With daily reports of suicide bombings, government clampdowns, politicking and riots in the Middle East, it's easy to become desensitized to what's happening in Israel. It can all seem so foreign, so monotonous, so unfathomably complex and impersonal.
But Israeli filmmaker Danae Elon's documentary about finding the Palestinian man who raised her is very personal. It's a rare and candid look at the private relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, and the intimacy is tainted only by what seems to be the director's reluctance to fully embrace her starring role in the film.
Elon daughter of liberal Jewish author Amos Elon and literary agent Beth Elon films her quest to find Mahmoud "Musa" Obeidallah, a man who was in her family's employ for some 20 years, but whom she hasn't had contact for at least a decade.
Obeidallah's employment in the Jewish household may have been unlikely, but his job as Elon's caregiver allowed him to raise his 11 children and make good on his dream to have his boys educated in the United States. Elon says she's driven to find Obeidallah because he was more than a babysitter. He was, to paraphrase her, something more like a father but she offers few other details to support that description.
When Elon's journey to reconnect with Obeidallah brings her to Paterson, N.J., where many of Musa's sons have settled and started successful careers, one might expect to see the kind of wailing and hugging that reality TV has made intrinsic to any reunion. Perhaps such expectations are suspect, but so lackluster is the subsequent stream of reunions that one starts to wonder just what's the point of all this. There are no sparks, no confrontations, no long embraces, and no outpourings of feelings of longing or missing each other.
Elon does manage to get her subjects to open up about the uneasiness and contradictions that have developed in the families' relationships. In one poignant moment, her father says it's impossible for Israelis and Palestinians to maintain casual personal relationships because they can't do anything without politics coming up.
In another scene, she asks one of Obeidallah's sons what he thought about her and her family. He obliges, and recalls how as a youth he was curious about what her Israeli school and everyday life were like, how he marveled at her house filled with books, and how he longed to have her as a friend on "the other side." He says he resented his father having to be away from his family, but he now understands and appreciates his sacrifice.
The film's problem comes when he turns the tables and asks her what she thought of him and his father, and she hedges. "I don't know how to answer that," she says.
Well, why not? It seems the point of the entire film hinges on that question. Her silence can be read as either arrogance or embarrassment. Had she unearthed some guilt or regret for letting a decade pass without making contact with his family? Had she as a child taken this man's love for granted and not fully comprehended the social and political ramifications of his employment in her home?
As much as this documentary could say, Elon leaves far too much unspoken. Her intimate and loving portrait of the Obeidallahs and their patriarch's selflessness is satisfying to some extent, but would be far more compelling had we heard her side of the story too. Other than some challenging and perceptive observations from her fascinating parents, when it comes time for Elon's contribution, she leaves too many awkward silences, too many questions unanswered and some important questions never asked at all.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].