It sounds like the premise of a bizarre, indie comedy: two women, an Israeli and a Palestinian, decide to start a business together in the predominantly male world of logistics and shipping. Hilarity and mayhem ensue. Yet although Partner with the Enemy often had me and the rest of the audience laughing out loud, the documentary film by Duki Dror and Chen Shelah follows two very real, and extraordinary women, Anat Shelach and Rola Srouji, and their unique partnership amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an area so fraught with tensions, mutual mistrust, and violence, it seems unlikely, if not impossible, that there could be a partnership between an Israeli from Kibbutz Mizra and a Palestinian from Ramallah. Yet, ironically, the idea for Srouji and Shelach’s Unlimited Logistics finds its origins in the conflict itself. Anything that comes into the West Bank arrives through the Ashdod Port in Israel and must pass Israeli customs and inspection. Anyone who has ever dealt with shipping and customs knows that delays are inevitable, frustrating and costly, all the more so for businesses who depend on the prompt arrival of goods. Due to the conflict and anxiety over security, containers that arrive with goods to be delivered to the West Bank are often detained for a long period of time, with storage costs at the expense of the individual. In their business venture, Srouji and Shelach sought to solve this problem and expedite the delivery of goods to the West Bank, utilizing the fact that between them, they have both sides covered; with each assuming responsibility for her region. It’s an inspiring initiative, and following Shelach and Srouji makes for a fascinating film.
Partner with the Enemy is as funny as it is suspenseful and moving, telling a complex story suffused with vibrant color and strong characters. Cinematography and editing work well with the soundtrack to create an entertaining, dramatic experience in this very densely packed 58 minutes. We are accustomed to talking about “the conflict” as though there is some single problem to be solved, yet there is not one conflict, or one way to view it, there are many. Partner with the Enemy takes an intimate perspective, telling a story replete with the details, contradictory though they may be, that make up daily life.
In building their business against all odds, Shelach and Srouji also forged a friendship. With offices in Ramallah, much of their business is handled via phone or Skype, technology making possible a connection that could not have happened a mere 15 years ago. Seeing each in her element, Shelach running through fields of yellow mustard flowers on the kibbutz, Srouji in the office with its clean, urban design, the women’s characters are revealed in their similarities and differences. In one conversation, Srouji affectionately calls Shelach “Batuta” (pumpkin), and later in the film gives her a little girl-to-girl advice on the importance of appearances in business, telling her: “Eyeliner – God won’t be angry if you put some on.” Both are remarkably intelligent, strong women, and they communicate with one another and with their families with striking honesty. Standing together at the port, Shelach asks Srouji: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to our partnership?” Each expresses her worst fear, then they both whip out hand mirrors and touch up their lipstick.
It is as they grow closer that they realize how much they do not know about one another, and how difficult it is to find a way to cope with the new knowledge of what people’s lives really are like ‘on the other side.’ Their close connection through the sharp divide between Israeli and Palestinian result in several scenes and circumstances both poignant and absurd, sometimes both at once.
It can be wonderful when business partners are also good friends, but when external pressures impact the business, the friendship is part of that mix as well. Throw in a volatile political situation and you have a film full of tension, suspense and drama.
Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the equation for a moment (if you possibly can), and this is an honest and inspiring portrait of women making their way as independent business people. It’s about the relationship between family and work, the ways in which each sustains and demands, the different ways in which they affect one another. Every choice, every risk taken affects not only Srouji and Shelach but their families as well. The two families are very much a part of the film, whether it’s the easy warmth of the connection between Srouji and Shelach’s children (even though they have no language in common), or the worried look on Shelach’s husband’s face as the violence flaring up around them drives a wedge of mistrust between the two partners.
In one of their Skype conversations during the winter of 2012, Srouji says to Shelach, “Why are children being killed? Did it get us a country? Did it get you security? Nothing.” Several years later, as I write these words, the conflict does not feel any closer to peaceful resolution, if anything it feels as though the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians grows wider and deeper with each passing day, and everyone suffers. Many people on both sides of the conflict have lost confidence in political leaders, and as a result, lost hope for peace. Yet I feel that every encounter, every conversation, every friendship is a part – however small – of the bridge that will connect our two peoples. Politicians and warmongers build walls of suspicion, confusion, fear and hatred, but art finds its own path into the heart and mind.
Update: CoPro, Al Saraya Theatre and Jaffa Theatre will be presenting a screening of Partner with the Enemy Wednesday, October 18th at 20:00 at the Jaffa Theatre (10 Mifratz Shlomo). Tickets are just 10 NIS and may be ordered online via this link.
Partner with the Enemy
(Israel, 2014, 58 min, Hebrew and Arabic, English and Hebrew subtitles)
Director: Duki Dror, Chen Shelach; Producer: Duki Dror, Anat Vogman; Production Company: Zygote Films Ltd.; Cinematographer: Hana Abu Saada, Philippe Bellaiche, Danor Glazer; Editor: Duki Dror, Chen Shelach; Soundtrack Editor: Ronen Nagel; Original Soundtrack: Frank Ilfman; Supporters: The New Fund for Cinema and Television, the Second TV and Radio Authority, Other Israel; Script: Galia Engelmayer Dror.