Reviews Short Narrative

The Record (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Chris White

Writer: Hannah Khalil

Cast: Lola Echouafni, Serene Echouafni

Running time: 5mins

For more information on The Record, visit the SHH Productions website.

I’m afraid I must start this review with a spoiler, so if you intend to see Chris White’s The Record any time soon, it’s probably best not to read on. The short charts the efforts of two sisters who are chasing a dream to become a world record holder at something. After going through the motions – which including an overly ambitious weightlifting attempt and some rather lethargic pogo-stick jumping – things take a darker twist. The eldest sister, haunted by some past trauma, is prompted to think of the village of Al-Araqib.

The persecution of the Palestinian village is just one of the lasting legacies of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Following the conflict, Israel began to displace the Bedouin of the Negev desert, and by 1953 had expelled 90% of the roughly 100,000 people in the northern Negev. The ethnic cleansing of the area saw the state deploy blitz campaigns, massacres and tent burning, before the surviving refugees could be herded to Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite this ruthless campaign, however, so-called ‘unrecognised Bedouin villages’ still remain decades after the forced dispersal. The Bedouin communities in the Negev and the Galilee face an uncertain future, however, as the Israeli government does not recognise them as ‘legal’. Al-Araqib is illustrative of the near-impossible situation the Bedouin communities face – the home of the Al-Turi Arab Bedouin tribe, five miles north of Beersheba has been demolished and rebuilt over 160 times.

This remarkable and tragic history becomes the punch-line of a rather dark and thought-provoking joke, when the protagonists of The Record decide to submit an application for a world record on Al-Arabiq’s behalf. The film closes with an unimpressed Guinness employee slamming a “REJECTED” stamp down on the application for “most destroyed/rebuilt town” – silently implying “We don’t talk about that sort of thing here.”

And we certainly don’t. In the West, the plight of the Palestinian people is swept under the carpet on a good day – and mercilessly stigmatised at worst. People don’t talk about illegal settlements on the West Bank, or shelling campaigns wreaking havoc in Gaza, or the millions of homes and lives being destroyed by the Israeli state, because if they do, they are swiftly labelled ‘anti-semitic’ by those keen to continue US/UK colonial exploits in the region.

One thing that is certainly true of The Record is that it will start conversations; conversations which have been wrongfully stifled for far too long. Hannah Khalil should take a great deal of credit for this; her script is restrained, minimalistic , with an air of fun about it which will disarm audiences – before suddenly shaking them from their false sense of security. Khalil, who is herself Palestinian-Irish – rounds off a well-thought-out idea for a story with a thought provoking coup de grâce – springing a saddening reality upon viewers at the end in a move that will prompt more than a little research into the politics of Palestine and Israel. At a time when the subject is being forcibly pushed out of mainstream discourse, this can only be a good thing.

Thanks to this ability to wrong-foot audiences before prompting them to think about something, one could quite easily make the case that The Record is a public information film. As previously mentioned in my review of Sharp Point, the very best examples of this sub-genre do their best to make the viewer forget they are watching an announcement, establishing a safe and familiar environment which they then disrupt with a sudden shock, leaving the audience to ruminate on the distilled message that comes with the film’s often-chilling conclusion.

Beyond public information films, however, if we consider The Record in more general cinematic terms, it does become apparent that it has a number of short-comings. Technically speaking, the film is largely on-point – tightly edited, well shot, with naturalistic sound to make audiences feel at home pared with a light, unobtrusive soundtrack. The music is unremarkable, but it is used expertly, suddenly exiting as things turn dark to nicely highlight the tonal shift. Unfortunately, the naturalistic sound is largely filled with the buzz of silence here, as our characters do not speak.

One of the problems here is that if you are going to make a silent film, you need to get silent film performances from your actors. That means exaggerated facial expressions, demonstrative movements, expressive body-language. Unfortunately, Chris White has not managed to get such a performance from either of his stars. While it would be unfair to berate the children for failing to live up to the standards of Charlie Chaplin, they could certainly have been directed into giving more energy in their performances – and that would have inserted some badly-needed humour in the process, which would further emphasise the sudden shift in tenor at the film’s climax.

At times the sound design seems to try to – rather gratingly – compensate for the characters’ lack of energy. Sometimes the girls grunt, shriek or sigh loudly in frustration, but the way these sounds suddenly appear without accompanying movements from the actors makes them feel almost like Automated Dialog Replacement, added in post to give the actions of the girls some much-needed emphasis.

At the same time, with the main characters largely silent, the film needs to signpost its narrative better. If you aren’t going to tell at all, you need to show in as much detail as humanly possible. Some neat foreshadowing involving shattered Lego-houses aside, unfortunately The Record does not do as much as it might in this regard.

Exemplifying this, on first viewing, I was slightly confused as to who the sisters were – I had a hunch that they were refugees from Al-Arabiq who are living in Britain, but since all we see of their lives is their dusty backyard, and Lego-strewn computer room, it was not a hunch I could confirm. Initially, this meant their sudden change of plan almost came across as a cynical attempt to benefit from a disconnected town’s misfortune. While I was fortunately able to confirm that the former was the case, not every viewer has the luxury of asking one of the film’s producers for clarification – so probably more needed to be done to explicitly spell out who these girls are over the space of five minutes.

Further to this, the film also leaves us wondering what exactly the motivation is for the duo eagerly chasing down a world record. It doesn’t occur to them until the end that it could be a platform to put their beleaguered home on the map, so it can’t be that. Were they hoping to emulate a sports-star they idolise, are they jealous because they saw someone of the same age being lauded for a setting a record in the local newspaper? Whatever the reason, it would have been easy enough to depict, and add another dimension to the two characters in the process.

Chris White might have got more from the solid foundations provided by Hannah Khalil’s story, but broadly he manages to pull off an incredible trick; creating a five-minute-film which can engage and provoke dialogue in one of the most thorny topics in contemporary politics. In spite of its foibles, The Record is a hearty success, and though it lacks a certain sparkle, it still packs an emotional punch worthy of its thought-provoking conclusion.

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