Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 04, 2018 6:24 pm 
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ANNEMARIE JACIR: WAJIB (2017) - SFIFF - now releasing my full review


Culture clash: Palestinian abroad vs. Palestinian at home

This film (whose title means "Duty" in Arabic) opened theatrically in France Feb. 2018 as Wajib: Invitation au mariage, receiving fair reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.5). Libération (Marcos Uzal) said : "The film's strongest element is the marginal one, its way of suggesting by little touches the deepest and most profound tensions." Indeed. Thus the overheard Arabic radio news in the opening frames, as a Palestinian father and son, the protagonists, head off in a car, the old family Volvo, in which we learn later the son learned to drive.

"Following complaints," the speaker says, "the Ministry of Transport has agreed to remove Arabic announcements from public buses."Luckily for Mohammad and Saleh, they have their own transportation. Later an announcement comes of lumber shipments cut off from Gaza, barring reconstruction after the latest siege. All just routine. Sounds of the city, of Palestinian life, but nothing original, and a bit heavy-handed.

The son, it appears, is taking the wheel of his father's car. Evidently he hasn't seen him for a while, asking him if he still fishes, and if he's been smoking. There is a distance of information, and of understanding. And yet there is intimacy, the intensity of a close, cherished culture that Saleh knows well but lives outside of now. He can be an idealist. His girlfriend's father was a member of the PLO. He refuses to take an invitation to an Israeli official of the school where his father teaches, who he says is a government spy, and controls the school's life. But his father has to get on with the system - and says this man is a "pal." If he's going to become headmaster, he must invite Robbie. It's a "duty," in his sense - one of the many things that must be done to survive and preserve the cohesion of the local society and of his life.

But this is just the beginning. This is a picture of restrictive Palestinian society, and a clash of generations, especially when the younger one has lived abroad, in Europe. Saleh, in Italy now, is only there for the wedding of his sister Amal (Maria Zriek), and it's Christmastime. (Most of the local community seen is Christian.) They are going around, "the Nazareth way," delivering the invitations by hand one by one, so this becomes a very local road trip. His father is a teacher, and might be promoted to headmaster, but he reinforces conservative customs at every turn.

Everything that could go wrong does, but very quietly. They hit a dog, and Mohammad rushes away. It's dangerous not to, especially if it's an Israeli dog. They park in someone's way, and the car is vandalized, with a nasty note. Some drivers get into a street fight and Mohammad jumps out to stop it, and Saleh rescues him. The mood seems ugly. People are testy with each other. There's no solidarity. Surely there is not, here, the gentle humor of Elia Suleiman, the Jacqaues Tati or Jean Renoir of Palestinian Cinema. Jacir comes off as a more bitter chronicler, though, being a woman, also a more homely one.

It turns out Saleh's mother ran off years ago to another country, for another man, and that man is now dying, so she may not be able to come for the wedding - another humiliation for the family. It turns out the invitations have been misprinted, with the right date but wrong day of the week, and the printer refuses to reprint them. They must correct them all by hand.

To a certain extent this is about Saleh, and his discomfort becomes ours. He is the reactive one. And his reactions are almost continually, to various degrees, uncomfortable. There are things he misses, the food, the warmth, maybe even the language, but he could never really live here now. People want Saleh to come back and get married here and his father pretends to all they meet that this is a possibility. It's not going to happen, but they don't want to see that. This is part of Saleh's discomfort, that his point of view is simply not accepted or listened to. Even his look isn't acceptable. He has long hair tied back in a man bun, rose pants, and a pink shirt. He's a designer. Or is he an architect? But his father has told one relative, a doctor, that Saleh went into medicine, lying to please him with the thought that he was an influence, and still doesn't correct this lie. Anyway, nobody understands. Most assume Saleh has gone to America. One woman when he says it's Italy smiles and says, "Ah! You know languages!"

Now, there's a question if the wedding will even take place. Deep down Mohammad disapproves of it being in the winter and would like to postpone it till his wife's husband, who he detests unseen, dies, and till the summer, "when normal people get married." Well, things turn out alright, sort of.

The film's weakness and limitation is that it focuses on the clashes between father and son to the exclusion of much else. But these two actors, Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, who really are father and son, and these finicky details, ending in a grand argument between the two men, may be conventional and obvious, but still can be enlightening, and sometimes even heartbreaking. By defining the differences between a Palestinian who has stayed at home and one who has gone to live abroad, the film, written as well as directed by Annemarie Jacir, may define what Palestinian life is as well as any film you're likely to see.

واجب WAJIB 96 mins., debuted at Locarno, and was in at least 40 other international festivals in 2017 and 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Apr. 2018. Pyramide International is the distributor, but no US release seems to be in sight, so I'm publishing my full review now, 5 Aug. 2018, on the one-year anniversary of the film's Locarno debut.

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