LOCARNO, Switzerland — Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir has been a pioneer of Arab cinema. Her 2003 “Like Twenty Impossibles” was the first short by a Palestinian director to be selected at Cannes; her feature “Salt of This Sea” (2008) was the first directed by a Palestinian woman. “Salt of This Sea” and “When I Saw You” (2010) were Palestine’s official entries at the Oscars. The 43-year-old Bethlehem native took part in the 70th Locarno Festival to present her third feature, “Wajib” (Duty).
A delicate homecoming tale, “Wajib” follows Shadi, a thirtysomething Palestinian who works in Rome as an architect and returns to his hometown of Nazareth to help prepare his sister’s wedding. A short trip turns into an opportunity to confront his father, Abu Shadi, and his country’s troubled present.
Jacir spoke with Variety about film-making as a duty, Arab women in the film industry, and her latest feature, screening in the festival’s international competition.
In “Wajib,” Shadi returns home because he feels a duty to help his father deliver the invitations to his sister’s wedding. Do you see film-making as a duty as well?
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Most Palestinians are refugees. I can make films in my country, and I see that as a big privilege. We can be there and we can tell our own stories, and it’s important to do so. Film-making, in a sense, is a means to give something back.
Your own story seems to mirror Shadi’s: You lived abroad for a while, and then returned to Palestine. How much of yourself do you see in Shadi?
Well, a lot of myself is in Shadi and a lot of myself is in his father, Abu Shadi. There are always two sides in my stories. Shadi and Abu Shadi in Wajib, Soraya and Emad in “Salt of This Sea.” When people saw “Salt of This Sea,” they thought Soraya was a reflection of me: She’s a woman, has lived abroad, and returns home. But I think I can also relate closely with Emad. I like duos, and I think all my characters have a bit of me. They’re all me, in a sense.
There’s a tendency to consider your work as quintessentially political – is that a label that you feel comfortable with?
I don’t really care about it, to be honest. If you’re Palestinian that’s the kind of label that you’re given at birth. When you come from my country whatever you make is always seen as political. And that’s true, everything to an extent is political, but that’s something that’s not unique to Palestine – it’s true for the whole world.
Most of your films focus on characters struggling to claim back something that once belonged to them, and has been taken away. Where does the leitmotiv come from?
I guess I really like the underdogs, and that’s the role Palestinians usually play. Being Palestinian you always know there’s a side of the story that you’re not being told. And I like this idea of filming refugee fantasies, like in “Salt of This Sea.” That feature was based on Soraya’s dream: What if you could return to your country and claim back everything that’s been taken away from you? What if you could go back to your grandmother’s house and reclaim it?
Abu Shadi accepts humiliation with a certain passivity that his son cannot stand. How much do you relate to Shadi’s frustration?
A lot. I think anger is important, as well as recognizing the reasons behind it. I feel angry towards a lot of things, but I don’t want that anger to consume me. And that’s probably why I make films.
Shadi is dating a girl whose father used to be a member of the PLO. He left Palestine and yet somehow kept an idealized image of what his country used to look like. You seem to mock his nostalgia a great deal – is this an implicit critique of the current Palestinian political elite?
Very much so. There’s a huge disconnect between the Palestinian leadership and ordinary people, whether they are Palestinians based in Israel or the West Bank. The leadership is very much disconnected from them, just as it is disconnected from the refugees. But in “Wajib” there’s also another critique at play, one directed at the corrupted leaders who’ve done well for themselves, and their distance from ordinary Palestinians grew as a result. Abu Shadi is a middle-class school teacher, a regular guy. The father of Shadi’s girlfriend used to be in the PLO, he’s a member of another class, he did well for himself, and now enjoys his relatively easier life.
Abu Shadi is played by Mohammad Bakri, and Shadi by his real-life son, Saleh Bakri. How did you find working with the duo on set?
It was fantastic. Saleh is a long-time collaborator of mine, and he’s a really creative artistic partner. He’s worked in all my films, and we pretty much began together. But I’d never worked with his father. Mohammad is very well known in his own right, but the two never worked in a feature together. The whole idea was exciting, but it also made me quite nervous. You deal with a father and a son, it’s a complicated relationship and the performance could get too close, too personal. But it ended up being the best decision I could have made. I am really happy with my work with them.
People often look at you as a front runner of Arab cinema, considering how you paved the way for other film-makers from your region…
But I think in a way that idea is misleading. There are so many Arab women directors other than myself working today. And you can get a good sense of that by looking at Arab film festivals. There are way more Arab women directors showing their works there than in other major international festivals. Very often half of the films screened at Arab festivals are directed by women, or even more. Compare that with other major European film festivals, and it’s the opposite story. Look at Venice line-up this year: 21 films in the official competition, and only one of them directed by a woman? That’s something you would hardly find in an Arab festival.
Does that mean the Palestinian film-making scene is much more thriving than we think?
Absolutely. I think the worse things get politically – and they’re certainly not getting any better – the more people will be willing to speak up, women and men. And I believe in people’s ability to resist. Film-making is about resisting being invisible. And no matter how difficult it is, and probably because it’s so difficult, people work harder to make sure their own stories get heard. No matter what, Palestinians artists and Palestinians in general will find their way.