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“Nazareth is a Violent City… But It’s also Hilarious”: Director Annemarie Jacir on Wajib

Annemarie Jacir’s third film, Wajib, a wry comedy set in the run up to Christmas in Nazareth, premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival before heading to, this week TIFF. The film pairs legendary Arabic actors Mohammed and Saleh Bakri together in a movie for the first time. Naturally, the father and son play father and son. Saleh, who has appeared in all three films directed by Jacir, plays Rome-based Shadi, who is returning to Nazareth after a period away for the wedding of his sister Amal (Maria Zreik).

In keeping with Palestinian tradition, Shadi, alongside his divorced father, Abu Shadi (Mohammed Bakri), must hand-deliver the wedding invitations. Over the course of the day, it becomes clear that they have a respectful but strained relationship. They both have secrets and are experts in white lies. But will the past cast a permanent shadow over their relationship, or can Abu Shadi persuade his son that Nazareth is really better than Rome?

The film won several prizes at the Locarno Film Festival including the Don Quijote Prize of the FICC / IFSS (International Federation of Film Societies). It is proof, if any further evidence was needed, that Jacir is the pre-eminent female filmmaker in the Arab world, whether she’s working as a director, producer, editor or screenwriter.

In 2003, Jacir’s Columbia University thesis film, Like Twenty Impossibles, debuted at Cannes, the first ever short film from the Arab world to be part of the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival. We at Filmmaker pinpointed the Bethlehem-born talent as one of our 25 New Faces in 2004, and her award-winning short film was a National Finalist at the Student Academy Awards.

Her 2008 debut Salt of this Sea was also part of the Official Selection at the Cannes film festival. It sees Soraya (poet Suheir Hammad) play an American-Palestinian woman who goes to Israel on a quest to seek restitution for her family home and money taken during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Her 2012 follow up, When I Saw You, set in a refugee camp in Jordan in 1967, launched at the Berlin Film Festival. Both films were the Palestinian submission to the Oscars in their respective years.

Wajib has its final screening in at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 15.

Filmmaker: Wajib is a bittersweet comedy that is less overtly political than your previous movies, what was the genesis of this film?

Jacir: The initial seed was the tradition of hand-delivering wedding invitations. It’s supposed to be the tradition, but very few Palestinians still practice it anymore. But for the Palestinians in the north, it’s still taken very seriously. There is no way you would mail, or even have someone else deliver an invite. The men in the family are supposed to hand deliver all the wedding invitations, and I found this very interesting, especially as it’s the Palestinians who live in Israel who still do this. And, in fact, it’s that persistence, the need to hold onto this tradition, that is somehow a way to insist on their identity as Palestinians.

Filmmaker: It’s a film full of white lies. They are driven by a need to save face, to have honor, to keep tradition, yet it’s clear that much of the tradition is for show, and they act very differently?

Jacir: Initially it seems that it’s just Abu Shadi who lies, but then you see it’s also Shadi. None of it comes from a bad place because that’s what white lies are all about, right? It’s about protecting people from getting hurt or saving family honor. Abu Shadi feels like he was humiliated in front of the whole community when his wife left him for someone else. Yet he’s a schoolteacher, a very well-loved school teacher, and his students, people he has taught, are everywhere in Ramallah. So he has this sort of face that he tries to show. He’s also trying to convince Shadi that Nazareth is a great place. A lot of the lies are centered around his purpose to convince him that Nazareth is lovely. They are trying to reconcile. Both of them just want respect from the other person and to be accepted for who they are. They’ve never really talked about those things, and so there is tension between them. I liked the idea of them being stuck in a car together. When they are delivering the wedding invitations they’re in front of society and the community, at different people’s houses and friends or whatever, but when they are just the two of them in the car, they have to deal with each other. It’s a film full of dialogue but a lot of it is about what they don’t say.

Filmmaker: The myth of the homeland, or perhaps the nostalgia for a homeland that may or may not exist, is something that occurs in all your films.

