A surprise hit in Israel and named best documentary winner at the 2006 Jerusalem International Film Festival, 9 Star Hotel is an essentially nonpolitical film. Israeli director Ido Haar resolutely directed his cameras in raw vérité style at a group of young Palestinians who live and hide in the hills around the community they are helping to build in Israel. Illegal workers, they hide from police at night while working on construction during the day. Since 9 Star Hotel takes place on the border between Israel and the West Bank, politics cannot be far outside that frame, but they are experienced, discussed, felt from the point of view of the Palestinian workers.
The men are neither militants nor activists, but ordinary youths placed by history in extraordinary circumstances, you men who emerge as fully human — flawed and sympathetic. Caught in a strange and dangerous no-man’s land between an Israel that must enforce laws to protect its citizens and a Palestinian Authority that can’t, or won’t, help them, they must risk capture and live in makeshift shelters simply to survive. They have youthful dreams, an uncertain future and family responsibilities. The brilliance in Haar’s achievement is to have touched a stubbornly human chord in such a politically fractious region.
9 Star Hotel is the facetious name the men give to the pile of rocks that marks their nightly abode — a group of cardboard enclosures and tin-covered huts hidden in the brush-covered hills above the construction sites in the new town of Modi’in. But they have made a home for themselves, complete with pillows and even power generated by batteries they have scraped together. These dwellings form the film’s essential location, where the men talk, sleep, read, try to relax, and where boredom alternates with alarms and chases when the police approach.
Having gained their trust to an exceptional degree, Haar captures the young Palestinians in unguarded moments in their camp, during dangerous border crossings, at their work sites — where they periodically have to disappear when inspectors show up — and on breathless runs from the police. In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of other borders dividing poverty from wealth, where “illegals” take great risks simply to work. But because this is the border that divides Israelis and Palestinians, the risks for both parties are even greater.
For Muhammad and Ahmed, who are the central characters in Haar’s group portrait, hopelessness and despair are the greatest threat. Yet the two men demonstrate astonishing buoyancy and good humor in the face of daunting obstacles. Ahmed, nicknamed “the merchant” by his friends for his industriousness in salvaging discarded objects, from computers to toy trucks, especially enjoys making light of their situation. He once worked legally with his father as a guard in Israel, but upon his father’s death Ahmed lost his job and also became the sole breadwinner for his family. He now must sacrifice to support the ambitions of his younger siblings.
Muhammad is something of a philosopher, and is the little encampment’s natural leader. He comments on the wider conflict, saying of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, “If you shut a cat in a room, won’t it jump at you?” But he also criticizes Palestinian culture: “We think backward; we never look forward.”
Mostly the young men talk of girls, food, family problems, the pressure to get married just as they are starting to notice the opposite sex, what life is like in other, better places, and the cat-and-mouse game they must play with security forces. (At one point, Ahmed injures his foot while fleeing police; he disappears from the camp for a time; upon his return, he announces that he has become engaged.) They also discuss the security wall being built by Israel that will soon cut them off from work in Modi’in.
The men’s sense of abandonment and the gulf separating them from the Israelis who will occupy the new town are starkly captured in the contrast between the darkness of the hills at night and the bright lights of new homes below. It is poignantly evoked when some of the men come upon Israeli children playing in the hills, building a miniature play camp. While the children wonder whether they are safe around the Palestinians and if they should talk to them, the men, who maintain a real camp, offer good-natured suggestions to the kids.
Another touching moment occurs when Muhammad and Ahmed sit under the stars and hope for a better life. They recount the impossibilities of moving away, of finding work or education in the West Bank, and talk of the barrier that will likely end the only work they have. What then? Ahmed begins dreaming of at least becoming a policeman for the Palestinian Authority, a job that would be steady, if dangerous and low-paid. Then Muhammad reminds him that neither of them have enough education even to be policemen — and the two friends share a rueful laugh.
9 Star Hotel is not about political problems or ideologies. It is about the human suffering caused by unsolved political conflicts. It is a portrait of individual tragedy and resilience in the face of political contention.
“I grew up in a village on the edge of a pine forest, half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” says director Haar. “On my way home, I often saw men running frantically across the highway. The fear in their eyes haunted me, and I wanted to find out where they were running to and whom they were running from.”