Dir. Rashid Masharawi. Palestine/Tunisia/The Netherlands. 2008. 72mins
A brilliant fusion of road movie, family drama, cinema of the absurd, and sociological expose,Laila’s Birthdaydraws on Gaza-born Masharawi’s experience as a director of hard-hitting documentaries as well as features such asCurfew(1994), about life under Israeli occupation.
The film eschews the usual cliches about daily difficulties in the West Bank as it maintains its focus on lead actor Mohamed Bakri, whose ridged face registers an unusual, constipated response to the surreality of the quotidian in Ramallah. As a result, Laila’s Birthday could pull in viewers with little knowledge of the political and economic terrain. With proper handling, and despite its 72-minute running time, it might attract an arthouse crowd hungry for clever alternatives to newsreels and too-earnest dramas from and about the region.
Abu Laila (Bakri) is a proud man, attempting, much like Palestine itself, to hold onto his dignity in the face of nearly insurmountable frustration. A former judge who had practiced abroad, he was lured back to his hometown to work for the Ministry of Justice, only to find that the West Bank’s bloated bureaucracy-which Masharawi skewers-is unable, and unwilling, to absorb him. In order to support his wife and beloved nine-year-old daughter, who gives the film its title, he drives a taxi, making him the laughingstock of the civil servants with whom he must plead for judicial work. Yet he himself retains the persona of a functionary, commanding his passengers to buckle up and snuff out their cigarettes, not to mention singing the praises of The Law.
He tries in vain to shield himself from the surrounding chaos. No, he will not take passengers to checkpoints, nor will he permit men with rifles inside his cab. Masharawi merely suggests the violence and humiliation perpetrated by the occupiers, rather than showing it, so that the spectator relates to Abu Laila’s mindset of denial. Ultimately, he cracks and screams out his real feelings about the Israeli military, though he quickly regains his composure.
The film takes place during the course of one day, which happens to be Laila’s birthday. His wife tells him to return home from driving by 8:00 pm, cake in hand. Strange circumstances and needy passengers so delay him that he does not have time to purchase the dessert. Yet by the time he returns to his house(very bourgeois and one full of vibrant colors, unlike the Palestinian homes we normally see on tv), he discovers that a woman has inadvertently left a cake on the back seat, and, an added extra, he can offer his wife the flowers that wedding revelers have mistakenly stuck on the car. Serendipity plays a part and reveals an optimism that underlies Masharawi’s astute but critical observations. He is a first and foremost a humanist.
He also shoots a side of Ramallah that is unknown to most outsiders: the gorgeous, seductive white stone architecture and greenery that are a far cry from the images of destruction we are accustomed to. With a mobile camera, and enhanced by Kais Sellami’s haunting, flutey Arabic music score, here he films a love letter to a seductive if besieged urbanscape, one in which familial love persists in spite of nearly unbearable conditions.
Cinema Production Center
Michael J. Werner
Mohamed Habib Attia
Peter van Vogelpoel
Tarek ben Abdallah
Al’a Abu Ghosh