Cannes Film Review: ‘Personal Affairs’

Maha Haj, a former set designer, makes a mild, droll debut.

Personal Affairs Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The dissatisfactions of three generations of an extended Palestinian family serve as the basis for a mild, occasionally trenchant narrative debut feature from Maha Haj, who has worked as a set designer for the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman (“The Time That Remains”), among others, and shares her mentor’s taste for droll set pieces and gentle absurdity. This sort of slow-burning, deadpan dramedy has grown ubiquitous on the festival circuit, where “Personal Affairs” seems likely to find most of its business. But the movie has isolated moments that hint at Haj as a director capable of making something less slight.

The film opens on an elderly couple, Nabeela and Saleh (Sanaa and Mahmoud Shawahdeh, nonprofessionals in a cast teeming with them), in Haj’s hometown of Nazareth, with Nabeela cooking and Saleh plugging away on a laptop. Seemingly bored with their decades-long marriage, Nabeela can barely bring herself to acknowledge her husband’s presence, much to his irritation. Nor can she muster much enthusiasm for joining him on a getaway to Sweden to visit their son Hisham (Ziad Bakri). (Haj underlines the monotony of the dynamic by often framing the pair in symmetrical compositions — a strategy that comes to feel a bit mannered.)

In Ramallah, Nabeela and Saleh’s pregnant daughter, Samar (Hanan Hillo), cares for Granny (Jihan Dermelkonian), whose dotage is punctuated by brief moments of reflection, as when she looks at family photos or shares a childhood story about her father taking her to Nablus to buy tiles. One of the biggest laughs — and disruptions of the generally placid pace — comes when Granny, having eaten some biscuits, briefly appears to go into diabetic shock.

Meanwhile, Samar’s husband, George (Amer Hlehel), a mechanic, finds himself cast in an American movie after visiting filmmakers turn up at his garage. George’s friends suspect he’ll be playing a terrorist. “What matters is that the movie is politically clean,” one of them tells him. “You must read the whole script.” George himself has mixed feelings. The opportunity affords him permission to go to Haifa — where he sees the Mediterranean for the first time.

But the most biting and topical of the interwoven threads involves Nabeela and Saleh’s other son, Tarek (Doraid Liddawi), whose reluctance to a commit to a relationship with Samar’s friend Maysa (Maisa Abd Elhadi), the woman he’s been seeing for three months, comes to a head when he refuses, at an Israeli checkpoint, to refer to her as his girlfriend. This is, to put it mildly, not the best spot for a lovers’ quarrel, and the quick escalation of  stakes results in the film’s closest approximation of Suleiman’s Rube Goldberg-meets-Kafka sensibility. In a lovely sequence, Tarek and Maysa, taken in for interrogations, turn their endless wait into a impromptu tango rehearsal.

“Personal Affairs” as a whole alternates these sorts of grace notes with easy sentiment, and although the movie sometimes comments on history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of it — particularly Nabeelah and Saleh’s story — feels as though it could have been set anywhere. Haj favors a fixed camera and, as a former art director, knows how to use scenery to highlight character. The homes look at once lived-in and sterile, uncluttered and full of potential.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Personal Affairs’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 12, 2016. Running time: <strong>88 MIN. </strong>(Original title: "Omor Shahsiya")

  • Production: (Israel) A Majdal Films presentation. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Baher Agbariya. Co-producers, Ehab Assal, Munther Haj.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Maha Haj. Camera (color, HD), Elad Debi; editor, Véronique Lange; music, Habib Shehadeh Hanna; production designer, Rabia Safiti; costume designer, Hamada Atallah; sound, Michael Goorevich; re-recording mixer, Goorevich; line producer, Laura Hawa; assistant director, Ehab Bahouth; casting, Amer Hlehel.
  • With: Sanaa Shawahdeh, Mahmoud Shawahdeh, Doraid Liddawi, Hanan Hillo, Ziad Bakri, Amer Hlehel, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Jihan Dermelkonian. (Arabic, English dialogue)