'Wajib': Film Review | Locarno 2017

Duty-Still 1- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
The fabulous Bakri boys.

Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir's third feature competes for the Golden Leopard at the Swiss showcase.

An urban road movie set and shot among the Arab community in the Israeli city of Nazareth, Wajib ("duty") is a nicely low-key comedy-drama of fangled family and community ties from Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir. Built foursquare around the charm and skill of co-leads Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, father and son onscreen and off, it could be helped along the way to theatrical exposure if picking up a prize or two in the main competition at Locarno. Even if the Golden Leopard jury looks elsewhere, however, plentiful further festival play is a given for this accessible and genial glimpse into a complex and sometimes fraught area of the Middle East, as provided by one of the region's leading female filmmakers.

Bethlehem-born, Saudi-raised, New York-educated Jacir made waves with her Cannes-bowing 2008 debut Salt of This Sea, and followed up with When I Saw You (2012), skillfully imagining a child's eye view of the 1967 Six-Day War. She's worked with charismatic leading man Saleh Bakri on all three of her features, though here he takes a bit of a back seat — metaphorically, not literally — to his veteran dad Mohammad, who spends most of the film at the wheel of his beloved, well-worn Volvo estate car as grouchy, sixtysomething teacher Abu. Accompanied by his son Abu Shadi, an architect who lives in Italy, Abu drives around the streets of Nazareth following the local tradition of hand-delivering invitations to the imminent wedding of his daughter Umal (Maria Zreik).

This simple setup provides the framework for an episodic tour of the area as father and son visit an array of relatives and friends, reaffirming long-standing bonds of family and community along the way. There are various frictions now and then, and one climactic dad-son blow-up, but nothing too drastic — indeed, the biggest drama unfolds offscreen. This relates to uncertainties about never-seen Abu's ex-wife, now a resident in the U.S., and whether the frail health of her current husband will allow her to travel for her daughter's big day. The shock waves of her "scandalous" departure from the family and the area some years before, we observe, continue to reverberate among those left behind.

Jacir's strong suits are as a scriptwriter and as a director of actors. She crafts lively, believable dialogue throughout, shot through with a likable streak of earthy humor, providing nuanced characterizations for the Bakris to convincingly inhabit and bring to three-dimensional life. A large gallery of supporting players have relatively fleeting screen time in a picture which profitably retains a narrow focus on the relationship between the complacently old-school Shadi and his widely traveled, progressive-minded offspring.

Shot in dunnish, dusty, digital shades by Antoine Heberle and clocking in at a trim 97 minutes, Wajib gives an unfussily illuminating snapshot of modern-day Nazareth, where a majority Arab population — most seen here are Christian — has found ways to get along under the fiddly, capricious restrictions of the Israeli state. It's a "small" film which attempts to break no new ground either formally or content-wise, but works just fine within its chosen limitations as a solid dual showcase for Bakri pere and fils.

Production companies: Philistine Films
Cast: Mohammad Bakri, Saleh Bakri, Maria Zreik, Leila Bakri
Director-screenwriter: Annemarie Jacir
Producer: Ossama Bawardi
Cinematographer: Antoine Heberle
Production designer: Nael Kanj
Costume designer: Hamada Atallah
Editor: Jacques Comets
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Pyramide International, Paris (sales@pyramidefilms.com)

In Arabic
97 minutes