We interview Palestinian Director Annemarie Jacir, ahead of the release of her third feature, Wajib.
We talk to Annemarie Jacir about her latest film – Wajib – a film that encapsulates the differences between Palestinians living in Israel and those living abroad.
Birds Eye View first met Annemarie Jacir back in 2013, when her second feature film, When I Saw You, opened our Celebrating Arab Women Film Festival. Last year, Jacir returned to the UK to present her third feature, Wajib, at the London Film Festival.
Wajib tells the story of Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) and his son, Shadi (Saleh Bakri). Abu Shadi is a divorced father and a school teacher living in Nazareth, the largest Arab majority city in Israel. Shadi is his son; an architect living in Rome who returns to Nazareth to help his father in hand-delivering the wedding invitations for his sister’s wedding, as is the local Palestinian custom.
The film is released in UK cinemas this Friday, 14th September. BEV’s programme curator Jo Duncombe was delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with Annemarie to discuss what ‘wajib’ means to her, the remarkable process of working with actors who are father and son in real life, and her passion project – creating a community arts centre at her family home in Bethlehem…
JD: In English, ‘wajib’ loosely means ‘social duty’. Why were you drawn to making a film on this subject?
AJ: There isn’t a good translation of the word in English so I kept it as ‘wajib’. I was drawn to the idea of ‘social duty’ for many different reasons. Mostly, I was interested in the unspoken rules behind how communities function, not just in the Arab world but everywhere. So, for example, if someone invites you for dinner, it’s your ‘wajib’, next time, to invite them. ‘Wajib’ is how everything functions within Palestinian society and for the most part it’s a positive thing – there’s something really honest about: it’s how communities and traditions are created. But ‘wajib’ can also feel stifling because sometimes, you are duty-bound to do something simply because you’re supposed to do it. There’s something empty about that. In that sense, the film is about both participating in, and pushing against community.
JD: The film reveals the two central characters, Abu Shadi and his son, Shadi, to be equally driven by pride and shame. They both protect themselves from the world by telling white lies, and building pretences around themselves. What draws you to flawed characters, and can you talk a little about your process in developing them?
AJ: I am interested in real characters: real people. When you work in fiction, you’re working completely with poetic license – I like to have characters that are ambivalent. Shadi is angry and actually quite annoying! He’s tough on his father. But at the same time, you understand where he is coming from. I’m interested in that grey space. Shadi uses his mother’s absence as a pin to poke his father, but he’s also similar to his father, and deeply connected to him. That’s the very heart of Shadi’s battle. Of course, Abu Shadi is fighting a personal battle too. They each know they aren’t perfect, but are too proud to admit it.
JD: In the film, the father-son relationship is the prism through which we observe how constraining the patriarchy can be for men. What drew you to this theme, specifically?
AJ: In Palestinian society, the hand delivery of wedding invites is a masculine tradition, and what drew me to focus the story on this is the way men tend to avoid each other at home or in public spaces. It is something of a cliché, I know – that men do not always say what they need to say – but one that contains a lot of truth to my mind. The constraints of the car on the father and son really bring this reticence to light, so while there is a great deal of dialogue in the film, it as much about what is not said.
JD: Wajib is, arguably, less overtly political than your previous two feature films but it is imbued with politics by the setting, Nazareth…
AJ: Yes, I say that Nazareth is like a third character in the film. Though it’s not particularly visible, it comes between Shadi and his father who have differing perspectives on the city. For Abu Shadi, Nazareth is a little paradise – despite the reality that, as Palestinians, they live in a ghetto and they are discriminated against. Abu Shadi is always trying to find ways to be upbeat about the city.
Shadi’s relationship with the city is much more complicated: he loves Nazareth and never wanted to leave. He was a politically conscious teenager, and for a young Palestinian living in Israel, that’s a dangerous thing to be. That’s why his father feared for him – so he sent him abroad, to protect him. Now Shadi has lived abroad, he prefers his life in Rome, and he is does not want to return to Nazareth. But he will always be a kid from the neighbourhood; it’s stitched into him.
JD: You spoke earlier about the film containing lots of dialogue – what’s your process in terms of developing script? And how do you then go about casting and working with actors?
