Plot Twist Ties up Distribution of Controversial Arab “Life Smuggling” Film

Naomi Pham
Still from the film "Amira."

Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab’s 2019 “Amira” faced a storm of social media backlash following accusations that the film belittles the Palestinian struggle. Diab — director of the well-received “Cairo 678” (2010) and “Clash” (2016) — has pulled the film from any future screenings, including Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival. This decision comes after Jordan’s Royal Film Commission ultimately withdrew “Amira” as its entry as the Oscar’s 2022 Best Foreign Film.
“We believe in the artistic value of the film that its message doesn’t harm in any way the Palestinian cause nor that of the prisoners; it highlights their plight, their resilience and their willingness to live a decent life despite the occupation,” the commission said in a statement released earlier this month, but withdrew the film out of respect for Palestinian prisoners and families.
“Amira” premiered in Venice in September and screened at the El Gouna festival in Egypt and Carthage festival in Tunisia. The story follows 17-year-old Amira (Tara Abboud), the proud daughter of a Palestinian freedom fighter, Nawar (Ali Suleiman), who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. Born through artificial insemination, Amira has grown up idolizing her father despite his absence from her life. Her parents’ attempt to have another child through the same means turns everything Amira knows upside down as she learns she is not biologically her father’s child but the child of an Israeli guard. This sudden plot twist takes center stage in the film’s recent controversy. 
Diab drew inspiration from a news article about the births of 100 Palestinian children through semen smuggling since 2012, though “Amira” is purely fictional. The story’s potential fascinated Diab, and he admits as much in an interview with Screen magazine published last September: “What interested me was the drama. It felt like a science fiction story that I had never heard before, and I wanted to explore the existential questions that could come out of a situation like this.” 
Critics lambast “Amira” for its insensitivity and disrespect towards Palestinian prisoners and their families. The film went into production despite opposition, according to Mohammad Sobhi in Al Modon. According to the Palestinian Prisoner Movement, they had spoken to the producers through several channels. One of them was a prisoner’s wife who was impregnated through semen smuggling and objected to the plot. The movement offered to provide resources and information to correct the narrative, but Diab continued with his original screenplay. 
Critics also point out the film’s lack of research on the plight of Palestinians and the country’s history, an “over-simplified, imprudently outdated treatment of a Palestine concocted by an outsider,” according to the Middle East Eye. Muhammad Jamil Khader in Diffah called the film a “dagger in the collective Palestinian identity.” He suggests the film lacks personality, failing to relate to the Palestinian cause or Palestinian struggles, rendering the setting generic; it could have been any country, giving it an ambiguous identity. The performance lacked emotion and persuasion, adding to the film’s lifeless story. “The phenomenon of ‘life smuggling’ addressed in the film is a minor issue within the depths of the Palestinian cause and its crashing waves… There are many other urgent, humanitarian, social, economic, daily, and universal struggles that are teeming within the Palestinian cause,” he said. 
The film’s plot twist is tone-deaf and insensitive, considering that Palestinians have struggled for a hundred years and are still fighting for the right to self-determination and to preserve their identities, writes Elmadar publication. “Amira” no longer serves the people, rather the filmmaker and producers made the film for “personal glory” and ego. It harms the prisoners, the wives of prisoners, and inspires doubt about their lineage into the children conceived through these means. In the words of Jessica Kiang in Variety: “The deeply fraught, politically explosive and highly emotive issues surrounding Palestinian identity are cynically mined for increasingly screechy and unconvincing ‘human drama.’”
According to Khader, the film’s characters also mock Palestinians. The community within “Amira,” meant as a microcosm of Palestinian society, is riddled with an insulting and regressive cast of characters. “The Palestine of Amira is a conservative, hypocritical place populated by merciless patriarchs only concerned with preserving their honor rather than safeguarding the daughter who grew with them and among them; a daughter who had no hand in the great shame they plaster her with,” in the words of the Middle East Eye. The film is “dispiriting in its depiction of female status directly correlated to perceived purity, in its death before dishonor ethos and how it seems to be accepted without question that Amira is culpable for the cloud of shame which now rests over the family,” as stated by Wendy Ide in Screen Daily. Relying on “archaic notions of female purity and blood lineage,” its female characters “sacrifice themselves on the pyre of patriarchal, biologically determinist expectation” — expectations the film fails to interrogate.
“What angered critics of the movie Amira was the alleged thinness,” writes Shadi Lewis in Al Modon. “Articulation calls for searching for and fabricating knots, paradoxes, or dilemmas, and this art also does, but it is shameful to leave a reality, full of symbolism and complexities… in favor of shallow metaphor or repetitive and superficial complexity.”
The producers responded to the backlash in a recent statement: “The film presents the suffering, challenges and heroic practices of the prisoners and their extended family and unveils the perseverance of the Palestinian character that continues to survive and be sustained and attempts to deeply delve into the significance of ‘children of freedom’ to the Palestinian people.” Diab expressed that “Amira,” was not a political film and that “this is the ideal way to address any political issues, by wrapping them in a social story that has nothing to do with politics but sees politics through people’s lives,” as cited by Sobhi.
Diab willingly withdrew the film from screenings and called for a viewing committee representing Palestinian prisoners and their families to judge the movie. While “Amira” has received several valid criticisms, much of the film’s thorny feedback came from those who likely did not watch it, owing to the rising trend of social media mob mentality and “cancel culture.”
“Criticism provides the subject with a safe space… the discussion about “Amira” has crossed the safe space for any work of art to present itself to earn praise or slander, applause or reprimand,” in the words of Salim al-Baik in Al Quds, who continues, “The political debate about the artwork has turned into an exclusionary debate about a political statement. Here, criticism turns into a veto. People deserved to watch Amira wherever it was shown, and then discuss whether it was bad, offensive, or both; and this is likely with Amira.’”
Debates over the Palestine question or anything involving Palestinians are hardly new, and the controversy relating to “Amira” is just one of many issues within the list of recent Palestinian debates. In several cases – for some Palestinian or Lebanese intellectuals – many have been condemned simply because of an association with Israeli topics or Israeli media outlets despite their best intentions towards the Palestine question. This begs the question of freedom of expression. However, though the producers of “Amira” maintain that they meant no harm to the Palestinian cause, their failure to accept resources to correct the narrative prior to film production make one wonder if, had they listened to advice, the project could have survived without damage done.

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