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At the end of The Six Day War of 1967, two soldiers, an Egyptian and an Israeli, encounter each other in the Sinai desert. Two soldiers - one goal: Survival.
For Azimuth, the obvious comparison is 1968's Hell in the Pacific, which was about an American soldier and a Japanese soldier stranded together in the context of World War II. The big difference is that the conflict that frames Azimuth-- the Arab–Israeli conflict-- is still going on, so that a certain tether keeps the story from taking up full residence in the realm of fable. Some distancing is achieved, though, by the use of music that carries the sound of a previous cinematic generation. The credits mentioned Rachmaninoff.
Unlike the opposing soldiers of Hell in the Pacific, those of Azimuth quickly discover that they can communicate well in English. It could happen, but it's a little unlikely. More unlikely is their almost cartoon-like ability to weather hostile fire and endure pain through much of the movie. But if you suspend disbelief, you can enjoy some fine acting, especially by Sammy Sheik, and a suspenseful time. (How much time the events take is uncertain, but apparently it's intended to be not much more than the screen time.) Although the message is a familiar one, the audience is kept guessing as to how it will be punctuated.
June 10, 1967. The Six Day War has just ended, although for many on the ground there is little certainty about the effective end to the armed conflict. On one side Israel, on the other Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, with the support of other Arab countries. The Sinai peninsula is one of the deadliest areas for the bloody clash between the Israeli and Egyptian military forces.
And it is here, in the middle of the desert, in an abandoned outpost of the United Nations, that, accidentally, two soldiers cross each other: an Israeli and an Egyptian. The second is hurt and lost. The first one is looking for his mates in a jeep and stops at the place to refuel the car and escape for awhile from the scorching heat. The war is over, but for these two men the confrontation is inevitable. And they end up being prisoner from each other at the United Nations outpost. Because only one can come out from there alive. It is in this scenario that Mike Burstyn, 71, leads his debut film to which he gave the title "Azimuth." And as the story moves on, we can realize the director's intention.
It is not a matter of opposing a Jew to an Arab, but of observing the behavior of two men in the face of a limiting situation of mutual fear and struggle for survival, in the indecision between killing first so that the other does not kill him. There is no religious or ethnic hatred, but only an inescapable boundary imposed by the different military uniforms they wear. In this sense, we would say that
"Azimuth" is a kind of a psychological "prisoner dilemma", which moves away from the temptation to justify or legitimize the conflict between Jews and Arabs, to victimize or demonize one of the sides. What seems to matter to Mike Burstyn is to show the brutality of war, seen from the point of view of two individuals who have nothing against each other but mutual fear, external to themselves, because both were mobilized to fight on opposite sides.
The irony is that the war is over and the struggle for survival, which drags these two men, is nothing more than the crude and violent portrait of the logic of the reproduction of conflict. It is surprising that, with a story that has been reduced to almost two characters and few dialogues, Mike Burstyn manages to create an intense, hyper-realistic and fast-paced film, suffocating like the desert in which it is shot. With the remarkable performance of Israeli Yiftach Klein and the Egyptian Sammy Sheik, actors who had already shown in previous works their enormous versatility. And a cinematic language absolutely irreprehensible, with the aesthetic option by saturation and constant movements, even when the camera moves away to contemplate from a distance the action.
"Azimuth" is a low budget film. And we can realize why. At the outset, as a project, it had everything to be looked at with skepticism. But the end result is remarkable. And exemplary. For who makes their debut as a screenwriter and director at age 71.
Victor Eustaquio/Cult Critic/CICFF
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