A scene from Inch’allah. (Happiness Distribution/uniFrance Films)
Many white people travel to Palestine to work with various organizations. Some are deeply involved in solidarity and resistance work on the ground, others work to subsidize Israeli repression of Palestinians through absorbing costs — such as health care — that Israel, as the occupying power, would otherwise have to bear. One of the latter is Chloé (Evelyne Brochu), the main character in Québécois writer/director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s second feature film, Inch’allah.
Titled with Arabic expression meaning “God willing,” Inch’allah opens with a young Jewish boy walking through a Jerusalem market. He stops to look at some birds for sale after which an explosion — implied as a bombing — is a heard but not seen. This narrative is dropped until the very end of the film and the story of Chloé begins.
Chloé is a young doctor from Quebec, working at a women’s health clinic run by a foreign organization in Palestine.
The story is reasonably straightforward. Chloé rents an apartment in Jerusalem and is close to her French-speaking Israeli neighbor, Ava (Sivan Levy). Ava is a soldier deployed daily at a checkpoint which is said to be Qalandiya, through which Chloé passes daily.
Chloé has also grown close to her pregnant client Rand (Sabrina Ouazani), a ragpicker who lives in the Qalandiya refugee camp with her brother Faysal (Yousef Sweid). Faysal runs a print shop and, the film hints quite heavily, may also be part of an armed resistance group. Rand’s husband is incarcerated in an Israeli prison awaiting sentencing.
Chloé finds that as she grows closer to Rand and Faysal, she becomes more outraged at Israeli actions (this despite the film refusing to articulate much in the way of specific political critique) and her relationship with Ava grows tense, though not damaged in any irreparable way. She uses her friendship with Ava to facilitate day permits for Rand, Faysal and their mom to visit the village from where their family originates.
That scene has one of the film’s finer comic moments when their mother, atop the remains of her childhood home, convincingly identifies where the bathroom was.
The tension in Chloé’s life between her friendships with “both sides” builds to the film’s improbable conclusion.
Barbeau-Lavalette has filmed Inch’allah with tremendous intimacy using a hand-held camera that closely orbits Chloé. It gives the film an organic, participatory feel for the audience.
Barbeau-Lavalette also has a gift for creating beautiful sequences, such as a memorial gathering with an oud player and vocalist. The scene is framed with candlelight and martyr posters while focusing on the music, musicians and those gathered in equal parts. This gives terrific context to the on-screen performance, and invokes a working class, refugee version of the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s turn in Pedro Almodóvar’s haunting 2002 rape apologia Hable Con Ella (Talk to her).
Despite the slew of great performances, fine contrasts of comedy and drama and outstanding direction and photography, Inch’allah is ultimately flawed.
No “permission to narrate”
The drama and trauma build throughout the film, all of it inflicted upon Palestinians. Faysal and Rand both offer occasional sharp political comments, one of which moves toward a critique of film’s own voyeurism during the scene in the ancestral village.
But Palestinians, by and large, do not narrate the trauma or injustice. Instead, Chloé takes their place. Indeed, she is not a sympathetic Westerner with Palestinian friends, but instead their substitute for a Western audience. It is Chloé who narrates the violence of Zionist settler colonialism — however, unexamined entirely during Chloé’s frequent Skype conversations with her mother in Quebec, is the violence of Canadian settler colonialism. Her home is portrayed as perfectly tranquil.
Palestinians are still denied, as Edward Said noted back in 1984, “permission to narrate.” Chloé is the mourning mother, the outraged brother, the frustrated commuter. Ava too narrates the trauma of the checkpoint from the point of view of the “shooting and crying” Israeli.
It is ironic, if unsurprising, that Chloé’s frustration about French-language radio not reporting violence against Palestinians is reproduced by the film itself. In Inch’allah, Palestinian voices aren’t even deemed necessary to critique the absence of Palestinian voices. This is a prime example of the harm in “giving voice to the voiceless,” the sole enduring achievement of which is the perpetuation of voicelessness.
Finally, why is the film framed with a suicide bombing? Leaving aside how Inch’allah misconstrues the reasons why this tactic has been used, it offers nothing to the story.
It is especially curious when the film’s characters note there have not been such bombings for years. The humanistic portrayal of the attacker — who is given the same sympathy as every other character — is somewhat irrelevant when stories of Palestine are attached at the hip to suicide bombings (a phenomenon broken down insightfully in Evelyn Alsultany’s terrific 2012 book Arabs and Muslims in the Media).
As a film about a white Canadian doctor in Palestine struggling to choose a side, Inch’allah is a deeply problematic story, told beautifully.
Jimmy Johnson is an organizer in Detroit.