Palestine's Oscar Submission 'Wajib' Marks a First for Veteran Acting Family

Wajib Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

A father-son duo team in Annemarie Jacir's lighthearted take on life in Nazareth.

With Wajib, Annemarie Jacir has scored her third submission to the foreign-language Oscar category for her third feature, following When I Saw You (2012) and her debut, Salt of This Sea (2008). But this accomplishment isn't the Bethlehem-born director's most impressive feat in making the film, a comedy-drama following a father and son ­­— Abu and Abu Shadi — as they drive around the streets of Nazareth hand-delivering wedding invitations to an assortment of friends and relatives.

For Jacir, the secret of the film's success is in its unusual casting. When it came to finding the right actor to portray the younger Shadi, Jacir made an obvious choice and called up someone she'd worked with on both previous films — Saleh Bakri, best known for his turn in Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains and as the eponymous protagonist in the award-winning Italian thriller Salvo. "I cast Saleh right away, I always work with him," she says.

But for the grouchy, battered Volvo-driving 60-something Abu, the director teamed her charismatic leading man with a veteran actor with whom he'd never worked in a feature film: his father, Mohammad Bakri, a star of stage and screen for more than three decades. Understandably, Bakri Jr. wasn't immediately sure about acting alongside his dad.

"I talked to Saleh about it, and he was like, 'Yes, no, yes, no, you decide!' " she says with a laugh. "It was a concern, because it's very personal and could all go wrong. It's really hard to work with your family members!"

Thankfully, the decision paid off, with the film's comedic charm resting heavily on the convincing nature of the co-leads' sparkling and unmistakably real onscreen chemistry.

But that didn't mean the shoot came without any familial difficulties, not least when Bakri Sr. decided to start smoking again. "He didn't want Saleh to know, because he's really concerned about his father's health," says Jacir. "So he was having to hide with crewmembers to have a cigarette."

Inevitably, Saleh Bakri found out after a few days (his anger actually plays out in one scene). "Saleh had actually quit, too, so he said that he'd start smoking again, too. Then Mohammad felt really bad."

With cigarette-gate now behind them, Wajib — which won three awards in Locarno, where it premiered, and earned a special mention in London before playing theatrically in Palestine in September — has become a source of pride for the Bakri boys.

"It really means something for both of them," says Jacir. "They've been talking about the importance of working with each other and how it was really special. Every time Mohammad watches the film, he breaks down and cries — he's very emotional."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.