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Wajib:’ A Lively Exploration Of Family And Small, Daily Struggles

Duty’ as a link to culture

Mohammed and Saleh Bakri play father and son in Annmarie Jacir's new film,

Credit: courtesy still

Above: Mohammed and Saleh Bakri play father and son in Annmarie Jacir's new film, "Wajib"

— There is something about family weddings that bring out the best and the worst in people. For Shadi, back from Italy for his sister Amal’s wedding, driving around Nazareth with his father, delivering wedding invitations, is both what he expected, and a bit more than he bargained for.

“Wajib” the new film from Palestinian-American director Annemarie Jacir is a charming, mini-road trip in the tradition of Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” and Nanni Moretti’s “Caro Diario “ (“Dear Diary”) set in Tehran and Rome respectively.

“Wajib” screens Saturday at the Museum of Photographic Arts, as part of a fundraiser for the San Diego Arab Film Festival.

Jacir, born in Bethlehem and partially educated in the United States, has had a steady rise in Middle Eastern film. In less than 20 years, she has moved quickly from award-winning student short films to feature films representing Palestine at the Oscars. This time, for her third feature, Jacir locates her film along the roads and in the intimate domestic spaces that make up life for Nazareth’s ancient Christian Palestinian community.

Less overtly political and fraught with the tension of the exile than her last two films, “Salt of This Sea” and “When I Saw You,” “Wajib” is a lively exploration of family, obligation, and the small, daily struggles Palestinians go through when they live in towns within Israel.

Jacir follows Abu Shadi (veteran Palestinian actor Mohammed Bakri) and his son, Shadi (Saleh Bakri) as they deliver Amal’s wedding invitations by hand, a tradition in both Palestinian communities and many countries along the Mediterranean.

Amal has made the somewhat nontraditional choice to get married in winter so that her mother, long divorced from Abu Shadi, can come from the US to the wedding.

Shadi has just returned from overseas (“America?” “No. Italy…” “Oh!’) to help his father with the traditional task. Shadi has come back, in part, from a sense of “duty” or “wajib” — but soon discovers that the trip around the city is a sort of pilgrimage to people and places from his past. For Abu Shadi, his father, the “duty” becomes a cheerful act of resistance — an affirmation that despite the difficulty of living under Israeli rule, life and tradition can connect you with your past and point a way toward your future.

Nonetheless, the day is not without its tensions. Shadi, who lives with the daughter of a P.L.O. hero in Rome, feels the push and pull of the exile — the regret for the places missed and the quirky charms of his family and neighbors. In the midst of an enthusiastic overflow of Christmas decorations, Shadi downs endless coffees and tangles with a parrot. Then, there are his almost visceral reactions to the sight of Israeli soldiers and his father’s quiet adherence to the older ways, especially in regards to women.

For Abu Shadi, the jaunt represents an irresistible chance to lure Shadi back to Nazareth. Abu Shadi casually dismisses the existence of Shadi’s girlfriend, Nada, back in Rome, offhandedly introducing him to the daughters of old friends. For his part, Abu Shadi hints that Shadi could work as an architect just as well back home, despite reports on the radio about Israeli control of building materials that suggest the opposite.

Jacir works the tension between the two men as a slow burn, a little bit of tinder acquired with every stop. When the two finally blow up at each other on the side of the road over the invitation for an Israeli friend of Abu Shadi who may or may not be a spy for the Israeli secret service, the argument is not merely about the guest, but about the way each man has chosen to be Palestinian. For Abu Shadi, who cannot imagine living anywhere else, it is a matter of small, often humiliating accommodations. For Shadi, who cannot imagine living under Israeli control, it is the life of an exile who constantly dreams of a homeland that may or may not exist.

By the time we arrive at this moment, both men have grown on us and their seemingly shattering rift (“where is this Palestine you talk about? Who are you to lecture me?”) is that much more heart-breaking.

Jacir has made a brilliant casting choice in choosing Mohammed and Salah Bakri for the roles of father and son. A real father and son duo, the two accomplished actors control the balance and weight of the relationship, giving it a deeply moving undertone that allows us to see each character as a flawed man, bound to the other and to Nazareth by a profound love of family and country, as well as mutual pain.

As in her other films, Jacir does not shy away from critiques of Israel or Palestinian leadership. But this time, the critiques are delivered with wry humor from passports (“we have to become European to come home.”) to priests (“What kind of priest advocates war? Run him over and I’ll let your buddies from Ramallah play the wedding.”). It is also in the deeply satisfying cinematography with its beautifully framed close-ups and unflinching juxtaposition of a barely middle-class life among second-class services accorded to Arab Israelis and the rich family relationships of an abiding, centuries-old community. In between, there are the beautiful, deeply human moments- among them, a bride trying on her dress, and a surprisingly hip grandma trying to figure out why her Facebook videos don’t load faster. ("Your mother keeps telling me not to post about politics.")

“Wajib” is also an unusual look at a Palestinian community inside Israel, The houses are frequently comfortable, there is a mix of the well employed and the unemployed. The refugee camps feel far away. Nonetheless, Jacir makes sure that it is clear that this community, ancient in its ties to the land and to Nazareth, is also hemmed in, feeling the sting and displacement inherent in working with a force that requires accommodation to survive as a minority community on its own land.

While "Wajib” may not have some of the pulsing indignation of some of Jacir’s earlier films, it’s a more mature work whose warmth and humanity turn it into an eloquent jewel of a small film and a charming window into a little-represented community little known in the West..

“Wajib” screens Saturday at the Museum of Photographic Arts, as part of a fundraiser for the Arab Film Festival that includes food, an ‘oud player and a silent auction. The festival, which has screened in October in the past, is being moved to the spring. See The Arab Film Festival for information on times and tickets.

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