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A Palestinian prisoner who did 15 years of time in an Israeli jail for an act of revenge tries to pick up his life again after he’s released in Screwdriver (Mafak). This first fiction film from photographer and documentary director Bassam Jarbawi is an ambitious character drama that tries to shed some light on a form of PTSD that people who have spent a long time in solitary confinement might experience once they go back to real life. This, however, means that the protagonist is frequently in a near-catatonic state as he keeps failing to connect with those around him, alone among the masses that are oblivious to his failure to connect to them and their lives, which in turn makes it really hard for the audience to connect to the main character — especially because there isn’t a whole lot of happier-times backstory that could suggest what he has lost.
That said, assembly is competent and Jarbawi needs to be commended for trying to tackle something not that often explored in Arab cinema. After its twin premieres in Venice (Horizons) and Toronto (Discovery), this should find other festival berths on its way to a niche VOD release or two.
Screwdriver opens in 1992 in the Al-Amari Refugee camp in Palestine, which even then already looked semi-permanent. As only little kids can, Ziad (Wassim Mousa) becomes friends with Ramzi (Mohammad Adawi) after they hurt one another with old tools including the titular screwdriver. The film immediately skips ahead to 10 years later, when tragedy suddenly strikes and Ziad (Amir Khoury) sees Ramzi (Adham Abu Aqel) die from a severe gun wound in front of his eyes. Ziad’s rage translates into a rash action on the motorway, where he and his buddies stop when they see what they think is a Jewish settler with car trouble and kill him. Fast-forward again to 2017, when Ziad (Ziad Bakri), the only one of the boys who got caught, is finally released from jail and he’s celebrated as a hero for having endured 15 years of hell in an Israeli prison, even though it emerges that the man he shot was actually an Arab.
All this is just the setup of the story, and Jarbawi and his co-editor, Christopher Radcliff, then slow the tempo significantly to suggest how Ziad might experience the world. Smartphones and lines with automated numbers at the bank confuse him. Women, some of them health professionals or social workers, keep asking him if he is experiencing anxiety, has problems with light, or can urinate properly. A Palestinian girl who partially grew up in the U.S., Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi, also a producer), insists on interviewing him for a vague documentary project. And Salma (Maya Omaia Keesh), a girl from his past, is still madly in love with him and hopes to get together with the neighborhood’s hero of the day.
Without diminishing the real problems of reintegration into society of Palestinians or indeed anyone who has been detained for years, Ziad, as specifically portrayed here, is someone about whom it is really hard to care. The disconnect with those around him is palpable, but there’s little sense of whether he would prefer to be alone, like he was in jail, or whether he would prefer to overcome his severe readjustment problems and find his right place in society. Bakri, who plays Ziad, is from a leading acting family in the region (check out the work of his father Mohammad and brother Saleh in last year’s terrific Wajib). But here, the actor doesn’t manage to suggest much additional — and indeed much-needed — subtext that isn’t already explicitly there in the dialogue.
The relationships Ziad has are, of course, frayed and complicated, but they rarely feel complex, especially after he’s decided to move into a rooftop hovel where he hopes to escape the hubbub of a world that feels like it has moved on without him. There’s little sense of how he feels about having taken the fall for his teenage buddies, for example, since he wasn’t even the one that fired the lethal shot. Nonetheless, Ziad didn’t snitch on them after he was caught, which cost him 15 years of his life, which must inspire some kind of strong feelings or reaction. There’s a tiny little glimpse of anger and disappointment when he suggests his adolescent peers have simply forgotten about the cause of all of it, namely Ramzi’s death, completely, though the moment is gone before it can blossom into a more intricate understanding of either Ziad’s unprocessed hurt or his perhaps evolving thinking about his former friends.
Jarbawi, who penned the script as well, also struggles to balance his various story threads, skipping from one subplot to another in a manner that never feels fully organic. The whole storyline about Mina’s documentary also comes across like a very artificial way to try and sneak in a second romantic lead while creating a shortcut to Ziad’s feelings, which he doesn’t seem all that interested to discuss with, or reveal to, anyone. The problem is that the little evidence we have about his character and behavior in the rest of the film suggests he would have long sent Mina packing before she could have ever turned her camera on. Ditto a storyline involving a graffiti artist in the camp (Sanad Amina, almost stealing the movie), whose function and relationship to the protagonist seems unclear for far too long. Is Ziad simply hanging out with him because he doesn’t know what else to do with his days or is their unexpected rapport the first adult friendship he’s slowly opening himself up to? It is hard to tell.
Purely on a technical level, this feature, which was entirely shot on location, impresses. The contributions from cinematographer David McFarland (The Ballad of Lefty Brown) and composer Jon Natchez (Pledge, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On) blend seamlessly with the work from local production designer Bashar Hassuneh, who has worked on Wajib and The Idol, and experienced costume designer Hamada Atallah (Rana’s Wedding, The Attack).
Overall, the sense is that Jarbawi is interested in probing a largely untapped part of Palestinian society that’s rich with story and character possibilities but that he’s bitten off more than he can chew for his first feature with a lead character who remains essentially static throughout most of the story. He’s talented enough, however, to inspire curiosity about what he’ll make next.
Production companies: Rimsh Film, Dialectic
Cast: Ziad Bakri, Wassim Mousa, Mohammad Adawi, Huthayfa Jalamna, Amir Khoury, Adham Abu Aqel, Munther Bannourah, Abedalrahman Zubaidi, Ibrahim Jawhari, Israa Darawsha, Areen Omari, Jameel Khoury, Yasmine Qaddumi, Maya Omaia Keesh
Writer-director: Bassam Jarbawi
Producers: Shrihari Sathe, Yasmine Qaddumi, Bassam Jarbawi
Executive producer: Nabil Qaddumi
Director of photography: David McFarland
Production designer: Bashar Hassuneh
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Editors: Bassam Jarbawi, Christopher Radcliff
Music: Jon Natchez
Casting: Najwa Mubarki
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Sales: Shrihari Sathe
In Arabic, Hebrew
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