April storms in Rome. The furious wind and driving rain beat against the panes and awnings of the hotel roof garden, and a darkening sky looms over the distant domes and roofs. Amid all this darkness and rumbling it is not easy for the photographers, who have climbed up here, to find the right angles and lighting to frame their subjects: the director Annemarie Jacir and the actor Saleh Bakri, who have come to Rome to present Wajib, a film that will appear in Italian cinemas at the end of April.
They seem creatures of some ethereal substance that has been carried here on the wind. Annemarie is tall, wears a black-and-quite chequered jacket over black trousers, and chestnut curls cascade around splendid eyes, dark, smiling, and luminous, in whose depths one glimpses something strong and tough. Saleh Bakri is a handsome man, tall, a little stooped, with limpid blue and ironic eyes that shine through a tangle of hair, a smile eternally on his lips; he dons a shoulder bag, dark jacket, and trousers, and a keffiyeh loops around his neck. Between his fingers there is always a yellow pouch of tobacco and papers, for he is a hardened smoker. “Where is Saleh?” The question will be repeated all day. “Do you know where Saleh is?” “He’s gone out for a minute to smoke.” And now he reappears, his cigarette smoked, with a childlike smile and a wolfish twinkle in his eyes.
For a man of such dark complexion, a white background will help. Annemarie instead will pose in front of the poster for Wajib, which depicts a scene that, in its simple beauty, encloses hidden nuances and buried metaphors: a girl, in front of a shop mirror, tries on a wedding dress under the eyes of a father and brother who offer commentary and advice.
The wind continues to rage, the photographers continue to take their photos, but around us a family glow is dawning. Annemarie’s husband, the film’s producer, has settled into the orange cushions of the sofa: tall, with a pale turtleneck sweater and dark trousers, wearing glasses, he seems a Magus, some “wise man from the East.” With him is their enchanting, two-year-old daughter: light socks and boots, a pinafore with colourful squares, dark velvet eyes that burn with curiosity, and a colouring book yet to be coloured in. The actor Saleh, between one portrait photo and another, returns to her with a twirl, and they sit together colouring in the book with zeal, while we watch to see who has found the better colour.
They have brought as gifts the spices and oil of their land, Palestine, and they speak an Arabic that is slow and elegant, a melody of syllables that takes us back to our childhood imaginings of a Thousand and One Nights. We listen in awe, without understanding a word, sudden questions crowding our heads. Where do they come from? How on earth did they get here? Meanwhile Saleh Bakri is wrapt in the task of colouring, Annemarie Jacir poses for the photographers’ lenses, and the little girl parades around her harlequin palette before scampering away to hide between the knees of her father, who smiles entranced. Outside the tempest rages.
From below the journalists arrive in dribs and drabs, and not many of them, it is true. The day is what it is, but at least their glances are alive and curious. Clearly they will have many questions to ask about this film that has not only won prizes in Dubai, London, Locarno, and Mar del Plata, but has also been chosen to represent Palestine at the Oscars. “The Oscars aren’t so important for me, but I am happy that, since ten years ago, Palestine is also eligible, and this helps us gain international visibility,” the director says. The story of the film is soon recounted: in the city of Nazareth, a father and son, the latter returning home from Rome expressly for the occasion, go from house to house to deliver by hand, as Palestinian tradition requires, the invitations to the marriage of their daughter and sister. By delving into the intimacy between these two men, the narrative offers a cross-section of Palestinian society and its many strata.
The father-producer and his little daughter have now disappeared into the hotel corridors, while Annemarie and Saleh make their entrance into the hall, and we their public stop in our tracks and gaze at them enchanted, just as we had done minutes earlier. Saleh has worked on three films by Annemarie, and the bond between director and actor is strong. But together they pose a strange contrast: she has a deep voice and pressing eloquence, while he is slim in figure and speaks an English dense in pauses, a language as slow as the river that meanders through the plain. And we all seem to be seated around a fire, listening to some fable about wolves and brigands.
