Saturday 15 September 2018

Ride along: "Wajib"

The Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir continues to address the Middle East's various issues without recourse to piety, handwringing or speechifying. Her breakthrough When I Saw You, which reached UK screens in 2014, was a coming-of-ager - set in the 1960s, titled after a Ronettes song - which followed a young boy falling in with PLO fighters much as the protagonists of Quadrophenia and This is England fell into their own turbulent subcultures. Her follow-up Wajib - more contemporary, but no less informed by on-the-ground, lived experience - takes the form of an odd-couple road movie, uniting two men in a comically low-key mission. The men are father and son (and played by real-life father and son Mohammad and Saleh Bakri), who've taken it upon themselves, over one day in the run-up to Christmas, to hand deliver the invites for a family wedding to their fellow Nazarenes. For the characters, it's a means of reconnecting: the son, with his manbun and red trousers, is visiting from Italy, where he's cultivated a very different worldview to that of his mildly conservative schoolmaster pa. For Jacir, their odyssey will be something else: a way of opening a window onto the people and places the pair pass among.

Wajib's very evident project is to show the day-to-day life of this region, underreported and often overlooked as it has been by filmmakers keener to make grand social statements and political tracts; on its travels through Nazareth's winding backroads, the camera will note erratic litter collections and blocked plumbing, kids playing on the floor with toy diggers, women getting their hair done, and a good deal of fond, familiar conversation. It's not that the religious and sectarian conflict isn't there: the boys' progress is impeded at one point by a funeral procession, and stops outright after an argument started by dad's objection to the fact the father of his son's girlfriend has been hailed as a hero by the PLO. It's just that there's so much else going on for Jacir to capture, chiefly the sight of people trying to make better, happier lives for themselves and their loved ones, building bridges rather than blowing them up.

You will therefore find it either a slight limitation or - more likely - a quiet strength that Wajib proceeds on this quest in the sure and steady gear of any other postman completing their round, meandering from one doorstep and one encounter to the next. Up until the finale - where an argument that has been brewing for ninety minutes spills out of the car and into an adjacent lay-by - Jacir has a nice, often funny way of de-escalating, instructing editor Jacques Comets to cut ahead whenever events threaten to become too heated or ugly. (In this generally smooth, easy drive of a film, this would be the filmmaker tapping her brakes.) There are serious family tensions to be resolved here, but the plot's one bombshell - dropped around the halfway point - proves to be typographical, true to the agreeably minor key Jacir is operating in. 

Even here, the film adheres to the hiccupy rhythms of regular life, although if the supporting cast come to work from briskly etched postcards - proffering a few quick words here and there before we move on to the next stop - Jacir coaxes considerably more from her leads. The two Bakris have an easy, recognisable dynamic, dad embarrassing son, son wincing, dad not minding or apologising in the slightest; together, they embody those generational differences and diverging attitudes with which one suspects many Palestinians negotiate these sometimes troubled, sometimes just busy or gridlocked streets. Perhaps we shouldn't gender the film's achievements unduly, but you have to admire any female filmmaker who elects to spend the duration of a shoot working in and around a car carrying two farting, bickering blokes. Yet the diffuse light coming through this windscreen, and the poignant closing movement, are signs that Jacir is actually rather fond of and attached to these men; her film, a personally delivered love letter to them and their city, is its own touching gesture towards calming another centuries-old, often overheated conflict.

Wajib is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.

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