In Strangers, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's opening night feature, directors Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv tell a story as old as Romeo and Juliet with energy and spontaneity.
Rana and Eyal meet cute, accidentally switching identical backpacks on the subway in Berlin. She is a Palestinian living in France, he is Israeli, and they're both in Berlin for the World Cup finals. They meet to exchange backpacks and are immediately attracted to each other.
Exploring whether love can overcome political and social barriers is a familiar premise, but Strangers covers the territory in a fresh way. The actors, working mostly without a script, improvised their dialogue, which makes the characters feel less like pawns the filmmakers are moving around to make a point, with Rana meant to represent all Palestinians and Eyal supposed to speak for all Israelis.
Their flirtation, conducted in English, is awkward and charming: he reads her poetry in Hebrew and then translates it for her; they play soccer in the room where they are staying in Berlin; and they mug for pictures on her cell phone at a soccer match.
But in one of the film's best scenes, when the two are having a drink, they realize their infatuation with one another cannot shut out the world. He has learned that Hezbollah has kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and we can feel the tension growing and the flirtation deflating as the couple try to navigate the politics of the situation. The attraction doesn't disappear, but as the discussion ends -- the two agree they probably won't find a solution to a generations-old conflict in one night -- you can see the couple beginning to recognize there is no way to avoid their incredibly loaded personal and political histories.
History and culture can't be ignored, but Strangers does offer hope for looking beyond them to see that societies are not monolithic, but made up of individuals.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 24 through August 11, 2008 at various locations around the bay. Strangers opens the festival at the Castro Theater on Thursday, July 24 at 8pm. For tickets and information visit sfjff.org