A bullheaded teenage girl growing up in the concrete sprawl of the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus trains to become a police officer with the Palestinian Security Forces in Canadian director Christy Garland’s “What Walaa Wants.” Shot over five years, from the time Walaa Khaled Fawzy Tanji’s mother Latifa is released from an Israeli prison, to the moment the mature young woman is working her first job, the documentary is a classic slice-of-life coming-of-age story in which audiences trace Walaa’s trajectory from troublemaker to focused adult. Given its girl-power story on top of its sense of Palestinians taking charge of their lives, “Walaa” will be wanted for a fair amount of play in festivals and showcases.
Walaa is a natural performer and plainly loves being the center of attention. Less clear is whether Garland (“Cheer Up”) realizes just how much she and those around her adjust their actions because they’re being filmed. That doesn’t in any way call into question the documentary’s truthfulness, but it’s important to recognize that certain behaviors are likely displayed because the camera is rolling. While the director, also acting as DP, traveled to the West Bank 10 times over the course of filming, and visibly developed a bond with her subjects, her lack of Arabic, notwithstanding an on-hand translator, is also in some way likely to have affected relationships on both sides of the lens.
Walaa was 15 when her mother was released after eight years in jail, convicted for helping a suicide bomber whose mission was thwarted. Presumably raised by siblings (their father began a new family in Jordan), the girl is a headstrong troublemaker at school with an adolescent temperament that swings from winsome to petulant. The pressures on a young Palestinian girl are challenging to say the least: The celebration of martyrdom can warp the strongest personalities, and Walaa’s younger brother’s desire to be just like their cousin, jailed for stone-throwing, is an all-too-common aspiration. At least the success of Mohammad Assaf on “Arab Idol” offers a positive role model.
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Given Walaa’s lack of discipline, it’s surprising she wants to join the Palestinian Security Forces. Basic training takes up the bulk of the running time, during which she wavers about quitting, waffles over camaraderie issues, and gets tough love from commanding officer Issa Abu-Allan. These are the most predictable parts of the film, and also inevitably make one question whether Walaa would have been given certain responsibilities had she not been the subject of a documentary. She continues to grapple with focus and stamina, and clearly isn’t free of teenage intractability or childishness: At home she still sleeps on Batman sheets (though to be fair, this could reflect economic necessity).
The documentary’s most interesting moments are toward the end, when her mother and sister express reservations about the Palestinian Authority; it’s unfortunate the tension over this difference of opinion doesn’t get more screen time. Likewise, it would be interesting to know more of the psychological repercussions of her brief time in an Israeli jail after trying to protect her brother, especially as the jump to a demonstrably more mature Walaa at the very end of the movie is rather too sudden. Notwithstanding these caveats, Walaa’s brio, and the sense of intimacy Garland achieves, gives the film an appealing directness, supplemented by the director’s attention to the physicality of the family apartment and the Balata Refugee Camp in general.