Koch Lorber // 2007 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // February 5th, 2008
"We think backward. We never think forward." -- Muhammad
While the political tension between Israel and Palestine probably won't ease anytime soon, people in that area of the world keep on struggling to survive. This film takes a closer look at what it is like to be an illegal worker in a country torn apart by war.
Filmed in the city of Modi'in in Israel, 9 Star Hotel follows young Palestinian construction workers as they illegally cross into Israel to earn enough money to feed their families. In constant fear of being caught by the police or the secret service, they live in small groups and sleep in tiny sheds in the hills close to the border. The dangerous walk to work is a risk they are willing to take on a daily basis, but their job is the only thing they have.
Ido Haar's documentary centers on Ahmed and Muhammad, two friends who share the same fate but never give up chasing their dreams. The film digs deep into their minds and explores what makes these men tick, following them on their daily quest to make it to work, dodge the law, and survive the night. In the midst of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these men are forced to turn their backs on their own people and seek work in their enemies' territory.
It's a shame that some foreign documentaries barely make it into theaters these days. I understand that not everybody is politically inclined or interested in major conflicts around the world, but solid and insightful documentaries such as Ido Haar's 9 Star Hotel often manage to trigger interest and introduce audiences to a realities that have been much ignored over the years. But Haar's film, for instance, is not even a political film. On the contrary, it's a true story of survival, friendship, and family. It's a shocking documentary about Palestinian men seeking illegal work to stay alive. It's a film about loyal friends whose future is completely uncertain. They may have work today and tomorrow, but nobody knows whether they'll have work next month. They spend day and night in fear of being arrested, but they have nowhere else to go. Until now, nobody knew who these men are, what they do, or what they may have to say. With the release of this documentary, however, their voice is finally heard.
In order to do his research and shoot the film, Ido Haar decided to track down a group of Palestinian workers and spend one year exploring their lifestyle. What distinguishes this film from many other documentaries is Haar's lack of intervention as a director. Haar deliberately avoided a voiceover and never steps in front of the camera, quietly using his handheld camera to follow and listen to the workers as they run to work, hide from police and spend their evenings discussing their dreams. This not only supplies the film with a sense of realism, but it also lets the workers describe their everyday struggles. While hard construction work keeps them busy during the day, they usually spend their evenings singing uplifting songs, telling jokes, and making fun of Israeli policewomen.
While Haar realistically depicts the few joys in the life of these men, he also captured scenes of a more dramatic nature. Every now and then police officers suddenly show up to patrol the hills in search of illegal workers, which creates substantial panic among the Palestinians. To them, the sound of a siren means abandoning camp and running as fast as possible. Another captivating sequence follows a group of men trying to get one of their sick buddies to the nearest hospital. Haar's handheld camera often shakes a little too much for viewers to clearly experience what is going on, but at least it adds a sense of real-life suspense.
Haar has done a great job exploring the misery of these workers, but one thing the movie is missing is a broader context. Digging too much into the tension between Israel and Palestine would probably have reduced the power of the movie, but Haar could have added a little more background information as to why these Palestinian workers have to face this brutal lifestyle. Looking at it that way, 9 Star Hotel only offers one side of the situation. I'm sure at one stage during the movie you wouldn't mind finding out how these men ended up there in the first place. Although Haar touches on this later in his interview, it's certainly a significant detail that's missing from the film.
Haar didn't really have a budget to make the film and used basic material during the shooting, which explains why the quality of the image is not the best. Considering the thematic of the movie, this is not a big issue at all. The picture is clear, and even the night shots are crisp and well lit enough for viewers to observe what's going on. The film lacks a soundtrack and offers little dialogue, but the audio transfer works just great.
Besides a short theatrical trailer, the bonus material on the disc also includes an insightful six-minute Q&A session with Ido Haar, who presented 9 Star Hotel at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. Haar further explains how difficult it was for him to establish trustful contact with the construction workers, and why he chose to spend an entire year living with them. Interestingly, he also briefly discusses the human and social aspects of the film, explaining what happens to those caught and arrested by the police. The interview is undoubtedly a great asset because it allows Haar to step beyond the film and supply his viewers with additional information about his project. Most of what he says could have easily been included in the film, but as I mentioned earlier, Haar never considered a voiceover and chose not to interfere at all during the filming.
The narrow focus of the movie could have been expanded to enable audiences to explore the many reasons behind the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences, but Ido Haar really wanted to zoom in on the lifestyle of this particular group of construction workers. The end result works just fine, offering its viewers a quite staggering look at young men who have no choice but accept their misery and struggle to make it through the day safe and sound.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Arabic)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Interview with Director Ido Haar