Israel's Central Prison, and the inmates are divided into two factions much as the wider society in the nation is, with Israeli criminals who have carried out such activities as armed robbery or rape mixing with Palestinians who have been given sentences for what are termed terrorist offences against the Israelis. When Uri (Arnon Badok), one of the Jewish criminals, arrives back from a home visit, he is prepared with a medical examination and strip search, but seizes an opportunity to make trouble and grabs the medic, holding a scalpel to his throat - sadly, Uri fits right in here.
Beyond the Walls caused a stir when it was first released, though it has been largely forgotten now, for saying something provocative about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Essentially they used the prison setting as one of those microcosms for the community at large, not a new idea but an easy one to make its point, which was the authorities had more than an interest in keeping the troubles going to sustain their hold over the citizens, be they Israeli or Palestinian. Naturally, to say this situation created friction was an understatement, and so it was here we saw the Jewish prisoners and Arab inmates at loggerheads.
What upsets them even more is the introduction of a complicating factor: a Jewish man, Assaf, convicted of assisting the Palestinians leaving both sides uncertain of how to regard him. That Assaf was played by Assi Dayan, who was the son of the Israeli government chief of staff Moshe Dayan, was even more provocative, and the cast was somewhat groundbreaking for the region for mixing the Arabs and Jews in its cast, rendering this a statement in itself that there was the possibility for the antagonists to get on and come up with something productive instead of blowing each other up, which is how their behaviour came across to outsiders at the time, and sadly for some time afterwards.
All of which is not to say Beyond the Walls, or Me'Ahorei Hasoragim as it was originally known, was a particularly accomplished work dramatically, as it tended to lean on the didactic end of the political filmmaking scale, and you could imagine audiences getting a little tired of its relentless grimness with its depictions of assaults and prisoners cracking under the strain. At least those prisoners were well-delineated so you were unlikely to get them mixed up, from the three leads - one of Palestine's most celebrated actors Mohammed Bakri took the role of Issan, leader of the Arab faction - to the supporting actors, be they the shaven-headed, giggling drug addict or the chap who is accompanied everywhere with his pet bird.
This was undeniably heavy handed, but sometimes such works needed to be to get their message across, and by using the well-worn tropes of the prison movie you could argue that message got a little lost in the clichés. The conspiracy-minded would appreciate the depiction of the warden and his security as corrupt, but there were other elements which marked it out as somewhat different to the accustomed jailhouse drama, such as the singing contest which one inmate enters, leading his tune to be performed on live television from the prison itself. That tune becomes important in the very last scene, making for an interesting endorsement of the power of music in the lives of the incarcerated - when their radios are taken away as punishment, there's nearly a riot when they cannot bear to be without the songs which help to pass the time. By the point a plot has developed to frame the Arabs for murder to instil more unrest, the conspiracy is well underway, and if Beyond the Walls was crude, you did get the idea. Music by Ilan Virtzberg.
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