The title 200 Meters refers to the stretch of wall across the West Bank separating Palestine from Israel. Much more than that though it separates Palestinian worker Mustafa from work, from his family and from the prospect of a more whole life.
The film follows Mustafa as he tries to make this difficult situation work. Calling his family every night to signal them by light, an attempt to remain a presence in their lives despite the divide. However, when his son is involved in a car crash Mustafa must race across the boarder as quickly as possible. Which means entrusting his safety and freedom in the hands of less-than-reliable smugglers. As their journey gets closer and closer to the wall complications arise, the travellers are abandoned and are increasingly forced to improvise as the danger increases.
Before all of this though there’s a significant amount of preamble, establishing Mustafa’s life. His difficulties obtaining a work permit, temporary travel across the border, his relationship with his fellow Palestinians and his hopes for his kids. None of it is uninteresting and the latter sections would not be so emotionally fraught if they were omitted. However in terms of engagement, their inconsequentially results in a first act that pales in comparison to what follows. It all brings a sense of imbalance to what is otherwise a tightly structured journey.
Also, for those of us who don’t regularly navigate the West Bank, the film does a poor job of communicating the geography of the place. A failure which is particularly galling in a story all about traversing a specific distance. The relationship from one stopping point to the next is never clearly established. At one point the characters seem to practically teleport from the wall to a Palestinian hospital. With no mention of how this diversion affects the journey.
What saves the film though is the richness of the story itself. Ali Suliman gives a measured performance as Mustafa. Fitting the down-to-earth tone as he’s weighted with the burden of fatherhood, coupled with the longing of separation. He’s an immediately empathetic presence, we see the conflict in his eyes as he makes increasingly questionable choices to enable his journey. And the guilt on his shoulders when those choices have devastating consequences.
The supporting players are all broadly drawn stereotypes, their role in the Mustafa’s story practically written across their faces. But none of them come across as empty. They all feel like real people, if perhaps a little conveniently placed to help use the journey as a sounding board on the divisions between Israel and Palestine. Anna Unterberger is particularly contrived as a student filmmaker, however she throws herself into the role with such earnestness and vulnerability that its forgivable.
In the end 200 Meters is deeply flawed film but so well grounded at its core that it remains compelling nonetheless.