 Mark Ker­mode on Wa­jib

An­nemarie Jacir pits tra­di­tion against moder­nity in this bit­ter­sweet com­edy about a fa­ther driv­ing around Nazareth with his hip­ster ar­chi­tect son

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Mark Ker­mode

(96 mins, 15) Di­rected by An­nemarie Jacir; star­ring Mo­ham­mad Bakri, Saleh Bakri, Maria Zreik

Path-break­ing Pales­tinian wri­ter­di­rec­tor An­nemarie Jacir has made three fea­ture films: Salt of This Sea (2008), When I Saw You (2012), and now Wa­jib, which has proved a prize-win­ning fes­ti­val favourite since pre­mier­ing at Lo­carno last year. As with both of her pre­vi­ous fea­tures, Jacir’s lat­est was se­lected as the of­fi­cial Pales­tinian en­try for the for­eign-lan­guage film Os­car, but failed to gain a nom­i­na­tion.

Though over­looked by the Acad­emy, Jacir con­tin­ues to im­press with this poignant, bit­ter­sweet com­edy of es­trange­ment and iden­tity, in which a tra­di­tional fa­ther and his hip­ster son travel around Nazareth, ful­fill­ing an an­cient rit­ual while ar­gu­ing about the state of the mod­ern world. Dry hu­mour and un­der­stated heart­break in­ter­sect as Jacir deftly blends the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal in de­cep­tively ef­fort­less fash­ion.

It’s the run-up to Christ­mas, and tacky fes­tive dec­o­ra­tions are ev­ery­where in Nazareth. School­teacher Abu Shadi (Mo­ham­mad Bakri) is dot­ingly proud of his daugh­ter, Amal (Maria Zreik), who is about to get mar­ried. It is Abu Shadi’s duty (the wa­jib of the ti­tle) to en­sure that the wed­ding in­vi­ta­tions are hand-de­liv­ered to each and ev­ery guest – a for­mi­da­ble task. So Amal’s brother Shadi (reg­u­lar Jacir col­lab­o­ra­tor Saleh Bakri, real-life son of Mo­ham­mad Bakri) has come home to help his fa­ther. Shadi now lives a cos­mopoli­tan life in Italy (“Not Amer­ica? Never mind…”), where he is an as­pir­ing ar­chi­tect. But his fa­ther wants him to come back to Nazareth, a wish that has long pro­voked ten­sion be­tween them.

Driv­ing from house to house, the pair present a united front, with the fa­ther prov­ing a smil­ing master of diplo­macy with all those whom he vis­its. Alone in the car, though, the pair squab­ble, with Shadi be­moan­ing the state of his for­mer home town (“beau­ti­ful architecture ru­ined with plas­tic tarp”) and scold­ing his fa­ther for fail­ing to take a post-heart-at­tack smok­ing ban se­ri­ously. As for Abu Shadi, his gen­tle mock­ing of his son’s Euro­pean hairdo and fancy shirts (“they dress like that in Italy?”) masks deeper griev­ances.

Shadi’s girl­friend, Nada, is the daugh­ter of a high-pro­file “in­tel­lec­tual”, for whose rad­i­cal pol­i­tics Abu Shadi has no time. (“Those poor PLO guys,” he says

sar­cas­ti­cally of Nada’s wealthy fa­ther, “they have a dif­fi­cult life.”)

Grad­u­ally, we learn that Abu Shadi sent his son away many years ago, when Shadi’s own po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions (“It was a film club!”) put his safety in dan­ger. Abu Shadi’s wife, too, has flown the coop, leav­ing her fam­ily for a new life in Amer­ica – a move that her son re­spects and ad­mires, to his fa­ther’s barely con­cealed dis­may.

“Fam­ily makes you crazy,” Jacir has said – a truism that is played out in this minutely ob­served study of con­flict­ing loy­al­ties. At the heart of the piece is a sim­ple and uni­ver­sal co­nun­drum: the ten­sion be­tween pur­su­ing your dreams or re­main­ing com­mit­ted to your roots.

Pol­i­tics pro­vide the back­ground noise, whether it’s Shadi’s anger at the pres­ence of sol­diers in a lo­cal cafe, or the fear that Abu Shadi feels af­ter ac­ci­den­tally hit­ting a dog with his car in the wrong neigh­bour­hood. He’s up for pro­mo­tion to head­mas­ter, but to achieve his goal he must stay on the right side of the same peo­ple who first drove his son away, even invit­ing them to his daugh­ter’s wed­ding.

What’s most im­pres­sive is the way Jacir re­veals these com­plex in­ter­twin­ing back­sto­ries through ap­par­ently in­ci­den­tal in­ter­ac­tion. With a su­perb light­ness of touch she un­cov­ers the an­cient hurts with which these char­ac­ters wres­tle, lay­ing bare the raw nerves be­neath the po­lite smiles.

Of­ten, it’s not what they say, but what they don’t say that tells us the most. Trapped to­gether in a bat­tered old car, fa­ther and son en­dure awkward si­lences that speak vol­umes about their shared his­tory. When voices are fi­nally raised in the film’s last act, it comes as some­thing of a shock.

There is plenty of laugh­ter too, from a run­ning gag about the aw­ful­ness of wed­ding singer Fawzi Baloot (“his voice is hor­ri­ble!”) to a dead­pan slap­stick in­ter­lude in­volv­ing a pet bird and an in­jured finger. An­toine Héberlé’s hand-held camera cap­tures the nu­ances of com­edy and tragedy alike, keep­ing us close to the pro­tag­o­nists with­out ever feel­ing in­tru­sive. The re­sult is a film of sur­pris­ing warmth and gen­eros­ity, which takes a sit­u­a­tion riven by dis­cord and turns it into a melan­choly song of res­o­lu­tion.

The fa­ther’s gen­tle mock­ing of his son’s hairdo and fancy shirts masks real griev­ances

Maria Zreik as Amal with real-life fa­ther and son Mo­ham­mad Bakri and Saleh Bakri in Wa­jib.

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