Koch Lorber films
MSRP: $26.98
RUNNING TIME: 78 minutes
• Trailer
• Tribeca Film Festival Interview


The Pitch

It’s a sobering documentary about lives of Palestinian construction workers. Yeah, you try making a joke pitch about that.

After seven days of trying, Aish finally managed to get a copy of the
Orange Box “Portal” end credits song to play as his ringtone.

The Humans

Iad, Ibrahim, Ahmed, Amged, Akram, Baha, Bilal, Gihad, Jafer, Wasphi, Zoher, Ziad, Zidan, Zecharya, Halil, Taha, Yusef, Malek, Mudi, Morad, Muchamad, Machmud, Nazmi, Nidal, Salech, Abas, Otman, Aish, Imad, Issa, Ali, Farid, Raja, Ra’ad, Riad, Muchamad Razmi, Shchada, Shafik, Taufik et. al.

For a hill with a maximum capacity of 40 persons,
 the guys were really pushing the limits of hill safety.

The Nutshell

Modi’in, an Israeli city near Tel Aviv with a population of 65,000, was created in 1993. It’s a sprawling, modern, highly planned city, with lush greenspaces and an underground transit system.

Every day, thousands of Palestinian laborers illegally cross the border into Modi’in to work on the many new construction projects in the city. If they’re caught by the police, they are arrested and sent back home. 9 Star Hotel follows Ahmed and Muchamad, two young Palestinian laborers, as they load themselves up with supplies, cross rivers, dodge traffic, avoid the omnipresent border police, and escape to the hills of the Modi’in countryside where they set up a secret camp with a group of workers.


The Lowdown

Whenever I’m watching a raw, minimalist documentary like 9 Star Hotel,  I’m reminded of the Observer Effect, which refers to the inevitable changes to an observed phenomenon caused by the act of observing. It’s all too often confused with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but that’s neither here nor there. Blame Jurassic Park: Lost World and its poorly researched dialogue for that.

Throughout Hotel, the Observer Effect runs rampant. There isn’t any sense of narrative cohesion or guiding voice. It’s simply a video log of a group of Palestinian laborers who struggle to survive in an unfriendly environment, and despite the fact that it feels like the subjects are keenly aware that they’re being watched, Hotel is a highly effective and touching drama. The film finds its two charismatic leads in Muchamad and Ahmed as we follow their attempts to survive in Modi’in. Muchamad, an experienced worker in his late twenties, is Ahmed’s surrogate father figure, but both ultimately rely on each other for support. They join a makeshift camp in the hills surrounding Modi’in (the eponymous 9 Star Hotel) which is populated with a cast of fascinating characters who gladly mug for the camera and share stories and anecdotes about life as a Palestinian.

Immediately, American viewers can draw parallels to their own immigration and border control situation. It’s unavoidable to make comparisons, since both situations are so similar; there’s even a river crossing, with a constant stream of vigilant Humvees tracking the shore for potential laborers. It’s a familiar scene, especially for anyone who lives in the Southwest. Since the language and cultures involved in the Palestine/Israel situation are naturally estranging to most American viewers, it provides a unique insight into our own dilemma, as we’re able to set aside our own set of prejudices to assess this particular set of stories. I won’t attempt to make any kind of judgment about immigrant laborers in the U.S., although I personally find anti-immigrant sentiments xenophobic at best and racist at worst.  I can say that while Hotel probably won’t change anyone’s mind about “BorderControl!”, it’s a thought provoking window into a different world with a similar problem.

Ahmed:  Age 16.  Hobbies:  Basketball, Comics, and terrifying Yankee wilderness filmmakers.

One of the more touching things about Hotel is the sense of camaraderie and friendship between the camp laborers. They’re a group of guys who clearly watch each other’s backs. In fact, the bonds formed within the camp might even be enviable to westerners.  It’s also interesting that most of the laborers have a better cell phone than I do. This is not a difficult feat, as I found my cell phone in a Wendy’s parking lot, but it’s cool to see how technology touches every corner of the earth, as (spoiler) Muchamad can instantly communicate with an wounded and homebound Ahmed after he gets arrested. I’m also shocked that you can get five bars on that distant hill.

Like I mentioned in the beginning of the article, the observer effect poses a paradoxical problem. Besides filming with a hidden camera, which would of course be unethical, there isn’t a real way to get around this problem.  When Muchamad stares wistfully across the horizon, he looks like he’s posing for the camera. When they sing and tell stories, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s “acting”. It doesn’t really detract from the story being told, but it’s still a minor distraction.

“Shabbat Fuzz” claims another victim.

Hotel‘s inhabitants are far from perfect. Some advocate stealing from employers.  They whine about cleaning the dishes. In other words, they’re portrayed as humans, which is great, because nothing would have killed this documentary faster than if they were all portrayed as noble angels. Surprisingly (and perhaps depressingly), the guys on the hill are much more like everyday Americans than I ever would have thought.

It should come as no surprise that Hotel doesn’t end well for our guys on the hill.  While there are light moments and brilliant insights into the world of the laborers, at its core, the tale is tragic one; the resolution is bleak, and there’s no real evidence that things will get better for the struggling immigrants.  In an early exchange, one of the laborers condemns their situation: “We’re never looking forwards. We’re always looking backwards.” As they wonder how their lives might have turned out had they stayed in school or been born in a different country, it’s hard not to be moved.

Ending this on a light note: one of the more humorous moments in the documentary comes when the group thumbs through a checkout-stand tabloid back at the camp.  They come across an “American Idol” article, and pause to contemplate why there isn’t a “Palestinian Idol.” Their conclusion? 

“I guess it’s because there aren’t any Palestinian whores.”

Gut laughter. 

The Package

It’s a sparsely populated release, as the extras comprise a theatrical trailer and a Tribeca interview.  

The audio is an acceptable Dolby 2/0, and the video is handheld quality, although you certainly can’t knock it for either of those for obvious reasons. The box art is well crafted, if uninspired.

Check it out!

7.0 out of 10