Monday, June 2, 2014

9 STAR HOTEL (2007), a cinematic epic of undocumented workers

What strikes me, after some reflection, is just how familiar this whole film feels to me as a North American, this labor story is identical to our modern debates in the United States, even if it was produced by Israeli director Ido Haar and is primarily in Arabic.  Haar, himself barely literate in any Arabic at all, essentially put the camera in front of these men and allowed them to speak as candidly as possible, explaining the lack of formalities like interviews.
The film follows a group of young Palestinian workers who have built a hilltop shanty town and labor illegally to build a city that will eventually further Israeli expansion, adding a sharp twist to the pitiful state they have been reduced to already.  They collect from the garbages of Israelis, bringing back to camp everything from building supplies to toddler toys, sprinting across highway intersections.  The camp is a ramshackle stack of wood pallets, plastic construction drop cloths, tarps, and nails.  But beneath literal centimeters of gunk, mud, and grime encrusted on them in some moments, these men, really just boys in some instances, bring into a sharp perspective one simple detail that also singularly encapsulates the true dimensions of the conflict and the issues particularly of race, gender, and economics.  Indeed, many moments are seeming illustrations of paragraphs from a Marxist prognosis of capitalism's excesses, but this is a story about labor that seems to transcend -isms.
The nominal village that these men build up in these hills, a community in and of itself, becomes a symbol of Palestinian resilience and also of the national heritage itself.  It is as if, within their camp, they for a few minutes experience their own little Palestine as Arabs in their homeland.  One of the men is excited to talk about an upcoming wedding.  The boys spend a night exchanging loud and boisterous folk songs.  A night after the security forces detain them, they return directly to the camp, they need to send these paltry wages home and have no other way.  On Holocaust Memorial Day, they younger ones are told about the meaning of the Shoah by older workers, and there is a notable nuance and even sympathy barely contemplated by the US media.  And in the end, the film perfectly illustrates the pain of the Nakba in a fashion that ultimately forces the viewer to contemplate the event in relation to time and space, to ask if this is a singular event or the true existential status forever of Palestine, constantly forced into a nakba for all time.
Trying to wedge or force the film into a theory is useful in some instances, and indeed, Zizek's oft-mentioned quote from Marx about ideology, "They don't know they are doing it but they are doing it", strikes a chord here.  The workers here do capitalism, they have almost zero interest or perhaps even notion of the German notions of dialectics or social democracy.  As illegal workers, they are forbidden to even think the word union (إتحاد العمال), let alone form one.  In a sense, the fate of this microcosm is not just akin to Palestinian historiographical insights, it also reveals the general ability and trends of capital universally.

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