AJ: Wajib is dialogue heavy, but in development, I was always thinking about where I could remove dialogue. It was a really nice process, working with Mohammed and Shaleh. Mostly what you see on the screen is what was scripted. But there are two scenes that I really worked on with the actors – the two ‘fight scenes’ in the film. These scenes had to be really raw, and really personal. We did a lot of improvisation around these scenes, after which I would go back and rewrite it, taking the things that I liked.
JD: Of course Mohammed and Shaleh have a close relationship in real life…
AJ: Yes – they are real father and son. A lot of people don’t know that! They’re both actors in their own right, though they had never worked together before. The decision to cast them together was really difficult because it’s so personal! When I wrote the script, I had Shaleh in mind; he’s my long-time collaborator. Shaleh’s father, Mohammed Bakri, is a legendary Palestinian actor.
I knew casting them together would be explosive in terms of the energy they would bring to the characters. Shaleh is deeply respectful of his father in real life – but Wajib is a film about a son who has lost respect for his father. I had to make sure that both men were really willing to be open and vulnerable throughout the process.
The fight scenes were the only scenes I shot with two cameras, one on each actor. I knew that each take would have a different energy, and I also knew they couldn’t do it many times. I think in the end we shot three takes. It was emotionally exhausting for both of them. It was very real, and I didn’t want to abuse them by making them go through it over and over again.
There was a remarkable energy between them that was not scripted or expected – you can really see the love between them. It came out instinctively.
JD: I’ve read that you try, where ever possible, to work with Palestinian crew on set. How do you go about putting your crew together?
AJ: I think it’s really important for me to do this. Palestine is building its film industry. There are not many Palestinian films being made – three features a year is a really great year! But, I think it’s changing. There’s a big difference between now and when I shot Salt Of The Sea. There are more and more crew available, and a lot of them have also become filmmakers, doing their own writing and directing.
JD: When you were at Birds’ Eye View Festival back in 2014 with When I Saw You – the press lauded you as the only female director working in Palestine. How do you feel about that title?
AJ: I don’t like that title! I don’t like it because I think it’s misleading. It’s true that Salt Of The Sea was technically the first feature film from Palestine directed by a woman, but I’m definitely not the first female Palestinian director. There’s a lot of women before me that have been working in documentary and experimental films and that I really look up to and admire. I’m part of a Palestinian film community where there are a lot of female directors. It’s not something unusual. In the Arab World, there are a lot of women directors. Very often when you go to an Arab film festival, more than half of the films have been directed by a woman. Unlike some of the big Festivals in the West, as we know. Just look at the programme in Venice this year… one woman in competition. It’s exhausting! That’s not to say we don’t have our own issues with patriarchy in the Arab World… but in terms of cinema, I think we’re doing pretty good!
JD: And what’s your next project?
AJ: I have two projects on the go. The first is my next script, which I’m currently developing. I’m not going to say much about it, but there is a British connection…
JD: Exciting – so you’ll be back in the UK more often? We love it when you visit!
AJ: I love it too! I have love for the UK.
JD: And the other project…?
AJ: The other project is a family dream that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years with my sister. We’ve been renovating my father’s 127 year-old house in Bethlehem, and we’re opening it up this year as an arts and cultural space. We’re set up for film screenings and exhibitions and there are green spaces that we’re giving to children from a refugee camp – they’ve decided to create a vegetable garden.
In Bethlehem there are not many community projects – most of Palestinian cultural activity is focussed in Ramallah. My father is the head of this project – it’s something he’s always dreamed to see, and now it’s happening.
JD: It sounds wonderful. Has the programme launched yet?
AJ: We’ve started with some soft-programming and collaborations. There’s a film festival in Ramallah next month, and we’re going to be hosting some of the workshops and screenings there. We’ll have the official opening in Bethlehem in December.
JD: What is the centre called?
It’s called the Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art & Research. There’s also a residency for a visiting researcher – my great-grandfather and grandfather were incredible archivists. They kept everything from pre-State Palestine, from when the British & Ottomans were there. It’s an incredible archive and we’re digitising it for researchers and academics to use.
Wajib is Palestine’s entry for the 2018 Oscars.
See WAJIB + Q&A with the director Annemarie Jacir:
September 14 – Curzon Bloomsbury
September 15 – Cine Lumiere