Palestinian director Muayad Alayan’s stressful second feature, The Reports on Sarah & Saleem, establishes its central conceit instantly.
The film opens on a man counting money and doing paperwork at his small kitchen table. Before we know it there’s a forceful knock at the door and he’s being violently arrested by Israeli security forces.
We quickly learn the backstory: Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian delivery man from East Jerusalem who has been having an affair with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), an Israeli café owner from West Jerusalem. Both are somewhat unhappily married: he to the pregnant Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), she to Israeli army colonel David (Ishai Golan).
Saleem has picked up some black-market work running goods from the occupied territories into Jerusalem, and Sarah joins him on his work route one evening. Once he knocks off for the night, he convinces her to come out for a drink. It’s a decision that reverberates throughout the rest of the film, leading to an escalating series of events that all build into a portrait of a relationship entirely at the mercy of the political forces surrounding it.
Incorporating handheld camerawork that hews closely to his characters, Alayan sketches the surrounding detail of this relationship, mostly with a precise touch. Whereas Sarah runs a genteel café complete with ambient soft music, Saleem faces barely concealed hostility from his delivery boss.
These glimpses of life in a divided Jerusalem help maintain interest when the film slows down then undertakes a late shift into new, and not entirely successfully drawn, relationships between its characters. Avoiding histrionics, both Safadi and Kretchner’s performances combine with the tight filmmaking technique to both sell – and then amplify – the script’s sense of injustice.
The significance of the cumbersome title reveals itself when The Reports on Sarah & Saleem shifts gears somewhat from a romance drama into political thriller territory. Alayan mostly manages this transition comfortably, using genre conventions to deftly demonstrate how the personal is political.
One thing uniting both characters is a shared recognition that their relationship probably won’t last. Saleem struggles to juggle the multiple demands of his jobs, while maintaining her silence clearly takes a toll on Sarah at work. When she eventually confesses to one of her employees that she has been cheating, the response is sympathetic: “It’s okay,” she is told, “these things happen.”
But when Sarah adds that he’s a Palestinian, the mood abruptly turns. “Fuck, are you crazy? Are you that desperate?”
Alayan has said that he was inspired by the many clandestine Israeli/Palestinian relationships he saw play out on the streets of Jerusalem while working night shifts. The Reports on Sarah & Saleem, which premiered at last year’s Rotterdam International Film festival and is now in limited release in Australia, successfully demonstrates how the region’s socio-political context impacts one such relationship.
It’s also a reminder that one of life’s greatest feelings is the sensation of giving oneself completely over to another person. It’s a sensation that other people continually deny this central couple.