Berlinale 2022 review: Concerned Citizen (Idan Haguel)

“Even though it does not completely fulfill the potential of its morally ambiguous, possibly confrontational set-up, there is a lot to appreciate in this small film, which makes you ponder difficult questions long after the end credits roll.”

Concerned Citizen is a smart, intriguing, but somewhat underdeveloped feature from Israeli director Idan Haguel. This handsomely crafted portrait of white guilt works very well as a story of psychological disintegration, but leaves too many questions unanswered when it comes to its central conflict. This biting satire will likely enjoy some attention on the festival circuit thanks to its topical themes and dark humor even though it is a bit too modest for a major breakthrough. The film’s premiere in the Panorama section marks Haguel’s return to Berlinale, after 2016’s Forum selection Inertia.

The titular concerned citizen is Ben, a Tel Aviv resident in his 30s, who is planning to become a parent via surrogacy, but he does not seem as excited about this idea as his boyfriend Raz. The film begins with the planting of a tree, a morning routine that includes watering plants in a nicely decorated living room, and the preparation of a healthy-looking green smoothie. It is fairly obvious that Ben’s environmental awareness and affection for nature will play a significant role in the story, but perhaps not quite in the way one might anticipate. One night, Ben looks outside his window and realizes that an African immigrant is leaning on his beloved tree, pushing it almost to the point of breaking. He quickly goes down and warns the young man, who stops leaning on the tree for a short while, but when he starts to push the fragile tree again, Ben can think of no option other than calling the police and filing a complaint. This brief incident is a brilliant set-up for Haguel’s film. We are invited to question the course of events without taking sides, we can understand Ben’s frustration and yet there is no denying that his anger seems a bit unwarranted given the triviality of the situation. Things take a darker turn when two white officers violently assault the refugee on the street, potentially killing him, and sending Ben into a downward spiral of guilt.

Ben and Raz are clearly well-off, but they are increasingly uncomfortable about the rising population of African (primarily Eritrean) refugees in their neighborhood. One of the most interesting aspects of Concerned Citizen is its humorous take on this apparent contradiction. Everything about Ben and Raz creates an impeccable image of liberalism, tolerance, and progressive thought; yet beneath this glossy surface lie their suppressed anxieties and lack of compassion. Haguel succeeds in creating a multifaceted, conflicted protagonist in Ben. He does not present him as a dishonest antagonist, but instead makes us see the contradictions of a man whose beliefs do not completely align with his actions. Ben grows increasingly distracted, the ambiguity regarding the fate of the refugee on the street constantly occupies his mind, and his relationship with Raz is negatively affected by this unfortunate turn of events. Perhaps the most unsettling of all is Ben’s growing frustration with the refugees, which makes his suppressed xenophobia come to the surface.

While Raz is making plans about finding a suitable surrogate and eventually raising their children in this affordable and increasingly diverse neighborhood, Ben starts to consider moving to Berlin and puts up their apartment for sale. Haguel uses this subplot to introduce several interesting ideas, primarily about the changing social fabric of southern Tel Aviv and rapid gentrification in the city. Each prospective buyer is reassured that the neighborhood is developing fast, and their investment is sure to pay handsome returns in the near future. But hidden in this seemingly harmless promise is the assumption that the refugees will soon be displaced and the inconvenience caused by their presence will be quickly forgotten. A potential buyer from Paris even makes a comparison and complains that she experiences the same refugee “problem” in the French capital.

All of these observations regarding veiled and overt acts of racism (or even police brutality in certain scenes) are presented from a detached, darkly humorous point of view. Haguel’s careful framing and deadpan absurdism can be reminiscent of Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl at times. An extended dance scene early in the film and deliberately pointless conversations with Ben’s therapist add a farcical layer, though Haguel never forgets the gravity of the issues he is dealing with. However, despite all its merits, Concerned Citizen cannot quite overcome some relatively large gaps in its compelling story. Apart from a short visit to a crowded house occupied by the Eritreans, we never see the refugees’ perspective, resulting in an almost complete absence of marginalized voices. Perhaps this is an intentional choice that puts us in Ben’s shoes, but one side effect of this decision is the lack of a satisfying follow-up in the second half of the film. In order to make its points about Ben, the film simply omits the aftermath of police violence and even sidelines Raz, whose response to the tragedy unfolding in his neighborhood is strangely left out. Concerned Citizen runs a compact 82 minutes (including two lengthy credit sequences bookending the film) and leaves one craving a more thorough exploration of the thorny conflict at its core.

It is refreshing to see a film about a gay couple, in which the sexual identity of the protagonists is not fundamental to the story. Instead of predictably problematizing a same-sex relationship in its Middle Eastern setting, Concerned Citizen deals with more complex and pressing issues such as racism, performative allyship, and police brutality. Even though it does not completely fulfill the potential of its morally ambiguous, possibly confrontational set-up, there is a lot to appreciate in this small film, which makes you ponder difficult questions long after the end credits roll.