9 STAR HOTELNR
Ahmad, a young Palestinian Arab, forages in a trash heap, and discovers an umbrella. He opens it, raises it above his head, takes a backward glance at the camera, and then disappears into the night. The scallop-edged umbrella undoubtedly once adorned a patio table in a café a universe away. Now it will be stowed beneath a cardboard box, Ahmad's makeshift bed, near the burgeoning Israeli settlement where he works. Ahmad's evening gleaning, which sometimes earns him a small amount of cash, is one of the unforgettable events in Ido Haar's 9 Star Hotel, a documentary about Palestinian men illegally employed in Israel.
Ahmad and his fellow construction workers are from a border town near the wall that Israel is erecting to separate itself from its neighbors. The men slip into Israel over treacherous hillsides in order to build high-rise apartments in what was once an Arab town. Haar, the 33-year-old documentary filmmaker who gained their trust, was a boy when he first saw Palestinian men moving furtively through the pine forest behind his house. They, too, were on their way to unlawful jobs in Israel. Apparently, Haar has been haunted ever since by the lives he imagined those men having, and in 9 Star Hotel, he eloquently depicts, without narration and only one opening title, their long evenings in fugitive housing and their equally dangerous days on the construction site.
The Israelis who employ the Palestinians are never seen on-camera, and the authorities who police the border and raze the men's temporary homes make only fleeting appearances. There is speculation among the construction workers about the lives of Israelis, but only one direct reference to the Middle East conflict. Muhammad, Ahmad's friend and a group leader of sorts, says: "If you shut a cat in a room, won't it jump at you?" It is not war but a more immediate threat that preoccupies the Palestinians: What will become of them once the wall is completed and they are unable to cross into Israel for work? Haar's camera pans around the room, past the faces of a dozen men, and in the harsh glare of one bright light, we see heartrending portraits of despair, not anger.
9 Star Hotel is not so much a depiction of injustice--although the multiple privations the men suffer are undeniable--as it is an illustration of the construction workers' humanity, their industriousness and skill, the manner in which they care for one another, and their sense of responsibility, the love of family that compels them to their itinerant lifestyle. The filmmaker assiduously avoids drama except when it occurs in the course of filming, as it does at the point where the men attempt to flee the police. Mostly, 9 Star Hotel is a riveting portrait of disenfranchisement.
During a few well-chosen intervals, Haar charts the progress of construction on the apartment buildings, and we gaze in long-shot upon the nearly completed settlement. The Palestinians will never live there, and the Israelis who will might never guess the travails of the men who built their homes. They're not the extremists Muhammad alludes to; on the other hand, neither are they sainted. They're ordinary men desperate for dignity. When they fantasize about a particularly attractive female Israeli soldier, or when they lower their heads in acknowledgment of Ahmad's crushing responsibilities--he's his family's sole support--their emotions are vivid. They are very much present and alive for us, and that, in the end, is Haar's great accomplishment.