Stuck between duty and decay

Maria Zreik, Mohammad Bakri and Saleh Bakri in Wajib

Wajib: The Wedding Invitation, written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, Philistine Films (2017)

For her third feature film, director Annemarie Jacir sent a father and son on a journey where they both frequently chase each other and flee from themselves.

(Though in no way involved with the production or writing of Wajib, this reviewer has and will again work in collaboration with several of the artists involved in making this film.)

Jacir wrote the screenplay with the actor Saleh Bakri in mind – he has appeared previously in her films – to play the role of the son, Shadi. The most obvious candidate to play Shadi’s father, however, was also the riskiest: Saleh’s father, the actor and director Mohammad Bakri.

Jacir hesitated as she was unsure as to whether they would “be able to push themselves to open themselves up that much,” and worried that it might be too much to be vulnerable and sensitive on camera. Her doubts were not based on Mohammad’s abilities, in which she had no doubt, but on putting the two of them on screen together for the first time.

Then Mohammad came to her in a dream and she knew he was the one. “Whenever I dream about an actor, I cast them,” she said. When approached, Mohammad seized the opportunity, saying that he’d always wanted to work with his son.

It was not a regretful decision. Wajib was Palestine’s entry in the 2018 Academy Awards and the film as well as its actors have scooped up multiple awards in international festivals.

Neither quaint nor scenic

Wajib is a term loosely translated as “social duty.” In Palestine it can refer to the tradition of the men of the family personally delivering wedding invitations; it’s unacceptable to mail them or to have them delivered by someone else.

The theme came to Jacir when, after her husband’s sister got engaged, it fell to him and his father to hand-deliver the invitations. The director tagged along as the father and son spent five days traversing Nazareth and its surrounding villages. As a silent observer, it was, according to Jacir, an experience that was “at times funny and other times painful.”

Nazareth, where Wajib is set, is the largest Palestinian city inside Israel with a predominantly Muslim and Christian population. A nearby Jewish settlement, built in the 1950s, is encroaching on the city.

In a style that is similar to Moonstruck (1987), which depicts the lives of New York’s Italian Americans in the 1980s, Wajib is a portrait of a city and its inhabitants at the present time. The lead characters dip in and out of homes and businesses while they bear witness to the street life of a city staggering under the weight of a hostile new state built upon it.

Christmas is approaching and plastic Santa grottoes and stuffed Father Christmases adorn the interiors of the modest apartments that the pair visit. One host, who won a prize for her decorations, serves fluorescent liqueurs in cut crystal as her parrots strut across Shadi’s shoulders and snap at his fingers.

There’s no desire in Wajib to make this Biblical city appear ancient, quaint or scenic. The camera picks up on the kitsch and trashy, often viewed condescendingly through the eyes of Shadi, an architect who has returned from Rome to help his father with the wedding preparations.

“This beautiful building ruined with plastic tarp,” Shadi complains referring to the blue tarpaulin strips covering balconies. “Why do people do that?”

“It’s practical,” responds his father.

“It looks like shit,” Shadi replies.

The film spins through similar exchanges, with Shadi viewing the society he left through the supercilious viewpoint of the returnee and Abu Shadi patiently explaining to his son the ways things are done, even as he overlooks gross inconveniences.

Deceptively simple

Only two Jewish Israelis appear in the film: soldiers eating hummus in a Palestinian restaurant. Abu Shadi is more willing to accept them than his son, who views them with outright hostility.

The particularities of Nazarene oppression, however, permeate the film. The malaise is depicted, for example, when an overweight young man avoids guests, skimming past the camera to do nothing in his room upstairs, giving a sense of the underemployed, depressed lives of the young. It also crops up casually in conversation and on radio broadcasts.

This is a world of feuds, petty violence, prohibitions, permits, negligent municipalities and rotting garbage. In many ways this film, with its atmosphere of decay, is about the manners and customs that persist, despite social, historical and political divides.

It is common for Arab cinema to depict repressive customs and traditions, particularly when it comes to women. This is not altogether avoided in Wajib; it is shown in the devastating consequences of a failed love story, but the focus here is more on how traditions can gel society.

Unlike the men of When I Saw You (2012), who wear kuffiyehs or carry Kalashnikovs, Shadi and his father spoon thick cream off their cappuccinos served in disposable cups. But while Shadi rages against political injustices, it is his father who carries out acts of quiet resistance.

Abu Shadi tries to prevent situations from getting worse, to make it possible for Palestinians and their children to remain in Nazareth by mending differences, keeping the peace, understanding and forgiveness – although sometimes his propensity to forgive and accommodate is rejected by others.

Abu Shadi tells one host to stop screaming and swearing at his neighbors as rubbish is thrown out of a window into the host’s yard. Trying to soothe, Abu Shadi says that the problem is that people are undereducated.

The host ridicules Abu Shadi: “What, you need a university degree to know that you shouldn’t throw rubbish on your neighbor?” underscoring, perhaps, where the realms of kindness end and the need for a fully functioning municipality begins.

The apparent simplicity of this film – two men, one car, one day – is deceptive. This is a broad, deep film that manages to keep a tight emotional connection throughout. Wajib both moves and amuses with unforgettable performances by Mohammad and Saleh Bakri.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, was published by Bloomsbury (2012).