“Waiting” is what being Palestinian is all about, says director Rashid Masharawi in a road movie that gathers steam slowly as it follows three characters who travel from Gaza to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon taping would-be actors for a fictitious Palestine National Theater. This strange little film-within-a-film, one of Masharawi’s (“Haifa,” “Ticket to Jerusalem”) most cogent, launches the metaphor of Palestinian life as a never-ending rehearsal with no director. Shooting predates the Israeli retreat from Gaza, somewhat undermining pic’s topicality, but it should still be of interest to those curious to see an insider’s p.o.v. on the Mideast drama.
Ahmad (Mohmaud Massad) is a disillusioned director who has decided to leave Gaza and settle abroad. As film opens, he goes to say goodbye to a friend who is enthusiastically overseeing the construction of a new national theater, financed by the European community.
Pressured by his friend, Ahmad agrees to perform one final job: He will travel to neighboring countries and tape interviews with prospective actors who could be brought back to Gaza as a resident troupe. He will be accompanied by a woman TV anchor, Bissan (Areen Omari), and a young cameraman, Mounir aka “Lumiere” (Yousset Baroud).
Armed with traveling papers from the European Union but challenged by long waits at every border and checkpoint, the trio slowly travels across the Mideast by taxi. Their first stop is a refugee camp in Jordan.
A long line of people desperate to send messages to their loved ones back in Palestine — i.e., Gaza and the West Bank — forms to audition. But, as Ahmad quickly perceives, none of them are actors.
Most are unable to return to Palestine, which they unrealistically remember as a paradise of sun and olive trees. Their lives are at a standstill and all they can do is wait and wonder what they’re waiting for.
Ahmad’s own bitterness over the ever-postponed political “solution” for a Palestinian state makes him crabby and rude to the hapless auditioners, while Bissan plays the people’s advocate and Mounir is silently neutral.
In Masharawi and Oscar Kronop’s tight screenplay, very little happens in the film outside the interviews.
Ahmad remarks (perhaps forgetting the films of Elia Suleiman) that comedies and satire are out of fashion, because in the current political climate, laughter equals treason. Still Masharawi injects small moments of humor into a situation that seems hopeless.
Climax of the film takes place in the Beirut camps. After a taxi driver insists on showing them a memorial cemetery commemorating the 1982 massacre of Sabra and Shatila, Ahmad’s armor of cynicism finally dissolves along with his carefully laid plans for the future. Pic ends on a note of complete uncertainty.
Masharawi, a Palestinian born and raised in a refugee camp on the West Bank, is so at home in the camps that he barely describes them physically. There is an unsettling lack of spatial orientation in the film, along with a missed chance to acquaint viewers with living conditions in the camps.
In many ways the film suffers from abstraction, and the three main characters seem more representative of certain attitudes than real people. Especially distant are non-pros Massad and Baroud. Masharawi’s regular thesp Omari, the only professional in the cast, sketches a character with a heart and a sense of humor when she performs “sound checks” for Mounir using cliched TV news phrases about Arafat, Sharon and the U.N.
The low-budget tech work is basic but serviceable.