Palestine (2017) Dir. Annemarie Jacir
Every country has its own traditions, many revolving around the family and one’s duty to honour them. Take one person out of this internal network to experience a world outside of these confines and there is an inevitable dynamic shift as these cultural ideals collide upon their return. Can these differences be ironed out?
In modern day Nazareth, Abu (Mohammad Bakri) and his adult son Shadi (Saleh Bakri) are on a trip around Israel’s capital to personally hand deliver invites to the wedding of Abu’s daughter Amal (Maria Zreik), an old tradition called wajib. Shadi has returned from Italy where has been living and working for a few years and his change in attitude after being exposed to this different lifestyle sees tension grow between father and son.
With road trips usually designed to bring feuding parties together for comedic purposes, basing one around a father and son who aren’t exactly feuding but reveal how far apart they have grown is a nice twist from Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. This also affords Jacir to reflect upon the differences between life in contemporary Israel and life abroad and the differences in the outlook it shapes.
Jacir also narrows down the margins of this exploration by limiting the setting to what is known as the Arab capital of Israel, breaking down this suggested seclusion of its people a step further. Nazareth is 70% Muslim and 30% Christian, the former increase due to the number of displaced Palestinians in the wake of the current land dispute there, a topical hot topic that simmers until the explosion in the final act.
One catalyst for this is the people being invited to the wedding; specifically a man Shadi believes is a spy for the Israeli government whose purview carries a lot of weight in how daily lives are lead. Abu tries to placate his son, saying he is mistaken although this chap did report Shadi as a teen. Abu tries to brush this under the carpet, as the truth is, as a teacher, he could get a headmaster’s job with this man’s approval.
Wajib actually translates to “duty”, and this puts the disagreement over this particular invite into context – Abu thinks he is “duty” bound to have this man at the wedding, as they are the other hundred plus people on the list. Their delivery mission sees father and son traverse the length and breadth of the capital to visit friends and family with the invite, taking us to smart houses and less welcoming communal estates.
The duty motif is explored in numerous ways, through filial piety to patriotism to respect for tradition. Abu and Shadi are more than just totems of their respective generation in their values but in their attire too. Shadi stands out with his man bun, tight red trousers, and pink shirt in direct contrast to the plain dark colours of everyone else in Nazareth, including the women.
Abu lets this go without comment but he can’t accept Shadi’s newly adopted idealism based on western values and criticism of the homeland. Almost like a stroppy teen who refuses to do what his parents tell him to, Shadi vents his frustration at the constrictions he feels upon returning, both socially and within the family traditions.
His biggest bone of contention is how the wedding is about Abu’s wants and not his daughter’s, something that Amal is happy to acquiesce to. And we’re back to duty, as Amal is simply being a loyal daughter and understands this isn’t her big day. But there is another incendiary element in Amal’s mother, now living abroad with her new husband, around whom the wedding date was arranged, but may not be able to make it.
Naturally, this divides the family – Shadi has been in regular contact with his mother but rarely calls Amal; Shadi knows the real reason why her presence is in jeopardy, taking an empathetic approach to her plight; Abu can’t accept this, feeling his ex-wife is not respecting her duty to her daughter and the family. This brings out a nasty side in Abu but we can see how their anger is justified whilst highlighting the fundamental flaw in the bride not having the wedding on her own terms.
Like many films from other countries, Wajib affords us to see inside another country and get a glimpse at their cultures and social mores, whether under the guise of political commentary or otherwise. Shadi essentially represents us “foreign” viewers in having a different perspective to hold up against their culture, albeit with the experience of both sides, saying what we are thinking but with the right to verbalise any objections.
But this also gives the film its charm, showing something common to most of us with a bespoke twist that is entertaining as it is fascinating. Jacir brings some lighthearted humour to the film, such as Shadi’s encounter with a testy parrot, and even affords Abu the occasional wry laugh. But come the final act, Jacir’s political manifesto surfaces via a heated fallout between Shadi and Abu, the substance of which is hard to argue with.
What makes this film work is the dynamic between father and son, which is because the two actors are real life father and son! This probably made it easier for them to lay it on thick with the angry barbs but pays off in the emotional frustration they unwittingly share despite their opposing views. The supporting cast are all natural and well-defined characters despite their brief screen time to create believable scenarios.
It’s remarkable that a film quietly seething with a strong political message is actually a well-crafted, subtle, character driven drama about the way people react differently in the same situation. Jacir’s achievement in delivering a potent and prevalent life lesson from such a simple premise is worth marvelling at. Wajib is a genuine gem of understated yet powerful filmmaking that sadly few will to get see.