Assured debut film portrays Palestinian artist’s triumph over Israeli jailor

The power dynamic between an imprisoned Palestinian artist and his Israeli interrogator is the subject of Jessica Habie’s surreal debut feature film Mars at Sunrise (watch the trailer above).

The very bold, very stylized film is inspired by the life of painter Hani Zurob who, like Khaled, Mars at Sunrise’s protagonist, was arrested, interrogated and held in solitary confinement in an attempt to recruit him as an informant for the Israeli military.

There isn’t much of a plot to Mars at Sunrise beyond Khaled meeting a young Iranian-American woman whose taxi has broken down at a military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, where waiting seems like the “national sport,” according to the woman’s narration.

As the two drive to Ramallah, they are delayed at another checkpoint; the soldier on duty has decided to take a nap, so everyone must wait. When Khaled catches a glimpse of the soldier, he has a flashback to his arrest and experience in prolonged solitary confinement — during which his only human interaction was with his interrogator, who happens to be the same soldier sleeping at the checkpoint.

Two years earlier, the flashback shows, Khaled’s home in Jerusalem was annexed to Israel. Because Khaled doesn’t hold a blue Jerusalem ID card and therefore “permission” to live in the city, he lost his job teaching art to schoolchildren and is forced to move to Ramallah.


But even complying with Israel’s unjust laws doesn’t afford Khaled protection. His Ramallah home is raided and his artwork vandalized, and Khaled is arrested and taken to a detention center. Here, Khaled’s interrogator tries to tempt him into becoming an informant by promising him a blue Jerusalem ID card — a cruel position into which countless Palestinians have been put.

Colors — like that of Israel’s movement restriction regime which mandates ID cards of different colors for Palestinians living in different areas — are a running theme. This ties in nicely with Khaled’s artistic eye which, in one scene, hangs on to the same shade shimmering turquoise of his mother’s eyeshadow that he finds in a spot of the oxidized metal of his jail cell.

This is an intensely psychological and non-linear work, and the audience’s sense of reality is blurred along with that of Khaled and his interrogator, whose own individual perceptions begin to overlap as Khaled’s confinement goes on.

The intimacy developed between Khaled and the interrogator, whose name, Eyal, is not mentioned until quite late in the film, is made palpable through strong performances by Ali Suliman and Guy Elhanan. Elhanan, a former Israeli army reservist, makes his acting debut here. (One wishes Suliman would not tarnish his career taking on politically dubious projects like Under the Same Sun and The Attack and instead reserve his talent for roles like this one.)

Refusing to surrender

The theme of power is literally played with as Khaled imagines manipulating Eyal’s body as an artist would manipulate a wooden model for a drawing study. Even though it is Khaled who is detained by Eyal, Khaled wields control by refusing to collaborate — and for refusing to surrender his sense of self and be broken by the solitary confinement.

Mars at Sunrise does not fall into the trap of equivocating the trauma of the torture victim with the anxieties of his oppressor, who is haunted by his past and, in contrast to Khaled, has been broken by the military.

In an interview with style magazine Anthem, Elhanan says that he’s “pleased that we took out scenes involving Eyal’s own family and personal life. I was afraid that people would see that as Palestine being a part of Jewish history, and not Zionism being a part of Palestinian history.”

In addition to the novelty of the focus of the story, which she wrote, Habie offers an exciting new artistic sensibility. Precise camera work and theatrical staging of each scene, thoughtful sound editing and the genre-crossing, multilingual soundtrack bring Mars at Sunrise so vibrantly to life and make it a true cinematic experience.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.




I watched the film last night at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival and was a bit disappointed that a substantial portion of it, toward the end, was devoted to the Israeli officer's apparent PTSD, including his hospitalization and other aspects shedding light on his "humanity." It reminded me of Waltz with Bashir, which focused almost entirely on that aspect of the massacre of the Sabra & Shatila refugee camps. This wasn't *as* bad, but I still found it disturbing.

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Hi Uri,

Glad to hear your thoughts! I found this film very different from the Israeli shoot-and-cry genre because the protagonist is Palestinian whereas in the shoot-and-cry genre, the protagonist is always Israeli and Palestinians are only in the background to illustrate something about the Israeli protagonists.

It’s open to interpretation whether the hospitalization of Eyal in Mars at Sunrise is meant to be literal; is he literally in a straightjacket or does this represent his confinement as an individual in the Israeli military, or his inability to be an artist given his role as the oppressor? I also think this film is much more about resistance to oppression than trying to shed light on mutual “humanity.” The fact that Eyal is broken down by the end of the film is to provide contrast to the fate of Khaled, who persevered by refusing to cooperate with the system, rather than to try to evoke audience empathy for Eyal’s character (who I found pretty unsympathetic and cruel throughout). Both times that I watched the film I was left thinking that this was meant to demonstrate Khaled’s power rather than emphasize Eyal’s “humanity.”