Inspired by the creative journey of Palestinian artist in exile Hani Zurob and true stories and testimonies from the region, Mars at Sunrise is a poignant and pointed feature film debut of writer/director Jessica Habie. Habie, whose previous short docs Beyond Blue and Gray and Art and Apathy received awards at several film festivals including Tribeca Film Festival, The Cannes Short Film Corner and Berlinale Talent Campus, has crafted a film that transcends genre and traditional narrative in telling stories without bounds.
Proceeds from Mars at Sunrise will go to the newly created Fajr Falestine Film Fund and will support the production of experimental and otherwise genre defiant works of cinema from the Palestinian Diaspora. The film and the fund are, indeed, quite visionary. It is the vision of the Fajr Falestine Film Fund, in their own words, "to form an independent film collective of artists interested in producing thought provoking, experimental cinema in the Middle East. This independent collective composed of five selected filmmakers will work as a small studio, coming together to support, promote and produce projects that we feel are genre defiant and artistically ground breaking. The Film Fund will be managed and overseen by the Eyes Infinite Foundation a United States based Non Profit Organization. The five artists who will be nominated by an international panel of judges will receive the funds generated from the Fajr Falestine Film Campaign in order to create their own experimental film projects."
Eyes Infinite Films is presenting Mars at Sunrise, its first film release, with limited theatrical and extensive digital distribution beginning with its Quad Cinemas release in New York City on February 7th. After the screening of the film online, the audience will be directed to a web page that allows them the opportunity to choose which of the five presented projects will receive the screening fee they paid to watch the film. All of the projects will focus on current issues in Palestinian political, social or cultural life from a new or avant-garde perspective. Each project will be accompanied with information about the filmmaker presenting the project, and the international judges who have come together to nominate the film for the Fajr Fund. The goal is to create a system in which the successful self-distribution of one Eyes Infinite family project will go on to fund other films in perpetuity.
If Mars at Sunrise is an example of the kind of films that the Fajr Fund intends to support, then one can only hope that the vision of this extraordinary collective blossoms globally because Mars at Sunrise is, quite simply, an extraordinary and moving film that inspires deep feeling, deep thought, and an appreciation, at least within this film critic, for living in a land where I am, for the most part, free to creatively express my thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.
At first thought, Mars at Sunrise brings to mind the 1991 film Closet Land, in which Madeleine Stowe portrays a children's author accused of embedding political messages within her writings by a sadistic police secret policeman played with unforgettable venom by Alan Rickman. In this film, however, Habie has beautifully and powerfully woven together both the creative journey and the persecution that can result from one's relentless dedication to truth. Khaled, memorably portrayed by Ali Suliman (Lone Survivor, Paradise Now), is an artist facing torture for his words and images. The film also stars Guy El Hanan as Eyal, the young officer who once interrogated Khaled; and Haale Gafori as Azzadeh, a young Jewish American poet, who has traveled to Israel to see the land and people she has only ever heard about through the voices of others.
There is a narrative, or at least a semblance of a narrative, to Mars at Sunrise but it is loosely structured and serves more as a guide for the film rather than as a definition for it. Habie does a stellar job, aided by her terrific cast, of weaving together what often feels like dreams, reality, fantasy, and something in between all of them.
Too often relegated to supporting roles, Ali Suliman is given a real chance to shine in Mars at Sunrise and he certainly makes the most of it by offering a performance that is simultaneously emotionally riveting and poetic and radiating the artist's strength and vulnerability. Guy El Hanan, on the other hand, manages to make a challenging character rich with humanity against tremendous odds and, as Azzadeh, Haale Gafori essentially serves as a bridge between past and present but does so with tremendous intelligence and presence.
D.P. Xavi Jose's lensing is at times stark and barren and at times as vibrant as a kaleidoscope in capturing the stories and memories that unfold. Sound design by Martin Hernandez (Babel, Amores Perros, and Into the Wild) has a similar impact. Luis Caballar (Amores Perros, Sin Nombre), tasked with editing a film with such a free-flowing story, manages to give the film both structure and flow.
There are films that stay with you long after the closing credits have rolled on by. Mars at Sunrise is such a film. While those who demand strict narrative for their moviegoing may very well find the film to be frustrating, true cineastes will easily embrace a film that refuses definition and soars because of it. Having already been an official selection at Oaxaca FilmFest, Arab Film Fest, Santa Cruz Film Festival, and New FIlmmakers New York among others, Mars at Sunrise is one of the first true indie gems to hit theaters in 2014 and deserves your attention should you get the chance to check it out.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic