Debuting director-writer Bassam Jarbawi has a great theme with “Screwdriver” and a slick filmmaking style, though at times the surface gets more attention than what’s underneath. Set in the semipermanent Al-Amari Refugee Camp on the Ramallah outskirts, the film tackles the difficulties a man faces in returning to normal life after 15 years in an Israeli prison, exploring the physical and emotional toll that trauma and lost time extract from his damaged psyche. Side characters are unevenly drawn but the more complex lead role, nicely played by Ziad Bakri (“Personal Affairs”), gives it a genuine, affecting core. “Screwdriver” is likely to get a fair amount of rotation on the festival circuit.
Jarbawi’s time at Columbia University’s film school shows with his choice of American DP David McFarland (“The Ballad of Lefty Brown”) and co-editor Christopher Radcliff, together with his tendency toward quickly played-out scenes that are invariably polished yet occasionally lack the kind of emotional grit called for by the subject matter. As 18-year-olds, Ziad (Amir Khoury) and Ramzi (Adham Abu Aqel) are best friends and champs on the basketball court, with a full life ahead of them until Ramzi gets struck by a sniper’s bullet. Grief-stricken, Ziad and a couple of buddies drive around at night venting, until Octopus (Munther Bannourah) spies a guy he thinks is an Israeli settler on the side of the road and suggests they give him a scare. Ziad doubles back, Octopus pulls a gun, and the man on the road appears to be dead. Cops give chase and the boys split; only Ziad is caught.
Fast forward to 2017, and Ziad (Bakri) is released to a minor celebrity homecoming, feted by family and friends for doing time in an Israeli jail. Filmmaker Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi, also producing) wants to interview him for a documentary she’s doing on “Palestinian personalities” (a rather amorphous topic), and although she’s friendly and nonthreatening, Ziad can’t cope with the attention. In fact, he’s not coping in general, plagued by insomnia, headaches and urinary difficulties.
“Screwdriver” is at its best when focusing on Ziad’s problems integrating back into the life of the community. He has difficulty working a cell phone, is intimidated by everyday tasks, and finds it extremely tough knowing how to behave in social situations, which is why he’s isolated himself in a rooftop hovel. Neither his mother (Areen Omari, “Eyes of a Thief”) nor his sister Nawal (Mariam Basha) has a clue what he’s going through, though the latter is pushing hard to hook him up with her rather too-forward friend Salma (Maya Omaia Keesh). Octopus (Jameel Khoury) gives him a job with his construction company, but the freedom of life on the outside is more than he can handle, and Ziad’s not getting any help acclimatizing.
According to the movie, one-fifth of all Palestinians have at one time been detained, so Ziad should get some understanding from friends and loved ones, yet the script is largely invested in solely showing the protagonist’s complete disconnect. Apart from Ziad, characters demonstrate little modulation, starting with the over-the-top Israeli interrogator (Amira Habash) and continuing through to Nawal and Salma, both poorly drawn. Scenes between graffiti artist Sanad (Sanad Amina) and Ziad are meant to provide a counterpoint of misfit solidarity, but the editing cuts too soon and doesn’t let such moments breathe, plus the ambiguous tension-filled ending adds nothing to the more powerful arguments Jarbawi raises.