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Sonia Nettnin: Film Review - Keys

Film Review - Keys Directed By Saleem Daw

By Sonia Nettnin

This Palestinian man stands in front of a gum tree. Nearby is the stone house where the man lived before the 1948 Al-Nakba, Catastrophe. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Palestine Film Festival)

KEYS is a documentary film about several Palestinian families who crossover the green partition line; and they revisit the remains of their homes and villages. During the third annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival, KEYS (in Arabic, MAFATEEH,) had its first showing at the Southwest Youth Collaborative. Salim Daw directed the film.

When Israel declared itself an independent state, Israeli forces demolished 417 Palestinian villages and confiscated 1.5 million hectares of land. Israeli settlements replaced villages such as Bei’neh, Bire’em, Hitteen, Ikreth, Kufur Bire’em, Mjedel, and Sha’ab.

Palestinians witnessed their homes burned by soldiers and their villages bombed by planes.

“We couldn’t run to the north because bullets poured down us like rain,” one man said.

When the people see keys to their old homes, the people relive their expulsion. This documentary is a journey through the lives of several families, which represent the one million Palestinians expelled in 1948. As the people revisit their old homes, the film records their life accounts. They reflect upon the tragic events and they express their loss of family members and friends.

“Some women even forgot their children in beds,” one man said. “They mistook them for pillows.”

Many older people – in their eighties and nineties – could not run from the violence. One man explained that Israeli soldiers gathered elder Palestinians into a vehicle and drove them to Marj Ben Amer. From there they “dropped them off on the muddy earth,” he said. The people died in the rocks of the terrain.

Their narratives reveal shock, fear and despair…and their verbal recollections are first hand accounts of the Palestinian Diaspora.

The people see their keys as mementos - reminders of their pre-1948 life. Many people hang their keys on their walls and doorways, in hopes that the keepsake will help them return to their original homes. Whenever one woman sees her key, she sees herself locking the door to her old home. Another woman wore her key around her neck. One man grabs onto a fence and stares into the distance. His key is in his left hand. A finch perches on the metal. The keys unlock nostalgia and they symbolize the peoples’ longing for home.

Throughout the film, a man holds a model-size, stone house. He walks in green fields. During the recurring scene, Arabiyya music plays in the background. This image represents the film’s theme of longing and return. When he carries the model house on his shoulder, this action illustrates the burden the people carry in their hearts. It reminded me of the saying “key to the heart.”

In the film, the keys are in the heart. They unlock stories of joy, sadness and grief . . . the metal is the concrete truth. Keys are emotions, memories and beliefs. The keys represent loved ones – individuals who have the keys to peoples’ hearts. Without them, hearts bleed tears.

“The key my heart lost and what’s a heart without a key,” a woman sings.

The people place importance on burial grounds. A man yanks tall grass from a grave site he set aside for himself. He is a man who wants his bones buried in the roots of his home. His hands search for the stone blocks.

Purple irises in these fields have a special meaning, but I will not tell it.

The film’s music intensifies the feelings conveyed in the film. Oud and violin solos come together in a duet. The chords on violin are so in tune they ring!

When a yellow bulldozer razes a fig, olive and pomegranate orchard, the physical destruction bleeds emotional wounds. A Palestinian man cries out he spent his entire life on this land. The man’s life work destroyed in a few hours. During filming of the home site, a Jewish woman tells a Palestinian man he should have called the administrative office for permission.

Daw’s moving documentary is not only informative, but it gives exposure to the Palestinian narrative. Anyone interested in the topic has an opportunity to hear first hand accounts. They are in Arabic, with English subtitles.

Cinema Project supported the film, along with the Sundance International Documentary Fund.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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