“Let me see the sea” graffiti adorns the otherwise ugly, mammoth concrete barrier, also known as ‘The Apartheid Wall’, that separates the occupied West Bank from Israel.
Perhaps the duet of hope and pain that underpins this graffiti sentence also sits at the heart of Toomas Järvet’s 2015 documentary ‘Rough Stage’.
The film follows Maher Shawamreh, a Palestinian contemporary dancer in Ramallah, who, as the film opens, is assured that he’s “the best dancer in Palestine” and is encouraged to put on his own show.
Järvet’s camera then follows Maher as he moulds this dream into reality, battling against society, bureaucracy and occupation.
Maher’s parents are eager to see him start a family. His brother wishes Maher could present art more imbued with the “political” and less subtle in its message. He wants Maher to discuss the ugliness of occupation, and reflect on the power of resistance. Meanwhile, the municipal authorities only care that he fulfills their many requirements before he can put on his show. Can Maher circumvent all these challenges and solely focus on his art?
That said, 'Rough Stage', as Maher and Toomas would stress in a Q&A discussion that followed Tuesday’s screening of the film in Cinema Karim, is not about a Palestinian dancer working towards the realization of an artistic dream. Rather, it is about the ardent pursuit of art, the hard work that goes towards its molding, and the inspiration a loyal commitment to art emanates.
(Photo: still from 'Rough Stage')
Toomas's camera is as malleable as Maher’s gracefully supple moves. It fervently observes the intricacies of his steps, and when possible, zooms out to embrace the Westbank’s picturesque landscape.
The film score complements Maher’s steps and Palestine’s beauty—all three elements rendering this documentary a poetic piece of art.
'Rough Stage' is about Maher in as much as it is about the re-appropriation of public space in today’s Arab world—everywhere is Maher’s stage, anywhere can be Maher’s stage.
There is also room for heartwarming humour. We see this in Maher’s encounters with his family members, how they love him but also think he has his priorities wrong in life. When Maher asks his elderly mother to attend his upcoming performance, she refuses, owing to illness. When he insists, she exclaims, “What? Are you going to free Palestine?” in a spontaneity so raw it leaves the audience in giggles.
But yes, perhaps this is the beauty of Maher’s artistic vocation. It isn’t burdened by the explicit practice of resistance, but it comes out as an act of inspiring resistance nonetheless. Maher's very dance moves defy the occupation, a reminder of the ever-present ingenuity that characterises Palestinian sumoud (steadfastness).
(Photo: still from 'Rough Stage')
And this very idea of sumoud, we learned in Tuesday’s Q&A discussion, is in itself an incessant element in Maher’s own life.
A former political prisoner due to his participation in the first Palestinian Intifada, Maher spent three years and a half locked up in an Israeli prison cell. The experience, while steeped in brutality, forced Maher to “think of my senses” and as time passed, he renegotiated the prison’s size—so that this confined space became so vast that it actually tasted of the sweetness of freedom.
The film's ability to avoid falling in the trap of one-dimensional and stereotypical depictions of the Palestinian struggle was one major point raised during Tuesday’s Q&A discussion.
The discussion’s moderator, Egyptian filmmaker Salma El-Tarzi, praised how the film navigated this parallelism between Maher’s own approach to art and the way Toomas directed the film. Both are not burdened by an overt portrayal of the conflict and how it is being resisted against. In doing so, Maher and Toomas invite us to rethink our own understanding of resistance and what it entails.
The choreographic snippets audiences see throughout 'Rough Stage' propose yet another reading of the film: a graceful dance performance.
The good news then becomes that you can see Maher perform live on Thursday at the French Institute, where he will present on the ideas discussed in a workshop he held with students from the Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre.
The performance will be preceded by a screening of 'Rough Stage' at 6.45 pm.
Check here the complete programme of Panorama for Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said
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