The clash between pragmatism and idealism turns acute in Annemarie Jacir’s father-son drama “Wajib,” an intimate, well-played disquisition on what it means to be a Palestinian abroad versus a Palestinian at home. Real father-and-son duo Mohammad and Saleh Bakri handle the leads with their distinctive charismas intact — the older gentleman representing the realist negotiating the compromises necessary when you’re an Arab in Nazareth, the younger actor embodying the diasporic community who remain politically engaged yet naïve in their blinkered view of life back home. Though visually characterless, and peppered with elements that feel less than fresh, “Wajib” has a well-written climax that makes it come alive. Festivals and European art houses will certainly help spread the word.
The premise is as basic as the camerawork: architect Shadi (Saleh Bakri, a Jacir regular) returns to Nazareth from Rome to help with preparations for the upcoming wedding of his sister Amal (Maria Zriek). Together with his divorced father Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri), a teacher, the two men drive around the city in an old Volvo, delivering invitations to all the people who must be invited.
“Must” is a key word: The film’s title translated as “duty,” and part of the tension between father and son comes from what this term really means. For the older man, the rituals of community are a duty to be performed in order to maintain cohesion and not lose traditions. His son finds the whole process meaningless, and gets especially angry when his father insists on inviting an Israeli whose job clearly is to act as a spy for the government. Whether Abu Shadi truly believes the Israeli is a friend, as he argues, or simply understands that the game must be played this way in order to get a coveted headmaster appointment, remains ambiguous until the end, when frustration at his son’s high-mindedness boils over.
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The frustration goes both ways. Shadi quickly tires of the whole invitation delivery ceremony, in which he’s shown off as a prize catch for families with eligible daughters, even though he lives with his Palestinian girlfriend back in Rome. This too becomes a source of contention: Her father’s position within the PLO makes her suspect, since Abu Shadi views the organization as an elitist club lacking a real understanding of what life is like for Palestinians living in Israel. Meanwhile, Shadi is disdainful of the trash on the streets (an ironic and poorly considered script idea given garbage problems in Rome) and critical of the traditions his father holds dear.
Jacir (“Salt of This Sea,” “When I Saw You”) structures the film much like a road movie, moving from one group of family and friends to another without bringing any of them back. We could certainly use more of cousin Fadya (Rana Alamuddin), a dynamic lawyer who’s the modern and vibrant face of those refusing to emigrate, despite the difficulties, and much less of one of Shadi’s ex-girlfriends, whose ridiculous scene needs to be removed altogether.
On the one hand, Jacir’s decision to set her film among the Christian community of Nazareth, rather than the Occupied Territories, means an under-represented section of Palestinians within Israeli is made visible. However, she’s tossed in a few too many elements that have become the stock and trade of so many films set in Palestine, such as radio news stories in the semi-background that spoon-feed audiences information about further outrages, always in a heavy-handed manner.
The Bakris, father and son, easily convey familial warmth but also exasperation: Abu Shadi’s genial yet sly demeanor rubs against his son’s annoyed righteousness. Their interplay gives depth to the intergenerational conflict, though the film really gets its bite towards the end, when a well-written argument finally strips away the respectful niceties and excuses to reveal the fundamental difference in point-of-view between Palestinians living in Israel and those émigrés whose political stances don’t always jive with the reality on the ground.
“Wajib” is a more bare-bones film than Jacir’s previous features, in keeping with the minimal storyline, and the visuals leave little impression. An overall pallor in the print screened at Locarno made it seem that color correction hadn’t been completed.