“Oversized Coat”: Palestinian cinema and the occupation

The Palestinian feature film, Oversized Coat, had a showing before a full house at the Al-Quds Cinema in the Yabous Cultural Center in East Jerusalem. Featured at the Palestinian Film Festival in Amsterdam in April 2015, the 2013 production was written and directed by Nawras Abu Saleh, whose childhood in Tulkarm, a city located just over the Green Line in the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, closely parallels the experiences of story protagonist Sami.

The rows of theater seats filled up quickly with a Palestinian and international audience until the walls and steps of the hall were lined with viewers. The film derives its title from a Palestinian metaphor about wearing a responsibility that is too large. Oversized Coat tells the story of the Israeli occupation in a small Palestinian village in the West Bank from a newcomer's point of view, a story familiar to everyone who was in the theater Thursday night, and to anyone who has been to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It doesn't break new territory, and therein lies one of its strengths.

photo credit: Flash90

The entrance to the Yabous Cultural Center in East Jerusalem

The First Intifada through the eyes of a child

The first half of the story is told somewhat vaguely, through the eyes of a returning expatriate Palestinian child. It carefully exposes the burden of daily humiliation and discouragement that Palestinian families were suffering in 1987 at the time of the First Intifada: Afraid to be caught living a reasonable life, the villagers cope by living an unconvincing lie, which, in turn, confuses the young Sami. He's tossed unexplained directives by everyone in his new village. He watches inexplicable behavior by the adults. A few boys sitting along the wall near me tittered nervously at the uncensored questions of a bewildered child. It seemed they were a bit giddy, identifying with the frank youngster.

What the audience and the child learn from his father, the kind and admirable village doctor (Akef Najem), is a simplistic version of the occupation, without the glue of political context. Perhaps it's told simply enough to explain the Palestinian experience for the uninitiated (I'm thinking American teens from the heartland), and, necessarily, isn't complicated.

A cute and refreshingly naive young actor, Ahmad Madani, portrays the young Sami, who has returned to this family's village with his father and is understandably bemused by the strange rules and angry undercurrent playing out in his new home. Sami struggles with the ubiquitous curse of childhood -- everyone else has the inside information and knows all the secretive rules, while he doesn't understand the drama between the adults in the village and the Israeli soldiers.

One scene in particular, when young Sami tries to make and display a Palestinian flag -- illegal at the time -- is so convincingly childlike that one has to believe Abu Saleh is writing from personal experience. According to Abu Saleh, the story of Oversized Coat is based on true events, "Some of them happened with me, and others with people around me, but it looks like it is my story."

A rebellious young man during the Second Intifada

Young Sami becomes a rebellious young man who is propelled by the death of a friend into defying the Israeli occupation as a way to defy his father. Actor Sami Metwasi picks up and carries the rest of the film portraying an attractive, sympathetic and charismatic young leader. Through his journalistic adventures, Sami leads the audience to each of the primary injustices perpetrated by the Israeli occupation on the Palestinians, an educational feature of this film for clueless outsiders to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At one point Sami declares that he would rather study journalism and filmmaking than engineering, to use media as his tool in the struggle against the occupation.

Director Abu Saleh shot the entire film in Jordan

Abu Saleh says he began writing the script in 2011 and shot the film in 2012 and 2013. Post production was done in 2014 and it premiered in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Amman, Jordan, in the spring of 2015.

photo credit: Flash90

Filmmaker Nawas Abu Saleh talking about his film

He shot the movie entirely in Jordan, where he now resides, because the natural environment is very similar to the West Bank. The cast was both Palestinian and Jordanian and the production team was international. Unlike Sami in the movie, who was given a windfall donation from one person, Abu Saleh launched The 100 Cinematic Initiative of 70 Palestinian business men to fund Oversized Coat.

It's worth noting that the intensity of the topic is relieved with nice comedic acting by Sami's best friend and sidekick (Ibrahem Abu Al-Kheer) as well as in the smaller roles of Sami's grandmother (Refa'at Najar) and Sami's uncle (Ghassen Mashini).

While, for the most part, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are stick-figure arch villains without complexity or nuance, one talented actor in particular, Ahmad Omari was genuinely sinister with his chuckle and smile as Israeli Colonel Alon. All of the Israeli soldiers seem surprisingly fluent in Arabic, perhaps reflecting the fact that they all live in Jordan. The one scene which takes place in Hebrew drew chuckles from the audience, since it was clear that the actors did not know the language.