“Staying in one place is killing me,” says Rajai, the charismatic West Bank refugee who serves as the center of the Palestinian feature film Ford Transit. Although this comment was made while explaining his unorthodox career choice of being a taxi driver, Rajai’s attitude can be applied on a larger level to describe the feeling of a generation of refugees who live under the thumb of Israeli occupation.
Filmmaker Hany Abu Asad, who also directed the excellent film Rana’s Wedding, interviews the young driver and his customers in Rajai’s Ford truck taxi, showing viewers a variety of Palestinian opinions that don’t often get represented in the international news media, while also illustrating the absurdity of the military checkpoints in the West Bank. Surveying Rajai and his passengers’ opinions of George W. Bush, suicide bombers, and Israelis, the responses Abu Asad receives are often sad, profound, and witty. Thankfully, Abu Asad exploits the Palestinians’ famous sense of humor, while at the same time treating serious issues with the attention they deserve.
Upon being stopped by an Israeli soldier at one of the many checkpoints found in the West Bank, Rajai and his passengers are asked for their IDs. Abu Asad humorously positions his camera so there is a Coca-Cola can in the foreground, and when the soldier reprimands him from filming the roadblock, Abu Asad protests, “I told you, we’re not filming the roadblock. We’re making a documentary about Fords.”
Of course, a documentary about Fords is a documentary about the roadblocks and ultimately the occupation. Rajai explains, “The Fords used to be Israeli police cars. That’s their origin,” adding that after the Oslo accords, the Israeli government purchased new police vehicles and sold the old Ford trucks to Palestinian collaborators. “Before you knew it, there were more Fords than people,” quips Rajai. Because average Palestinians aren’t able to enjoy the road access Rajai and his fellow drivers do in their Fords, the taxis have become a popular transportation option in the occupied territories.
When asked what they think of a recent Bush speech on Arab T.V., the responses Abu Asad receives from Rajai’s passengers range from one woman demurely saying that she didn’t see the speech, adding that “poor Bush does his best,” to a hefty man who jokes, “Seeing him gives me a heart attack. They should give a warning for heart patients before he appears.” And a skinny, long faced man says in a serious tone, “I have a suggestion for America. Give the next presidential candidates an I.Q. test. … Because an American president with a low I.Q. is more dangerous than all terror.” Then combing his hair in the rear view mirror, the man adds in a total non-sequitur, “Jerusalem is really beautiful, you know.”
It’s these little idiosyncrasies that make watching Abu Asad’s film such a joy. In a particularly great section of the film, Rajai accommodates the famous female Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who waxes eloquently on the need for new leadership and peace initiatives. Then Abu Asad cuts to a group of men bickering over which one waited in line the longest while at a roadblock. They hurl insults at each other, like “you’re so fat you fill three roadblocks,” but fall silent when Rajai picks up a beautiful young woman. As soon as the girl gets out, they resume complaining and fighting. Cutting again to his interview with the articulate and intelligent Ashrawi, Abu Asad makes a humorous but poignant comment on gender and the uselessness of Palestinian infighting.
Not all of the film generates laughter. On the topic of suicide bombing, Rajai says, “I’m always against killing innocent people, not just Palestinians or Israelis. But if you accept the role of oppressor and occupier, you have to accept there’ll be innocent victims.” Marbrook Idris, the mother of Palestine’s first woman suicide bomber Wafa Idris, says that she would have stopped her daughter had she known of her plan, not readily accepting her son’s consolations that Wafa died a hero. “They say she is in heaven,” Marbrook says, “but God only knows.”
Abu Asad includes footage of the omnipresent posters honoring the numerous young Palestinians who have died in the conflict, either as suicide bombers or the victims of Israeli violence. While fixing a flat tire underneath his precariously balanced truck, Rajai says, “We have become fearless of death. It doesn’t matter.” Living by his words, Rajai takes risks by taking dangerous detours, while getting shot at by Israeli gunfire, and drives down the wrong way of the street at an Israeli checkpoint to fool the soldiers into thinking he doesn’t have anything to hide, while in reality a box of counterfeit CDs is stowed under his seat.
But the pressure of having his struggles being constantly filmed eventually gets to Rajai, and he loses his patience with Abu Asad after some other drivers at a taxi queue threaten him with a knife. Although just the scene before Rajai stubbornly tells an Israeli checkpoint soldier that his age was 100, causing the soldier to pull him out of the car and rough him up, it seems that even someone as cavalier as Rajai can only take so much, whether it be constant filming or constant power struggles with Israeli soldiers.
Fed up with the filming, Rajai gets out of the car, giving Abu Asad his microphone. Although Rajai does eventually get back in the car, the Ford stalls in the next scene, and a quietly frustrated Rajai walks down a desolate road, with no other signs of life in sight. Rajai disappears out of the camera’s view, leaving viewers with a sense of uncertainty for the driver’s future.
Although the film is quite excellent, some viewers will have problems with the “fictional” elements of the film, like how Hanan Ashrawi and Israeli filmmaker B.Z. Goldberg appear in the car, most likely not spontaneously, leaving vulnerable the “authenticity” of the interactions with Israeli soldiers. The “truth” of the film is put further into question when considering that Rajai is given acting and production credit for Annemarie Jacir’s film Like Twenty Impossibles, in which he plays, well, a taxi driver.
Presented as a documentary, it may be unfortunate to some that this ambiguity of authenticity occurs with the film. One wants to believe that everything shown in the film — the opinions of the passengers and the struggles of Rajai — are true. Perhaps Rajai is a struggling actor/artist who works as a driver to make ends meet (he does say that he once aspired to be an opera musician Egypt). And it’s been reported that Abu Asad met Rajai when he hired him as a driver while shooting Rana’s Wedding. But because the personal relationship between Abu Asad and Rajai is not made clear, and the authenticity of the film’s center is put into question, the impact of the film might wane for some.
But documentaries can never be fully “authentic,” considering the editing process and cinematography decisions that make the filmmaker as much a part of the film as the subject itself. For this viewer, the film’s impact is not lessened after seeing Rajai’s brief appearance in Like Twenty Impossibles or considering the implausibility of Rajai picking up B.Z. Goldberg by coincidence. Instead, this is a rare film that illustrates the plurality and sophistication of opinion in Palestinian society in an enjoyable, accessible way, leaving viewers wanting to know the rest of Rajai’s story, thanks to his charisma and the talent of Abu Asad.
A recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maureen Clare Murphy is Arts, Music, and Culture Editor for EI.