Laila's Birthday

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San Sebastian Film Festival

We rarely get a chance to see what life is like for Palestinians who are neither refugees nor terrorists, and so "Laila's Birthday" is an eye-opening experience. Rashid Masharawi's film has the simplicity of a fine short story, and while any film set in Ramallah is inevitably political, it does its best to stick to the humanity of the characters and avoid any sloganeering. Audiences will respond to the warmth of the storytelling and the performances.

Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri) claims to have once worked as a judge, but he is reduced to driving a taxi to make a living. The film follows him over the course of a single day as he merely tries to arrive home in time for his daughter's birthday celebration. During the day he has several run-ins with the Palestinian authorities as well as various customers who all have their own troubles. He even witnesses a car-bombing that seems to have nothing to do with Arab-Israeli tensions but simply with the instability of this very perilous universe.

While Masharawi shows the challenges for people living in a divided country, he is more interested in dramatizing the surprising ways in which life goes on even under the most stressful conditions. The director has a keen eye for the absurdities as well as the dangers of life in a minefield, and he works very sensitively with the actors.

Of course the film depends primarily on the performance of Bakri, since he is on camera for almost every minute of the film, and he exudes unflinching dignity as well as just the right note of weariness. Most of the other cast members have small parts, but they all add to the authenticity of the production. Technical credits are very accomplished, considering that the film must have had a modest budget. "Laila" is not designed to pack a wallop, but it is suffused with the most delicate human feeling.

Production: Fortissimo Films, CineTeleFilms, Sweetwater Pictures.
Cast: Mohamed Bakri, Areen Omari, Nour Zoubi.
Director-Screenwriter: Rashid Masharawi.
Producers: Mohamed Habib Attia, Peter Van Vogelpoel, Rashid Masharawi.
Directors of photography: Tarek Ben Abdallah, Nestor Sanz.
Production designer: Al'a Abu Ghosh.
Music: Kais Sellami.
Editor: Pascal Chavance.
No MPAA rating, 71 minutes.

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