Sense of Need (2004) begins simply enough with the main character narrating his life for the viewer. Almost switched at birth with a red-haired Jewish boy, Palestinian Joseph was born while Israel was at war with Egypt. At the age of seven his father bought him his first piano and then “began his life in color.” At first one might take this as purely a poetic metaphor, but this is not the case in newcomer Shady Srour’s psychologically complicated and loosely autobiographical plot.
Srour, a man of many talents, wrote, directed, and produced his first full-length feature film. He also portrays the protagonist Joseph, a twenty-seven year old aspiring musician who lives in San Francisco and is just a week away from finishing his masters degree. (Srour, like his main character, moved from Nazareth to study acting and filmmaking at the San Francisco Academy of Art). But Joseph has a problem — because of the stress of his impending performance, combined with the high degree of focus he has while playing piano, he is in a fugue state. This condition gets further complicated whenever he hits the note C. Overwhelmed by a noxious odor, Joseph becomes dizzy and throws up; it seems that his fugue state augments his synaesthesia.
Synesthesia is an overlapping of the senses that adds new layers to an already heightened sense of awareness. In the most common cases people see colors when they hear music, but it seems that Joseph has a highly developed case. The word nice makes him thirsty and a simple question such as “where exactly are you from?” sets off an allergic reaction because the word “exactly” makes him smell cantaloupe and Joseph is allergic to cantaloupe.
During his intensely emotional fugue states, Joseph is inundated with flashbacks from his past that blur his, and the viewers’, sense of reality. Due to the circumstances, Joseph experiences a break in identity, further complicating his fractured sense of self that developed as a Palestinian growing up in a house literally split by the dividing line between East and West Jerusalem. In a powerful sequence, just crossing the road becomes an obstacle of enormous frustration as Joseph superficially obscures his identity under a yarmulke and narrowly escapes getting shot while digging out a snack from his bag.
In his own unique, rather psychedelic way, Srour unravels the broader problems surrounding a Palestinian transplant living in a post-9/11 United States. Communication issues abound throughout the film from the most basic experience, such as getting a haircut or visiting an emergency health clinic. And, as much as Joseph is in need of help from others because of his affliction, Srour purposely exaggerates the importance of the artist to the everyday person. Even an Israeli soldier upon finding out that Joseph is a musician tells the story of his past as a singer in Russia, which he gave up for his country. An attention-grabbing sequence in which Joseph becomes a video game hero further muses on his existence in this foreign land. When a bullet intended for him mistakenly hits an airplane, newspapers with headlines such as “Revenge” and “Assault on America” rain down from the sky.
At times Srour’s symbolism is a bit heavy-handed with connections between the artist as a Christ figure, particularly in the final scene where he literally becomes the work of art. But this functions works to complicate issues between the three major religions that claim rights to the Holy Land. Christ is in a sense a unifying figure for these Semitic religions which all accept him in differing levels of importance.
Throughout Sense of Need, Srour exposes boundaries that preclude understanding between Joseph and his world, and within society as a whole. To help anchor this identity crisis in deeper philosophical questions, Joseph responds to the catchphrases of Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Foucault, and Bakhtin. However, Srour’s most captivating moments surround the restrictions that are consistently faced by his main character and the Palestinian existence as a whole. But just as much as Joseph has a sense of need, the people in his immediate world need him.
Jenny Gheith is a film critic for the Electronic Intifada