A ring of truth

Sameh Zoabi’s comedy ‘Man without a Cell Phone’ should get good reception.

Man without a Cell Phone (photo credit: Courtesy)
Man without a Cell Phone
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Man without a Cell PhoneHebrew title: Ish le lo selulariDirected by Sameh Zoabi.Written by Zoabi and Fred Rice With Razi Shawahdeh, Bassem LoulouRunning time: 1 hour, 23 minutes In Arabic and Hebrew.Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Man without a Cell Phone , directed by Sameh Zoabi, is a gently political comedy about an Israeli Arab slacker who is forced by circumstances to take a stand. It’s a rare glimpse into Palestinian village life and a look at how modernity is changing people there – and it’s also about how some things never change.
The film takes a light tone in dealing with serious issues, a style that may charm some but will frustrate others. It’s difficult at times for Zoabi to maintain the balancing act between laughs and political commentary, especially as the film progresses. But what works well throughout is that the characters seem like real people, not politically correct stereotypes.
Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh) is a pretty-boy flirt who lives in a village near Nazareth. He has ambitions of getting out and making something of himself, but he can’t seem to pass his Hebrew exams, so he can’t get into university. While a girl he meets complains about the unfairness of being required to take exams in a language that isn’t his, Jawdat’s problem seems to be more that he simply doesn’t study, which would get him into trouble in any university system.
In the meantime, Jawdat works in his cousin’s concrete business (and sometimes even helps clandestinely unload forbidden alcohol bottles in this mostly Muslim village). But what he really enjoys is flirting with young women via his cell phone. He’s torn between a Christian girl in his village, another girl in Ramallah, and maybe even a Jewish girl. But he’s certainly not ready to settle down with any of them, which doesn’t sit well with his parents. Especially not with his father, Salem (Bassem Loulou), an irascible olive farmer who isn’t fond of technology, to put it mildly. When a cell phone company builds a tower right next to his land, he is furious, hating everything it represents.
Salem is convinced that it will cause cancer in the village, so he organizes a protest against it.
He’s mainly on his own in this, since many of the villagers, like his own son, are glad that now there will be better phone reception.
When Salem approaches the local leaders, they aren’t eager to help because they don’t want to upset the Israeli authorities. This subplot gives an interesting look at the infighting that goes on among Israeli Arabs, and it explores, at least briefly, the conflict between those who work with Israel and those who opt out of the Israeli political system. It’s also interesting that Israel is represented here not only by the government but also by a company, one that is making profits on both Israelis and Palestinians.
Gradually Jawdat is roped in to the protest, and the story becomes slightly more conventional. We’ve seen other films with a lone Palestinian (or a few Palestinians) going up against Israel – think of Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree – and the results are pretty much a foregone conclusion.
But what works best in this film is the character of Jawdat. He isn’t a noble, virtuous warrior but a guy who isn’t especially industrious or honest with women. He’s funny and makes a fool of himself at regular intervals.
It’s rare to see a Palestinian character on screen that isn’t totally consumed by politics.
Zoabi has recently completed a second feature, Under the Same Sun , about an Israeli and a Palestinian who set up a solar energy company together. It sounds as if this upcoming film focuses on the same theme of the little guys fighting big business, as if Zoabi is carving out new territory for himself on the Israeli film scene. While there is some tentativeness about Man without a Cell Phone , Zoabi is clearly a director worth watching.