What do you do when you’ve told a lie in an official capacity to cover up one truth, the official lie convinces the authorities of a much broader, more sinister truth, and you endanger everyone you care about in the process?
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is a modern, geographically specific take on the very idea of a catch-22, where characters are forced between two decisions that are equally horrible. It takes some time to get there, of course, and Palestinian director Muayad Alayan increases the tension in the meantime, so steadily you barely register it’s even happening until it’s been doing on for a while.
There are four characters, two married couples, and the story at first revolves around what seems like a pretty straightforward extramarital affair — straightforward, at least, in the context of the politics those involved naively think they can avoid: one couple is Israeli and the other is Palestinian. This alone could easily make for a compelling story, given the obvious prejudices at play.
But, here things are not that simple. This is the story of otherwise regular people making small but bad choices, which turn out to have huge and horrible consequences. Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian man struggling at a low paying job at a delivery service, who is having an affair with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), an Israeli bakery cafe owner in West Jerusalem. Both are part of communities in which extramarital affairs on their own have dire consequences. They meet in secret and have sex late at night on the side of empty streets in the back of Saleem’s delivery van.
But, they make two key mistakes, when Sarah agrees to go out for drinks with him in a part of Jerusalem where nobody knows them, where Saleem has agreed to make extra cash making nighttime deliveries, but Saleem gets into an altercation with a man aggressively trying to hit on Sarah.
It’s difficult to explain how things snowball from there without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that official government reports — hence the movie’s title — are involved, they contain falsehoods intended to save Saleem’s livelihood and reputation, but the Israeli government takes them at face value and considers them a threat. Ultimately Saleem and Sarah both find themselves faced with a choice between either ruining the other person’s life to save their own, or ruining their own lives.
And that’s not to mention their spouses, both of whom bring greater richness to the storytelling here. Sarah’s husband, David (Ishai Golan), is a colonel in the Israeli army, unknowingly inching closer to the case against Saleem and therefore some version of the truth about his wife. Saleem’s wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), is very pregnant, very suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Saleem’s arrest, is pushed away as a nuisance at every turn as she attempts to uncover the truth, and is very tenacious. Of all these characters, Bisan is the most underestimated, although Sarah is a bit as well.
All of these actors deliver excellent performances. And it must be said, the tenuous relationship that develops between Sarah and Bisan is treated with a refreshing delicacy. There are no reductive clichés about women scorned or pitted against each other here; rather, they reach a sort of painful understanding of each other. I did find myself thinking about the Bechdel Test as I watched this movie, and it does pass it, albeit barely, and technically. The entire story is about an affair after all, so by default nearly any conversation between the two female leads is bound to be about a man. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Bechdel Test is more of a barometer than an indicator of a film’s quality. A lot of stories, even compelling ones, are simply about the relationships between men and women. That said, I would argue The Reports on Sarah and Saleem has a far more feminist bent to it than you’re ever likely to find in any other story like this. The two women here are the strongest characters, with the most dimension.
Best of all, Muayad Alayan does not pass judgment on any of these characters, the women or the men — one of each potentially seen, depending on the point of view of the observer, as a victim and as a criminal. Here Saleem and Sarah are each both at once, in over their heads because of very human mistakes. It’s easy to sympathize with every single one of them, and that’s what makes this movie great, as it offers no easy solutions and yet still provides a thoroughly satisfying movie experience.