The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stands out among the crowded field of thriller films due to its setting of Jerusalem.
Extramarital affairs are so popular as the premises of dramatic narratives because those participating in them are already exposed, vulnerable and ripe for trouble. A man has a small fender bender coming home to his wife and children from work and that is a Tuesday; a man has a small fender bender coming home to his wife and children with another woman in the car and that is a film. Married folks sleeping around is a simple recipe for a thriller.
This does not make films premised on an affair trite or uninteresting, however, as is clear from The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, which manages to add new, exacerbating context to its don’t-get-caught-in-her-bed foundations. Specifically, the titular Sarah (Sivane Kretchner) is a Jewish café owner in West Jerusalem married to an Israeli colonel, and Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian deliveryman in East Jerusalem with a pregnant Arab wife. When Sarah and Saleem begin having late night trysts in the back of his delivery van, there are decades of ethnically-tinged violent confrontation in the background, to potentially spice things up.
And because the film is set in bifurcated Jerusalem, of course the political situation plays a crucial role. The one major issue with films set in occupied Palestine is Chekhov’s Occupation: because the political reality is so omnipresent in Palestinian life, it is guaranteed to play a part in films about Palestine and Palestinians. It is as unavoidable as the sky, trees and buildings, an inherent component of the basic fabric of everyday existence. But the quotidian does not have to be ordinary, so unlike the sky and trees, the Occupation always play a role in film narratives.
Here, that role is to disrupt. Sarah and Saleem are leading stable lives and, outside their wee-hours rendezvous, are just acting as normal citizens. Saleem is apolitical, and though broke with a baby on the way, seems content enough to continue with his routine. Sarah, likewise, has an ever-growing business in her café and a solid, happy home life with her daughter and husband. And then the Occupation stirs shit up and kickstarts the plot. Saleem takes on a second job delivering goods, such as cellphones, to people in the West Bank. One night, Sarah tags along, unwilling to pass up the chance to see Saleem. Of course, they get into trouble, Sarah’s Israeli identity is revealed and then things spiral. The personal stakes—ruining their marriages—remain important, but get compounded by political ramifications.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stands out among the crowded field of thriller films due to its setting of Jerusalem. Director Muayad Alayan consistently contrasts the circumstances of his protagonists. Saleem’s apartment is adequate, but crowded, with worn but still-functioning furniture, set on a dark street of old brick buildings. Through clever editing and staging, it is placed in direct opposition to Sarah’s living arrangements in a sleek apartment building of steel and glass, with more than sufficient space, futuristic furniture and cabinets and bounteous bright light. On one side of Jerusalem, a life of hand-me-downs and just getting by, while on the other side a life of ease and plenty: a stark and effective metaphor for the film’s big bad, the Occupation.
While The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is engaging and worthwhile, the plot does hinge on everyone besides Sarah and Saleem taking on cartoonish character elements. They become caricatures or one-note broken records, allowing space for Sarah and Saleem to operate. It is not a fatal flaw, but it does hinder the viewer from ever becoming too immersed in the action. Still, the consequences remain plausible enough to stay exciting and keep the film driving forward.