'Personal Affairs': Cannes Review

Personal Affairs - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An abstract but promising Israeli debut.

Maha Haj's debut feature focuses on an extended family whose members have dispersed across multiple borders.

What’s not shown and discussed looms larger than what is in Personal Affairs, a promising if schematic first feature by Maha Haj, who joins the ranks of the growing number of female directors currently emerging in Israel. A portrait of tension, dissension and non-communication within an extended family whose members have dispersed across multiple borders, this group portrait of simmering discontent holds the interest and looks to travel extensively on the festival circuit, although it’s too modest to stir much commercial action.

Aging couple Saleh and Nabila (Mahmoud and Sana Shawahdeh) live together in a comfortable flat in Nazareth but scarcely speak; he, an apparent intellectual, lives on the internet while incessantly drinking coffee, while she cooks, knits and watches soap operas for emotional sustenance. A grandma takes pleasure only in old black-and-white movies on TV but is so out of it that she’s at one point mistaken for dead.

One son, Tarek (Doraid Liddawi) has moved across the border to Ramallah to create some distance from his parents and proves an infuriatingly uncommunicative would-be mate to the intensely spirited Maissa (Maissa Abed El Hadi), who imagines they’re in some sort of relationship. Another son has put himself at an even greater remove from the dysfunctional unit, having decamped to Stockholm.

Closer to home, the couple’s daughter is about to have a baby, while her husband George (Amer Hlehel), a bald and overweight mechanic, is spotted by a passing American casting director and instantly hired to act in a movie (as a terrorist, everyone assumes).

Eventually, an arrest at the border and subsequent detention spike a bit of overt drama, and a trip to Sweden strikes a certain spark for the old-timers.

While maintaining a cool, highly composed visual style, writer-director Haj sets the film’s dramatic temperature at just below the boiling point as she conveys a state of massive avoidance; few of the characters ever want to discuss what’s really going on — personally or politically — and when forced to they get really mad. The old couple has no interest in dissecting their relationship or talking about why they don’t talk; by moving to Ramallah, Tarek has not only provoked his parents but created an excuse as to why it’s inconvenient to visit very often, the grandma has shut down completely and no one even wants to come near the elephant in the room, the never-discussed Israeli-Palestinian situation.

With its determined concentration on “personal affairs” and deliberate avoidance of political ones, the film emerges as mildly provocative. But Haj’s approach ultimately proves too restrictive to spark much beyond an appreciative intellectual reaction to a clever, if overly abstracted, operative conceit; the characters represent one-dimensional attitudes more than they reflect fleshed-out human beings.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production company: Majdal Films
Cast: Amer Hlehel, Doraid Liddawi, Mahmoud Shawahdeh, Sana Shawahdeh, Hannan Hillo, Maisa Abed El Hadi, Ziad Bakri, Jhan Dermel Konian
Director-screenwriter: Maha Haj
Producer: Baher Agbarya
Director of photography: Elad Debi
Editor: Veronique Lange
Costume designer: Hamada Atalah
Music: Rasha Sulieman

Not rated, 90 minutes