Jacir: Yeah, that’s true. Salt of this Sea you could say is about a third generation refugee who comes back. They are usually duos in my films, by that I mean the characters work in pairs; In Salt of the Sea there is Soraya, and there’s Emad who has never left. When I Saw You is the mother and son who approach their situation differently. In Wajib, I was interested in Nazareth because it’s the biggest Palestinian town inside of Israel and it’s fully Palestinian: there are no Israelis who live in Nazareth — it’s not like Haifa, which is a mixed city. Nazareth is just Palestinians, and it’s a violent tense city with people living on top of each other. They are fighting for land and they’re not allowed to build outwards at all. It’s a ghetto. Nazareth is a big Palestinian ghetto in Israel, and I was interested in that community.

It’s like what Shadi says at the end: they are invisible. They are that small minority of Palestinians who didn’t become refugees who stayed in their homeland, which a lot of people don’t even know they exist. Most Palestinians are refugees — 75% of the population lives outside of Palestine. When he says, “Hey Shadi, what’s this Palestine you keep talking about? It’s here it’s right here I’m living in it,” This is the contradiction: they never left, and they are not just invisible to the Israelis but they are invisible all over the world. These Palestinians are isolated. The “Palestine” they talk about, it’s right where they are standing. So that’s the reality of their homeland: it’s the place they live yet they are struggling to remain, to be seen.

Filmmaker: It seems easy for Shadi to criticise, as he’s living abroad. He see’s himself as an outsider in Nazareth?

Jacir: In some ways it’s true, but it’s also a generational thing, and a lot of his resentment towards his father is that he sees that his father has just given in to all this. His father is going to invite Ronnie Avi to the wedding. The reality is that Shadi is more radical than his father, but it’s also because he lives abroad that he can be like that because his livelihood doesn’t depend on them. I think that with a lot of families, the first generation is always kind of fearful and the second generation knows their rights a little bit more so they tend to be more politicised and less afraid to be confrontational.

Filmmaker: This is your third film. Congratulations. Statistically speaking, most directors don’t make it to their third feature. Has it got easier, or harder, for you to make films?

Jacir: I think it’s more difficult. Look, my budgets keep getting smaller, like it’s supposed to be the other way, right? But that’s the reality of cinema right now, and it’s increasingly it becomes more difficult for independent filmmakers all over the world. Nazareth was a difficult city to shoot in. I’ve shot all over Palestine, and I have to say Nazareth is one of the most difficult cities to shoot. I’m not from Nazareth, but most of the best known Palestinian filmmakers are from Nazareth: Elia Suleiman is from Nazareth; Hany Abu Assad, Michel Khleifi, etc. have all shot in Nazareth, so the people of Nazareth are not impressed with filmmaking. I mean, they’re sick of film sets; they’re like, “Get fuck out of my neighborhood!” It’s like New Yorkers! Whereas when we shot in Ramallah everybody would go out of their way to help — you have people bringing you meals, people trying to help you because they are really excited. But that’s not the case in Nazareth.

Filmmaker: You said that your budgets have gotten smaller, but do you not feel that technology has become cheaper, so it doesn’t matter that budgets have gone down a bit, because films are cheaper to make?

Jacir: Well, it depends on the film. In this film, I would say that I would have benefited from a bigger budget in terms of preparation time and post-production. But, I didn’t compromise artistically in terms of the shooting. We did it with the budget we had, and I feel happy with what we did. In contrast, with my last film, When I Saw You, I did compromise. For example the refugee camp was supposed to be this sprawling refugee camp but we didn’t have the money for that because we shot the film with less than half the budget we needed. Many artistic compromises were made for When I Saw You, which was also a period film, but for Wajib it was different.

Filmmaker: The way that you edited this film seems to be designed to bring out the comedy in the moments, even more so than the drama. This seems to be a change from your previous films. Was this something that happened at the edit, or was this designed from the script stage?

