Annemarie Jacir's third film, Wajib, a wry buddy comedy set during the run up to Christmas in Nazareth, sees legendary Arab actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri together in a film for the first time. The real-life father and son play a father and son on screen.
"I cast Saleh in his first Arab film, my debut Salt of This Sea, and we have worked together ever since," Jacir says. "I know him well and he is an artistic partner. Mohammad, on the other hand, I had never worked with – but he is a legend. It was a very exciting, and scary, prospect to put them together. I knew how hard it would be for them. But it was the best decision I could have ever made."
The younger Bakri plays Rome-based architect Shadi, who is returning to Nazareth after a period away for the wedding of his sister Amal. In keeping with Palestinian tradition, Shadi, alongside his divorced father, Abu Shadi, must hand-deliver the wedding invitations to their guests. As they drive around town, it becomes apparent that the father and son have a strained relationship and there are a lot of loose ends. Abu is also trying to convince Shadi that Nazareth is a great place and he should return “home”.
It was the tradition of hand-delivering wedding invites that was the genesis for the film, but it is a tradition that is rarely upheld, Jacir explains "Very few Palestinians practice it anymore. But for Palestinians in the north, it's still taken very seriously. The men in the family are supposed to hand-deliver all the wedding invitations, and I found this very interesting. And it's that persistence, the need to hold onto this tradition, that is somehow a way to insist on their identity as Palestinians."
Using Nazareth as a backdrop enabled Jacir to explore the tensions and difficulties faced by Palestinians living in Israel. "It's the biggest Palestinian town inside of historic Palestine, which today is known as Israel and it's fully Palestinian: there are no Israelis who live in Nazareth – it's not like Haifa, which is a mixed city," she says. "Nazareth is just Palestinians, and it's a violent, tense city with people living on top of each other. They are fighting for land and they're not allowed to build outwards at all. It's a ghetto."
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She feels that this community are the forgotten people of the Palestinian story. “They are not just invisible to the Israelis, but they are invisible all over the world. These Palestinians are isolated. The ‘Palestine’ they talk about, it’s right there where they are standing.”
It is this type of misnomer and confusion that serves as fuel for the comedy that peppers the film. Jacir creates a wonderful mix of tension, poignancy and jokes, as they journey throughout the day. The humorous tone of the film was also inspired in part by her observations of Nazareth. “Nazareth is a tense city, but it’s also hilarious. There is that Palestinian humour that you find in any small community made up of minorities living in difficult conditions; they rely on humour more. It’s a dry, wry humour, not
Shooting the film at Christmas time was not only a chance for her to play with the perceptions of the city and people living there, but also an artistic challenge to herself. “I mostly only shoot in the summer and most Arab films don’t shoot in the winter,” she says. “So to shoot at Christmas not only made sense [for the story], but also I like the light in Nazareth then. And Nazareth is just like everywhere else in the world: it suffers from the commercialisation of Christmas. This also fits in with the loneliness of Abu Shadi; he will be alone at Christmas. His son won’t be with him and his daughter will be away on honeymoon.”
Maria Zreik – one of five Screen Arab Stars of Tomorrow announced at the Dubai International Film Festival – plays Amal. It was important for Jacir to make her presence strong in the film. "I wanted to have this figure who is not a cliché," she explains. "She's happy getting married and comfortable, she knows what she wants and the life she wants to live in Nazareth."
Wajib screens December 10 at 10.15pm at the Madinat Theatre