In times of stress we turn to torn fragments of ourselves and worship them as if they were whole nations (From Mars at Sunrise).
Mars at Sunrise (2014) is director Jessica Habie’s first feature. Billed as “A story of a war waged on imagination,” the film tells the story of Khaled, a working artist arrested in his Ramallah home and interrogated by Eyal, himself a frustrated Israeli artist completing his military service.
Habie uses lush cinematography, precisely deployed editing and fantastic sound design as well as a non-linear narrative structure and a poetic voice over to manifest Khaled and Eyal’s inner experiences, while mostly avoiding any heavy-handedness. The overall effect is a 77-minute cinematic tone poem that seems to go by in the blink of an eye.
Visually, Mars at Sunrise is stunning.
A judicious use of unusual camera angles literally requires the audience to see things from a different perspective, and is most evident during the sequences immediately following Khaled’s arrest. The colour palette and lighting in these sequences are dominated by a dull brownish-yellow of perpetual night. By contrast, the rest of the film is replete with saturated candy hues set against neutral tones, which themselves take on a warm brilliance under the bright daylight.
Khaled’s home, the main interior setting, is no exception to this, and the art direction here is outstanding: As Khaled paces in and out of the frame while on the phone, the camera remains fixed on a tight shot of two door frames revealing literally dozens of empty picture frames stacked as high and as deep as possible. This visual sense of being boxed in adds weight to Khaled’s conversation about being trapped in Ramallah, unable to visit his mother in Gaza.
As Khaled moves into a different area of his home, the camera drifts along in his wake, lingering on certain details. The longer takes used here and throughout the film give the audience a chance to appreciate the thoughtful, detailed mise-en-scène.
The editing in this film is just as thoughtful and detailed as the camerawork and art direction: Fast-paced when it needs to be, but not afraid to let the audience explore certain details or get very uncomfortable when the film calls for it.
The torture sequence is again a fine example of this. While we never actually see Eyal strike Khaled until the very end of his confinement, the violence in this sequence is suggested by the fast pace of the editing as well as the camera angle and composition of each shot, as well as by Eyal’s destruction of Khaled’s art.
As Khaled is finally thrown into solitary confinement, the pace of the editing comes to a halt as Khaled frantically, fitfully negotiates the limits of his new space. This is done in one long take, which ends only when Khaled seems to have accepted the physical limitations of his cell.
The film’s aesthetic strengths are enough to carry it past any criticism of the non-linear narrative form it employs, and—especially with regards to the long takes—attention to detail and sound design, recall Lynn Ramsay’s debut feature, Ratcatcher (1999).
Imbued with poetry recited in voice over during brief, visually poetic interludes, Mars at Sunrise is a beautiful 77-minute meditation on art, identity, and compassion in the face of a violent political situation, asking us to consider how this situation affects both Khaled and Eyal as human beings.
See this film on the big screen if you get a chance, anything else would not do its artistry justice.
* Editors note: Art Threat is co-sponsoring the Canadian premiere screening of Mars at Sunrise on Tuesday, March 4th, in Toronto at the Bloor Cinema. The screening is organized by Cinema Politica and is by donation.
Kristi Kouchakji is a student, filmmaker, and is-there-a-god?mother. When not writing essays, chasing money, or being chewed on by a teething infant, she can be found skulking around Twitter as @badyogi.