One of the most anticipated feature debuts at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend is the filmmaker’s follow-up to his Academy Award nominated short Ave Maria, which strongly launched his career and made him a talent to watch. Khalil’s transition from shorts to features doesn’t seem to have entirely worked though as he fails to stick the landing and creates a generally likable but uneven feature that strangely lacks a cinematic touch.
It’s a baffling flaw in the film, especially that Khalil’s previous film, which also dealt with geographic constraints, felt quite cinematic, with its superb cinematography and direction. The reverse takes place in A Gaza Weekend, which feels like a TV movie with no room to breathe and odd technical choices of cinematography and editing that bogs down the picture and reduces it to a merely serviceable work that doesn’t make quite the impression. The problem starts from a screenplay that tries too hard to be funny, squarely aiming to be a crowdpleaser, while lacking the wit, insight, and authenticity of Khalil’s short.
Imagining a world where an unknown virus called ARS (which is an obscene world in Arabic, hence the wordplay) suddenly spreads in Israel, Khalil’s film is built on a premise whereby Israelis try to flee the country while Gaza, thanks to the separating wall which prohibits Palestinians from crossing over to Israel, becomes the safest place on earth. Protected from the outbreak due to security measures, Gaza becomes the center of media attention as Israelis scramble to cross Jordanian borders to save their lives.
In the middle of all the chaos are two friends-turned-smugglers who spend their days trying to sell imported goods from China and elsewhere, until the ARS outbreak gives them the opportunity of the lifetime. As they try to turn bras into masks, a joke the film repeatedly makes, they get contacted by a British-Israeli couple who are trying to flee into Gaza. A mix of drama and comedy ensues, as the couple hide in one of the smugglers’ homes, to the shock and dismay of his wife and parents.
A series of errors, mainly because the smugglers are rash and inexperienced, lead to Israeli and Palestinian media picking up the news. An extensive Gaza-wide search kicks off, with a hefty monetary prize for those able to locate the couple who would certainly be tried, and potentially even killed, whenever they’re discovered. Making things even worse is the smuggler’s nosy neighbors who become increasingly suspicious and try to uncover what’s going on.
The film’s premise, while certainly interesting, gets diluted by a continuous need to be funny and appealing, to the extent of pandering to the audience with repetitive jokes, oddly choreographed scenes and surface-level dialogue that never elevates the film into anything but a sometimes funny, otherwise forced comedy that doesn’t register. When the script holds off the comedy, in rare scenes, it becomes too didactic, telling us things we already know in almost bullet-point form that further reduces the film’s cinematic feel.
Sure to have its supporters particularly in the Middle East with some potential to cross over to mainstream audiences, A Gaza Weekend is an amusing, yet surface-level comedy that doesn’t work more than it does and a step down from Khalil’s earlier, more insightful works.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.