YELLOW ASPHALT (Danny Verete, 2000)

Its three segments made over seven years, during which time writer-director Danny Verete won the trust of the Bedouins he cast in Bedouin roles, Yellow Asphalt (Asphalt Zahov) is a sharp, if thin, slice of cultural collision. The Israeli film is set in the Negev Desert (in Hebrew, negev means south), which Mark Twain, after visiting it in 1867, described in The Innocents Abroad as “a desolation that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.” Nomadic Bedouin tribes live in tents in this vast wasteland of sand, abiding by ancient Islamic customs that are at difficult odds with secularism and other forms of modernity. Unifying the three “desert stories” is the theme of Bedouin abuse of women. The film, which Verete completed prior to the Second Intifada that Palestinians launched in autumn 2000, refers symbolically to Israeli-Palestinian relationships.

The segments get progressively longer and fuller. The first is little more than a sketch. It is called “Black Spot.” A pair of Israeli semi-truck drivers accidentally hit and kill a Bedouin boy who was crossing the road and try discarding the body. Bedouin men confront the Israelis and discover the body. The Israelis offer the Bedouins the spare tire from their truck as payment for the child’s death and for their own lives. The Bedouins accept. Between the men on both sides, it’s all a matter of business. Meanwhile, in the background, the wails of mourning from the dead boy’s mother persist. Her loss, her feelings are of no account to the males, who control and settle the matter. This segment is disparaged for being so short. For me, it’s perfect. It introduces through a back door, so to speak, what I take to be the anti-patriarchical motive of the entire film. When reviewers do not even mention the mother, I might add, they are more or less doing to her what the tribal men and the two Israelis are also doing to her: dismissing her grief; discounting her as a human being. Perhaps “Black Spot” is best interpreted as a thematic prologue rather than as a story per se.

I know that I am correct in my discernment of the film’s overarching theme because the middle segment, “Here Is Not There,” omits Israelis altogether from its frame of reference. The collision in this episode is between a Bedouin man and his German wife, who wishes to exit a marriage that is squeezing the spirit out of her by the imposition of traditional male Arab strictures. The couple have two small children, and the woman, now called Tamam, wants to take them with her back to Germany. The male tribal elders might allow her to leave alone, but they deem that the children belong with their father. While chiding her spouse for marrying this foreigner against their counsel, they absolutely side with him. What is best for everyone, they advise, is that the wife return to her husband’s tent, thereby keeping the family intact. This is certainly not what is best for Tamam (and perhaps not what is best for the children, either), but the point, really, is that she doesn’t count—that women, Bedouin or otherwise, do not count. One night after another she steals away with the children; and, ironically, while one would think it easy to be “lost” in the desert, Tamam—partly because of the handicap that the young children impose—is always “found” by her possessive, dictatorial spouse. Along the way, an Israeli bus driver tries helping her and the children to escape, and ends up tussling with the irate spouse in the dunes. But his otherwise empty bus suggests that he and it may be a mirage, and in any case the difficulty that the driver has in communicating with Tamam, halting his ability to help, underscores the frustrating nature of Tamam’s predicament. We have seen similar material more fully developed in other Middle Eastern films (for instance, Marzieh Meshkini’s 2000 Roozi ke zan shodamThe Day I Became a Woman, from Iran), but Verete’s contribution to the thematic pot—more anecdote than story—is welcome. We so want Tamam to deliver herself and her children to a more rewarding life, and the schematic nature of the segment perfectly correlates to the reduction of her as a person in Bedouin eyes. The form that Verete devises suits his thematic and artistic purpose.

Thematically, the first two segments fold into the last, which is the most highly developed and detailed of the three. “Red Roofs” again betrays Verete’s penchant for the reductive, the schematic; its melodrama is completely out of the range of Chabrolian complexity and nuance, its conclusive irony a bit too pat. But it is very involving, and it can hardly be said that Verete fails to make his point.

Shmuel is a married landowner. The couple have three or four children. Two persons are in Shmuel’s employ, both young Bedouins: Suhilla, the housekeeper; Abed, who contributes most of the labor to the operation of Shmuel’s farm. For two years Shmuel and Suhilla have had an affair, with Shmuel making the usual promises, that he will eventually leave his wife to marry Suhilla, that he will always take care of her. For two years, in order to keep his job, Abed has looked away, failing to report the adultery to tribal elders. He and Suhilla belong to the same tribe. When they catch Suhilla and Shmuel’s splendor in the dunes, tribal children tattle, Suhilla’s spouse pummels her out of the range of our sight (his flicking down the tent’s “door” once Suhilla is inside is terrifying), and Suhilla runs away to Shmuel. Suhilla naïvely expects that Shmuel will welcome her in and give her haven; instead, he turns his back on her and, unbeknownst to her, orders Abed to kill her and dispose of her corpse. At the point of decision, Abed can do no such thing. Rather, he transports her to the city—Tel Aviv, perhaps?—and counsels her to get a new job and a new life in exile among the Jews. Perhaps she can return home in a couple of years, because “time heals all wounds.” It is very good advice that she should stay away, at least for now, but Suhilla, angry as well as still in love with Shmuel, will not leave well enough alone—for me, a contrivance hard to digest. Shmuel ends up blasting her to kingdom come in Abed’s quarters and ordering Abed to get rid of the corpse. It turns out that the girl’s family accuses Abed of the murder. Exonerated, he must exact tribal blood revenge for Suhilla’s death. Poor boy! Jewish decency, in short supply in his employer, has seeped into his bones. “Red Roofs” ends with Abed following the advice he had earlier given Suhilla and embarking on a new life amongst Jews—a boy without a home, without a clear cultural identity, on the verge of a difficult attempt at reinvention. Perhaps who must assimilate into whom in this case exposes Verete’s bottom-line bias. In any case, Sami Samir is a real find. This amateur gives a complex performance, and he has movie-star looks.

Most reviewers consider “Red Roofs” the richest part of Yellow Asphalt—but you know me; I’m perverse. Somehow it seems wrong to me that a guy should end up being the most interesting character in a feminist film, while his female counterpart in the same segment, Suhilla, is reduced to being a sobbing nag, not to mention someone who hasn’t the slightest qualm about betraying someone who is as endlessly decent to her as indeed she is to everyone else: Shmuel’s wife. Perhaps the two women should have bonded, killed Shmuel, disposed of his body, taken over the farm, and shared Abed. There’s more than one way to bring a film home.

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