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ALAM: Unveiling the Power of Symbolism in Firas Khoury’s Palestinian Film

Programmed by the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2022, "Alam," which means "flag" in French, continues to gain international recognition. The film has just won the Grand Prize for Best Fiction Feature at the International Film Education Festival in France. The festival jury was captivated by the politically engaged debut feature from Firas Khoury, a Palestinian screenwriter and director whose highly acclaimed short film, "Maradona's Legs" (2019), has traveled the world and received numerous awards. Fantastic news, as "Alam" will be released in French theaters starting from June 7, 2023, thanks to the independent film distributor, JHR Films.

"Alam" addresses a deeply rooted theme in the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film sheds light on the dilemma faced by many Palestinians who remain in Israel: whether to forget the past and support the occupier's regime or to rebel. Firas Khoury presents a poignant narrative that explores this duality, following the journeys of two teenagers, Tamer (Mahmoud Bakri) and Maysaa (Sereen Khass).

When Maysaa, a rebellious teenager, enters Tamer's class, her activist background is already widely known through social media. She was reportedly expelled from her school in Jerusalem for advocating the Palestinian cause. In an act of defiance, she confronts the teacher who distorts history, asserting that the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel's victory are a momentous occasion. Tamer, on the other hand, faces the threat of expulsion and frequent visits to the principal's office. He expresses his disapproval by carving a symbol of protest on his desk: a wise monkey with its ears and mouth blocked. This gesture is enough to label him a dissenter in this strict institution, even though he prefers to smoke joints and hang out with his friends.

The film poetically captures the image of Tamer, filmed from behind, walking through the corridor of his high school, carrying his engraved desk on his shoulders. This powerful scene symbolizes the younger generation that is being silenced through a propagandistic education system. Symbols play a central role throughout the film when Tamer, Maysaa, and their comrades decide to replace the Israeli flag raised above their school with the Palestinian flag on the day of Israel's independence. This initiative aims to seize a symbolic power that is more devastating than taking up arms. However, the young generation is not naive about the outcome of this operation. The young leader of the commando mission provocatively asserts that the Palestinian flag they defend is nothing more than a piece of fabric.

Burning subject indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been depicted on the big screen numerous times. It is important to recall the existence of admirable works, created from both sides of the conflict, critiquing the occupation, the handling of the conflict by the ruling power, or driven by resilience: openly engaged films like the documentaries of Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi (Pour un seul de mes deux yeux, 2005) or more recently the fictional work of Israeli director Nadav Lapid (Le Genou d'Ahed, 2021), as well as the poetic cinema of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, 2002) and Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (The Lemon Tree, 2008). From the desire to document a society plagued from within, to rise against a system of censorship or repression, the attempts of the seventh art to address this most complex subject are always courageous, fixated on the border, the territory, the injustice, the violence, and the truth. Firas Khoury treads cautiously but with a thirst for poetry. Far from thinking that this subject is cinematically exhausted, he manages to deliver an absolutely original story, taking the perspective of a youth who is administratively Israeli but feels Palestinian. Which flag to serve?

By sensitively and boldly exploring the profound dilemmas of youth caught between identities and aspirations, Firas Khoury's "Alam" emerges as a poetic call for understanding and the search for lasting peace in a region plagued by conflicts.

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