A road trip through occupation

BEIRUT: Annemarie Jacir is fond of road movies. Her debut feature, “Salt of This Sea,” 2008, follows a stubborn young Palestinian-American who returns to Palestine to recover her family inheritance.

Set in the aftermath of the 1967 War, Jacir’s sophomore feature, 2012’s “When I Saw You,” follows a little boy and his mother who’ve been displaced to a refugee camp, where the boy falls in with a group of fedayeen determined to take back their land by force.

It’s enough to tempt you to argue that Jacir’s work sublimates the condition of displacement, or something equally portentous.

“Wajib,” 2017, is a road movie too, albeit a more spatially proscribed one. It’s Jacir’s strongest feature, her most comic, and it marks a departure, telling a tale set among Palestinians of 1948, Israel’s second-class (arguably third-class) citizens.

“Wajib” (“Duty”) relates a day in the life of Shadi and Abu Shadi (Saleh and Mohammad Bakri), a son and father who – in preparation for the marriage of Abu Shadi’s daughter Amal (Maria Zreik), and following local custom – are driving around Nazareth, hand-delivering wedding invitations.

The joyous pretense of custom is at odds with a more strained reality.

There’s very little joy in Shadi’s relationship with his father. Their differences emerge in the sound design prefacing the opening scene – as a flame is heard to light a cigarette and a breath inhales deeply.

The scene opens with the son arriving to put a box of invitations in the back of the car while the father hastily disposes of something.

The son sniffs and asks, “Have you been smoking?”

“No,” Abu Shadi lies innocently.

It seems the doctor’s ordered Abu Shadi to stop smoking and the son’s nagging provides a comic – ultimately ironic – motif of the film.

There’s more to their estrangement than smoking. Shadi lives in Italy, where he works as an architect and lives with his girlfriend Nada.

Pop approves of neither, tirelessly encouraging Shadi to hook up with a local girl. Ironically Nada is Palestinian, but the father abides by the view that there are women you have fun with and women you marry. It turns out he also dislikes Nada because her father is a PLO official.

He wants his son to find a job in Nazareth, betraying an old resentment against his ex-wife, Dalia, who fled Israel and lives in America with a different husband.

This old wound is accentuated by her being unable to participate in the wedding plans, leaving Abu Shadi to play father and mother both.

This sense of abandonment provides the film’s emotional core but the story works more like a comedy than a tragedy.

As they move from house to house, dropping invitations and drinking endless cups of coffee, the invitation ritual becomes a picaresque, as it emerges that the father has manufactured little fictions about his son – where he lives, what he does for a living, his future plans – to make him conform to his friends’ expectations.

Many of the situations father and son walk into are genuinely funny.

There’s a lady who always wins the prize for best Christmas decoration, whose room-sized nativity scene (stalked by a pair of free-range parrots) has become a permanent installation in her salon.

There’s the widow they must invite to the wedding, whose husband just dropped dead from a heart attack – provoking some wheezing reflection from Abu Shadi as he wobbles up the merciless flight to stairs leading to her house.

“No wonder,” he gasps, “he dropped dead.”

Then there’s the wedding singer – Fawzi Ballout – whose CD Abu Shadi plays in the car, prompting Shadi to observe what a "shit" voice the guy’s got.

“Fawzi Ballout,” the father replies, indignant, “has always sung at our family’s weddings!”

The comedy of these scenes arises from an authenticity that’s hardly exclusive to the Palestinian experience – the old gentleman who feels the need to read the entire wedding invitation aloud, haltingly, as father and son look on as if waiting for the bomb to be defused, say, or the miserable yearning on Abu Shadi’s face as he watches a future wedding guest light up a fag, knowing he can’t smoke one himself.

Not all the visits are comic. When Shadi learns his father intends to invite an Israeli official to Amal’s wedding, he refuses to drive him. He demands to know why an informant, assigned to monitor his father’s work as a teacher – who’s responsible for Shadi’s being sent away – should be invited to a family gathering.

Abu Shadi replies that Ronnie is his friend, that his advice to send Shadi to study overseas was a favor.

The son stomps off. An exasperated father climbs behind the wheel and the scene abruptly slams into an incident that, in another film, would be comic. Here however, a Palestinian driver has disturbed the calm of an Israeli neighborhood. When Shadi returns, his father orders him back into the car, yelling, “You have no idea what they’re capable of!”

Michel Khleifi’s classic 1987 film “Wedding in Galilee” told the story of a Palestinian father who feels compelled to invite an Israeli army unit to attend his son’s wedding and the several stories that decision kicked up – all reflecting upon the state of occupation, including the impotence that visits the groom on his wedding night.

Three decades later, “Wajib” tells the story of a Palestinian father reuniting with his estranged son for his daughter’s wedding, giving us a chance to revisit a host of vignettes from the Palestinian experience in Israel.

Both stories nearly go off the rails because the fathers want to invite an Israeli official to the wedding.

The films have little in common other than this narrative overlap (Jacir denies having had Khleifi’s film in mind while writing).

The fact this overlap is still possible after three decades is somehow at once amusing and sobering.

“Wajib” is screening exclusively at Metropolis-Sofil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 05, 2018, on page 16.




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