and he told me, ‘Look, I feel that this is myself, I’m not playing some character here.' He gave me a good feeling about the film’s authenticity.”

A complex reality

Finding a place to build the film set of the unrecognized village slated for demolition was a tough job. “In location trips, we found a few Arab villages we wanted to film in. They were appropriate for us and the residents agreed to help,” he says. “But in all the cases, after a few days the residents of the village stopped answering our telephone calls and evaded us. They were afraid that once we made the film on their land, it would attract the attention of the authorities, who would then come and demolish not only our set but also their own illegally-constructed buildings. And that was how, two weeks before the filming, we found ourselves without a place to shoot the film. We made the deal for the final location a week before we started filming, after we found a brave Bedouin man and his family who agreed to build a few shacks for us on their land — shacks that were very much like the ones they lived in themselves.”

To keep out of trouble, Livne and the producers tried to get a permit in advance for the construction of the temporary village from the Negev Bedouin Administration. They also asked for permission to shoot the film, but Livne says, “When they understood what the film was about, they simply refused to cooperate with us. So we decided to start filming without their permission. We decided that if they came in the midst of the shoot to demolish our structures, we would film the demolition in real time and include it in the film.”

In the end, there was no demolition, and the filming went on as scheduled in 2011. Livne says that the choice of non-professional actors proved itself on the set. “During filming in the improvised village we built, they felt they were in their natural environment. When they had to start a generator or mount a donkey and we couldn’t teach how these things were done because we didn’t have enough time, they got up and did it easily because they knew these things. Between takes they sat, smoked and drank coffee, and the feeling was that they really were at home and we were just guests there,” Livne says, smiling.

Because they had only 12 shooting days, Livne had to change the film a little, compress the plot and put some subplots aside.

He had his actors read the screenplay in advance because they feared the film might not depict Bedouin society faithfully, but on the set he worked with them on improvisation. “I told them during the filming what each scene was about, what each character wanted to gain, and together we created the scene by improvisation until we ended up with something that resembled what had been written for the film, but in their own words,” Livne says. “Often, because of the language difficulty, I had to ask them exactly what they had said, and they translated it for me.”

In the film, Livne wanted to shatter some preconceived notions that Israelis have about Bedouin. “People think of them as metal thieves, car thieves, criminals and land-grabbers. The media publicize instances of murders within the family and this just reinforces the negative image they have. I tried in this film to show something other than that image.”

Livne concedes that he only realized the power of the film at a relatively late stage, when he saw the footage in the studio (Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov is responsible for “Sharqiya’s” lovely cinematography).

Statement goes beyond script

“The movie surprised me with its power,” he said. “Only when I saw it in the editing room did I realize that I had made a film whose statement went beyond what was in the script. I suddenly understood that I had made a film that contains blunt criticism of the state’s policy toward the Bedouin, and I became concerned about the responses it could generate. I hadn’t planned to make a movie that was so strongly critical; it wasn’t as if I had been a Bedouin rights activist or anything like that.”

Before the movie, Livne had no particularly strong opinions with regard to the Bedouin, but even now, when he has more of a position, he doesn’t presume to suggest solutions to their problems.

“Now it’s clear to me that there’s a complicated reality here,” he says. “I don’t think that the movie presents a general picture of the Bedouin situation; it represents something very specific, since every village has its own story and its own complexity. With that, many of them have been done an injustice with regard to home demolitions.

“At the same time, I also have criticism of Bedouin society," he continues. "Most of them, for example, are extremely suspicious of the Israeli establishment, do not trust it and have no desire to cooperate in any way, and in the end they end up hurt, too. There’s also this lack of desire by many to change things; they are fixated on a certain way of life. Even though in the towns education is more accessible, for example, those in the Bedouin diaspora don’t necessarily want that. Many of them want to preserve the lifestyle of living in the desert and raising sheep, which is difficult for the state to allow.

“I have no solution to these problems," says Livne. "In this movie, all I tried to do was to reflect, to give a point of view from within of the specific character about whom I made the film. Apparently he represents something, but probably not all of Bedouin society.”

Amit Berlowitz