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Sonia Nettnin Film Review: Sense of Need

Film Review: Sense of Need

By Sonia Nettnin

The posters represent staves, sets of lines for a composer to write notes. Joseph stands behind the eighth note. Can music bring world peace?" (Photo courtesy of CPFF)

A fresh, innovative feature film about a man named Joseph who grapples with the psychological struggles of identity, emerged from the Chicago Palestine Film Festival.

“Sense of Need,” by Director Shady Srour explores what it means for a man to be comfortable in his own skin, the effects of time and change in life situations, and the importance of a man’s relation to place. Srour plays the starring role.

Joseph (also called Yousef) is a pianist and composer studying music in San Francisco who is on the verge of performing his graduate thesis for his own concert in 2004. He has long, wild, chestnut-colored hair and a thick, wooly beard. During practice, he has a flashback to his last visit with his mother who was in a coma. Israeli soldiers invaded the house, they held Joseph at gunpoint and they took away a Palestinian, teenage girl who is in love with him. A series of hallucinatory episodes brimming with emotion coupled with his past cause his mental breakdown.

As first-person narrator, Joseph shares he was born in Nazareth in 1973, and he began studying piano at the age of seven. His life with music birthed a world of color. Soon after, his father dies and the family moves to Jerusalem. In 1999, Joseph moves to the States so he can pursue his lifetime passion: music.

Through his music, Joseph’s ideas and feelings become the foundation for a sound-color condition called synesthesia. According to Rebecca, a psychiatrist who has a few days to help him play again, Joseph enters psychological fugue episodes induced by his music. When he feels intense emotions they trigger memories and he associates certain colors with those emotions.

His delusions involve the people around him and they cover a spectrum of inner struggles: his identity in relation to home, surrounded by the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the turmoil within his family about their Israeli-Arab status in Jerusalem; the ethnic and religious struggles that ensue when a Palestinian lives in the heart of Israeli society; and how a person’s mind resolves these counterpoint elements of identity.

In Arabic, Joseph’s life problems are his siraa’.

Joseph’s musical composition is a pinnacle expression of him at this point in his life. When Joseph plays a musical passage in his piece which has build-up, force and intensity called a crescendo; it is the climactic point at which his personal issues unwind in his mind. Joseph describes it as a loop and he associates himself with his music. As a result, Joseph is the subject of his own fugue. His fugue episodes are like the melodies he plays at the piano because his mind battles with the contrasting themes, which are in juxtaposition to his personal problems. With a complex past in the Holy Land coupled with his present life in the States, Joseph has an emotional meltdown.

When he hears his music, he throws up. One morning, he wakes up with his clothes on submerged in a tub of water. When a hair stylist asks Joseph if he is from the Holy Land, he is suddenly thirsty. On a pay phone, he retells his mother a story she told him when he was a child. He tells her he will be home soon so they can have a cup of coffee together. His narration is like the oral tales of “The Thousand and One Nights,” except Srour gives the name of Shaharazad to a woman who loved Joseph years ago and tried to commit suicide at the end of their relationship.

In his apartment, Joseph reminisces about his home – the land of milk and honey – but he cannot drink the glass of milk in front of him. His index finger hovers above the milk, as if he is unable to touch it.

When Joseph has these episodes, his memories flash like movie scenes in his mind. Joseph’s senses lapse when he enters these psychological states. For instance, he cannot hear people clearly and they look blurry. Linear time is out the window and it gives viewers an understanding of what it feels like to have this tormenting experience. Although Joseph is the film’s protagonist, he is the antagonist also because the conflict is within him.

Through religion and the religious history of his homeland, Joseph tries to regain his bearings. He transforms into a character of a video game where a bullet chases him down the street. With weapons and ropes, robotic figures surround Joseph, tie ropes around his wrists and ankles, and pull him apart at his hands and feet. They hold him in a crucifix position. Joseph feels like a sacrifice the doves carry to the sky. Although there are hints of a Messiah complex, which means a person feels the need to save other people; Joseph’s primary concern is saving himself.

The religious references and provocative images of Joseph standing in front of fireplace mirror in a white hospital gown give the film edge. Some people might react with offense, but overall the director keeps the film in the secular, artistic realm. At one point, a voice within Joseph’s mind says people doubt the existence of a Creator and they abused the name of God, so Joseph has reverence for a Higher Power. Joseph places a yarmulke on and off his head in the Holy Land, a sign of not only the pressures of living in Israeli society but the spiritual feelings he took with him after his trans-Atlantic crossing.

When Joseph describes his house, he says his mother’s bedroom is in Palestine and his sisters’ bedrooms are in Israel. His bedroom is in the middle, which means he feels affinity with all of his family members. When Joseph crosses a street, which may or may not border west and East Jerusalem, his hybrid identity crosses a barrier and breaks through preconceived identity labels.

What makes this film so interesting is not only the storyline, but the use of diverse film speeds and film textures to illustrate Joseph’s state of mind. Although his problems leave him comatose in brief moments, his relationship with music sees him through this difficult time. He realizes that he has the power to use words against the “Axis of Evil” rhetoric.

Srour portrays the character’s vulnerabilities in a natural way and he does not hold back whatsoever. Since the relationship between Joseph and his mother has so much meaning it should have been more developed at the beginning. People need to understand how Joseph’s bond with her maintained his stability.

“Sense of Need” reminds people that art is about the beauty of a person’s spirit and that artists have integral, societal roles in shaping the world. In a sense, the film is a man’s romantic relationship with the world. The film brings forth not only the Palestinian narrative, but the essence of human experience.


Writer and Director: Shady Srour
Executive Producer: Shady Srour
Producers: Abed El Natoor; Christina M. Smith; Chava Sobol
Post-Production: Shortkid Productions
Editor: Andrew Hampy
Starring: Shady Srour as Joseph and Suzanne Glover as Rebecca
Music Composer and Performer: Jean Kim; Shady Srour; Matthew Sordello
Sound Designer, Mixer and Music Engineer: Matthew Sordello
Country of production: USA/Palestine
Year: 2004
Language: English, Arabic and French with English subtitles when appropriate
Minutes: 90 minutes


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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