The winner of the International Critics Prize at Cannes 2004, Atash (“Thirst”) is an unusual film. Three years in development from scripting to filming, Thirst is an Israeli produced debut film from Palestinian filmmaker Tawfik Abu Wael that makes use entirely of non-professional actors in their natural environment, but somehow manages to avoid the political trappings of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. An intense family drama, it nevertheless has strong political points to make about the roles of men and women in the social context of the region.
An Arab family are living in a remote deserted village in an inhospitable terrain confiscated by the Israeli authorities many years ago. The village is not even equipped with running water, so the family have to make journeys to a putrid stream and steal trees to keep up the production of their charcoal making business. The father (Hussein Yassin Mahajne) is determined to persevere and installs a pipe to deliver water, but even though he is making a lot of money and could move their business to better place, his family are poor and living in deprived conditions. The youngest boy, Shukri (Ahmad Abed El Gani) wants to study, but is prevented by the hard work it takes to keep their business going and the social outcast status the family have gained. It is more than just stubbornness that keeps the family there – the father is unable to face up to the gossip surrounding his disgraced daughter Gamila (Rosa Blal), whose life he makes very difficult, and the rest of the family as a consequence.
The film evidently examines the roles of how women are treated in this society, and it is done very effectively. Atash examines the roles women are expected to fulfil, the ideas of chastity and purity they are expected to uphold, and the downtrodden lifestyle they are consequently subjected to, not given opportunities for education or self expression. That much we would expect and have seen it done quite effectively in films like Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, but the film goes beyond this, showing that such beliefs stem from pride, superstition and an inherent fear that men have of a woman’s power. The behaviour of the patriarchal society is then conditioned by a desire to negate this power, which attracts as much as it is a threat to masculine authority, and it results in placing equally restrictive bonds on men.
Working with a small group of non-professional actors in a remote inhospitable environment, Tawfik Abu Wael’s direction achieves this by evoking an almost mystical quality in the strong sense of situation – a family living in ascetic conditions in a wilderness location under insufferable temperatures, each of them keeping their own secrets and private lives locked away from each other. The cinematography initially seems a little laboured, forcing the characters to stand in melancholy poses against stark sun-bleached walls in the arid landscape – but it soon reins this in and allows the environment and actions speak for themselves in a much more subtle manner. In one superb scene, the father finds his lost daughter in a scene of tender reconciliation, only to immediately lock her up again, demonstrating the complexity and the paradox of the relationship between men and women, of paternal love extending beyond reason – the sense of care mixed with fear, leading to control and captivity. This authority, the fear of what it means and necessity of submitting to its power, is evident in the brandishing of a gun, but also more tellingly in the wielding of a hammer, which passes from one hand at the start of the film to another at the end.
Atash is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
The film is transferred to DVD anamorphically, presenting it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image is clear, mainly sharp, detailed and strongly contrasted, though it loses some definition in wider shots. Colours are deep and richly toned, but there is some slight colour bleeding at the edges, some quite evident edge-enhancement and a slight shimmering or breaking-up of lines. Contrast, brightness and colours are well-defined in exteriors, but shadow detail is not perfect, interiors showing a tendency for flattening out of tones. Other than the occasional white dustspot, there are few problems with the quality of the print, and presented on a dual-layer disc, the image remains stable with no signs of compression artefacts.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 which is strong and effective. I would doubt that there is even a surround track for this film (the end credits list that it is presented in ‘Dolby’ sound only) and it would hardly benefit from a wider sound mix. Dialogue and sounds are clear throughout, and there are no problems of any kind.
English subtitles are included. They are optional and in a white font of reasonably size, contained mainly within the film frame.
A Trailer (1:44) presented in 2.35:1 letterbox and a Stills Gallery, made up of 32 Film Stills and 7 Production Stills. Also included is a short film by Tawfik Abu Wael, Diary of a Male Whore (13:28), a somewhat controversial take on the formation of the sexuality of an Arab man growing up in territory that is invaded by Israelis. The Interview with the Director (15:21), in English, provides a great deal of information on the film’s genesis, its political content and the development of its storyline, as well as the filmmaking choices made in terms of casting, music and cinematography.
Atash is an impressive film from a young Palestinian director who has not made the expected choices, avoiding any but the most remote reference to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and focussing on the people and environment of the region. Any examination of the male and female roles in Arabic society is going to be controversial, but the director not only handles them extremely well, he goes much further into the complexity and contradictions of the male psychology that underlies their actions, giving the film a much deeper and wider context. Axiom present this award-winning film well on DVD and have included a good set of extra features that are more than would normally be expected for an foreign language DVD from a small independent arthouse label.