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200 Meters: A Harrowing Journey across the Israeli Border

Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

Newest among a spate of excellent films from around the world to arrive in U.S. theaters and on digital platforms this fall is 200 Meters, a family-drama-turned-thriller from Palestinian writer-director Ameen Neyfeh. Neyfeh, in his feature debut, takes a commonplace of everyday life in Palestine—the dehumanizing routine of work permits and border crossings—and turns it into a pulse-pounding claustrophobic thriller when a working parent must cross a checkpoint to attend to his injured son. Nearly devoid of genre tropes and shot with a graceful verité style by cinematographer Elin Kirschfink, 200 Meters takes its protagonist and audience on a harrowing ride.

Ali Suliman stars as Mustafa, a Palestinian family man and construction worker whose work and home are separated by the Israeli border wall. His West Bank home is just 200 meters away from his wife and children’s. And even though he is eligible for an Israeli ID, Mustafa stubbornly resists the laws he sees as unjust, those imposed by the occupying Israeli government, and each day he uses his temporary work permit to cross the border to see his family and do his job.

At his home, Mustafa and his wife Salwa (Lana Zreik) have three children—and little money. Salwa works two jobs to help the household make ends meet. Their life leaves them exhausted, but they remain a loving unit, and each night, Mustafa shares a charming ritual with his children: saying goodnight by flashing lights across the 200 meters and a border wall that separates them from each other.

Ali Suliman as Mustafa and Lana Zreik as Salwa embrace and talk in their family kitchen.
Ali Suliman as Mustafa and Lana Zreik as Salwa in 200 Meters. Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

At work, Mustafa’s construction labor is daunting, but manageable, until his work permit expires. Worse, he learns his son Majd (Tawfeeq Nayfeh) has been injured and brought to an Israeli hospital. Without the papers necessary to cross the border checkpoint, Mustafa must resort to illegal means of entering the country, and with those, a desperate attempt to smuggle himself to the other side of the wall.

Ali Suliman (center, middleground) as Mustafa stands in line for his work permit in 200 Meters.
Ali Suliman (center, middleground) as Mustafa in 200 Meters. Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

Majd’s injury makes Mustafa’s desperation all the more acute, so he turns to smuggler Nader (Nabil Al Raai), who charges some 250 shekel (or more, if you look like you can afford it) for safe passage. It’s something of a ramshackle operation, conducted with everyday boredom, by Nader and his assistants. Alongside him on the journey are several others needing safe passage into Israel, including a Palestinian activist Kifah (Motaz Malhees) and his German companion Anne (Anna Unterberger), a documentary filmmaker whose camera both charts the group’s passage and ultimately endangers it.

Anna Unterberger as Anne watches as Motaz Malhees as Kifah points from an open car window.
Anna Unterberger as Anne and Motaz Malhees as Kifah in 200 Meters. Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

In the film’s second act, the narrative focuses primarily on Mustafa’s need to see his son and the lengths to which he will go to achieve his goal. That he is reliant on Nader’s service and subject to the interactions of his fellow travelers tests his mettle. They are a diverse group, but for the most part well drawn as characters, each of them with their own desires and beliefs, with controversies between them jeopardizing their safe passage to Israel.

That passage, across the “Green Line” demarcating the Israel-Palestinian border, connotes more than seven decades of conflict that have defied resolution and remained unstable. It’s an insecure and unstable area where conflict ebbs and flows between large- and small-scale violence, disrupted communities and extremist actors. Given the rising tensions and violence—civil unrest and terrorist threats, rocket fire and military confrontation—travel there requires extreme caution.

One particular risk is posed by the mere presence of the documentary filmmaker, Anne. The German woman does not seem especially practiced with her camera nor certain about her project: her work seems more the flitting whim of a debutante than the well-trained artistry of an experienced filmmaker. Her multilingualism also makes her both an asset and a threat to the group’s safe passage.

When Anne registers something amiss, the mission is aborted, and the lives of the group are endangered. A scene where three grown men are trapped in the trunk of a midsize sedan is so claustrophobic it’s nearly unbearable: Sylvain Bellemare’s sound design and Kamal El Mallakh’s rapid edits complement Kirschfink’s tight close-ups and will have you frantically searching for a release button.

None of this feels particularly manipulative, however, like so many other thrillers that forsake narrative coherence to “cut to the chase” with generic scenes and obtuse motivations. Everything from the quiet domestic scenes to these suspenseful chase and escape scenes works effectively and without ever lapsing into cliché. One pretty significant elision occurs late in the narrative, skipping over some crucial information; otherwise, Mustafa’s choices and delays all ring true, and 200 Meters‘ story is one that never feels concocted or elaborated. It’s a story that can appeal to anyone whose faced the ignominy and bureaucracy of border controls.

Ali Suliman as Mustafa looks pensively out a car window in 200 Meters.
Ali Suliman as Mustafa in 200 Meters. Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

And of course, Ali Suliman is cast perfectly as Mustafa, a caring family man whose flaws make him all the more endearing as a protagonist. He’s not prone to wild gesticulation; as an actor, Suliman is more about the penetrating gaze, the probing question. Like the film itself, Suliman’s work here is to question a system of border control that relies so much on an inefficient, uncaring, and ultimately inhumane bureaucracy. His shining a beacon of light symbolizes an optimism for his family, and, more broadly, his people.

200 Meters makes that point clear, and does so with a style and substance that registers as perfectly genuine. Like a handful of recent international releases to arrive on U.S. cinemas and streams (from Dos Estaciones to Utama and most recently, The Box), 200 Meters illustrates a social injustice with a focus on the particular—and does so with skill and panache.

Following its festival run, including the 2020 BFI London Film Festival, 200 Meters premieres theatrically in the U.S. at Quad Cinema in New York City on November 18, 2022 and will premiere on VOD and leading digital platforms December 6, 2022.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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