Jacir: This was at the script stage. Nazareth is a violent city, it’s a ghetto and it’s a tense city, but it’s also hilarious. There is that Palestinian humor, which I don’t think is specifically Palestinian, but something that you find in any small community made up of minorities living in difficult conditions; they rely on humor and they need humor more. It’s a dry, wry humor; not slapstick comedy. I was nervous at the first public screening, I wasn’t sure that people were going to laugh.

Filmmaker: Also there are some abrupt edits, cutting scenes before the action takes place and we then cut to the aftermath? Was this a feature of the script as well?

Jacir: All the entry and exit points == where the scenes begin and end — are in the script, except for the “kiss” with the young woman in the scene were Shadi goes to deliver the invitation to her. I wanted that scene to go on longer, and I really felt happy because I didn’t have any real kisses in Salt of this Sea. Even though that script had a lot of kissing, the reality when shooting meant I had to change that. When I Saw You didn’t have a situation where a kiss would arise. So I was like, finally, I’m going to have a good kiss in one of my films. But then, where we were editing, the French editor said, “You know what, I think we should cut sooner!” We tried it, and it was funnier. But I was like, “We need a kiss!” Here, it’s the French people telling me to cut the kiss. But I saw that it was true that it was better without the kiss. Now it’s more ambiguous because we don’t know how Shadi reacted. Did he give in to it or run out of there?

Filmmaker:The way you deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the region is interesting. One thing I found fascinating was that in Rome Shadi dates the daughter of a renowned PLO figure?

Jacir: Yeah, and it’s a girlfriend he would never have met in Nazareth, because she’s Palestinian and can’t go to Nazareth. It’s forbidden for her. This is a woman he would never have met in Palestine. He only met her because he was abroad.

Filmmaker: She’s the broad!

Jacir: Ha, good one!

Filmmaker:In terms of picking the crew, I know that you tried to use Palestinians because your company, Philistine Films, is trying to train local talent. But you also mentioned a French editor, so I wonder how you put your crew together.

Jacir: It’s always important to have Palestinians. We are building a film community — I won’t call it an industry because I don’t think we have an industry — but we have directors, we have producers, we have filmmakers, but we don’t have an industry yet. Ten years ago, it was really difficult to find crew. I mean, it’s small now, but that is something we continue to work on and to build on. But Wajib wasn’t an all Palestinian crew because we had an official co-production with France and also with Colombia. It is the first Palestinian/Columbian co-production. My partner, Ossama Bawardi, came to me and said, “The Colombian film commission has a fund for minority co-producing,” and I said, “Ossama, what are you taking about? The film has nothing to do with Colombia or Latin America at all, there’s no connection and they’re not going to choose it.” He was like, “No, I think they are really going to like the film.” He was optimistic about it and then we got that fund which was amazing. One of their requirements was that we had to have some Colombian crew members, and they wanted a Colombian actor in the film. So there is a Colombian actor in the film but that wasn’t hard because so many Palestinians live in Colombia. There is actually a big Palestinian Colombian connection, and I found this Palestinian woman from Ramallah who grew up in Colombia and has Columbian Citizenship. So Samia, the woman who plays the widow in the film, is our Colombian actress. So the crew was Palestinian, Colombian and French basically.

Filmmaker: So how did you decide which crew to take and change from previous films?

Jacir: Well, sometimes you have to have a head of department from a certain country, so you don’t get to choose. That’s the thing about co-production, I mean, it’s a gift where you’re getting funding but at the same time you don’t get to choose exactly who you want to work with. And it’s also nice because you meet new people or you meet somebody you might work with again. For example the Colombian gaffer who came to Palestine — I would work with him all the time; he completely fit in. It’s like he’d been in Palestine all his life. Maybe it’s because he got harassed at the airport. They were held up and asked if they had drugs and all kinds of ridiculous stuff. Traveling around the world today is a hassle if you’re Arab and it’s apparently the same if you’re Colombian, for a whole host of other reasons.

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