Annemarie flicks her cascading locks away from the microphone and thanks all present. It is her first film to be released in Italy and she says she is happy for this, because many are the ties that bind Italians and Palestinians.
The word Wajib, she explains, denotes a social duty: in this case, hand delivering marriage invitations by the men of the family. It would be a great offense to send them by post. The message is a personal act. “It is a tradition that also exists in North Africa, Syria, and Greece. During the Palestinian diaspora it almost disappeared, but in some places, particularly Nazareth, it is still maintained.”
Delivery by hand has biting metaphorical implications for a people that has been divided and kept apart. Furthermore, because wajib may involve inviting people one doesn’t necessarily like, some dismiss it as hypocrisy; others see it as an opportunity, the opportunity to overcome the differences that divide them through personal contact.
“If Palestine and Israel had been left to themselves,” the director will say later on, “they would already have found a solution, but there was American interference and everything went to pieces.”
Nazareth, which is a protagonist of the film in its own right, is the largest Palestinian city in historical Palestine, today the State of Israel. Although 40% of its population is Christian and 60% Moslem, everyone adorns their tree and decks their halls as Christmas approaches, the period in which the film’s story takes place. It is a city full of tensions: the inhabitants, after the occupation of 1948, were compelled to assume Israeli citizenship, but they are second class citizens. They live on top of one another because their land has been confiscated, and they struggle every day to carve out a human and economic space for themselves, and they struggle, above all, for the right to stay.
“Yet Wajid still has overtones of comedy because what fascinates me most at Nazareth is the humour of the people, a dark and sarcastic humour, that helps them to survive.” The voice of Annemarie never rises, and there are no outbursts. She talks almost as though she were sketching out an imaginary set for her next film.
Saleh speaks English in a voice that sounds like wind smoothing rock, and from the crevices of silence his thoughts will sometimes gush, as when he speaks passionately about the refugee camps within the city or of a great poet, who has recently died and once lived there. He mouths names that we can hardly pronounce, and talks of places and people of which and whom we know nothing. He wants to share his own world with Italy, because the new country has gotten under his skin. Here he has acted on stage, made a short film, and played the title role in Salvo (a 2013 film written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza). But the present role is closer to his heart, and this is why his voice now roughens and his blue eyes flash and spark.
In the film he plays Shadi, the son, who symbolises all those Palestinians who have left their land. “Shadi made a mistake by leaving: he should have stayed and reopened the film society that the Israelis made him close,” he blurts, and then adds that, unlike his character, he himself intends to stay in Palestine. You can hear it in every word he utters.
“Endurance,” he adds, “is the most authentic expression of Palestinian identity.”
As we listen to him, the Nazareth of the film returns to our eyes: the ghetto which father and son roam in their car, through heaps of rubbish, tensions between neighbours, and deafening traffic, with the Israeli settlement on the hill overlooking it all. Nazareth Elite (as this settlement is called, and an absurder name could not have chosen), is where the character Ronnie lives, the Israeli who controls the school in which Abu Shadi, Shadi’s father, teaches .
“The son grasps only the surface of Nazareth,” says Saleh, and he seems to shake a finger in the air, as though in warning, even if his hands remain motionless. “But if we go beyond the noise, the horns, and insults of the streets; if we enter Palestinian homes there we find passion and irony, all the vital signs of endurance and hope in a better future.”
The actor who interprets Saleh’s father in the film is also his father in real life. Mohammad Bakri, who is a director too, is a true legend in Palestine, a man of great charm and carisma, full of pride in his people, far removed from the humiliated and condescending character to whom he gives life on the screen.
Annemarie was not initially sure that Mohammad Bakri was the right actor to assume this role, but in the end she wanted to take the risk.
“One night I had a dream about him, and when I am feeling uncertain but dream about an actor, it means that he’s the right one.”
The result in the film is the unforgettable figure of the father, symbol of all those Palestinians who have chosen to remain , wearing a cap and an embarrassed smile, always ready to smooth tensions. This is a man who plays the role of a mother even in a patriarchal culture, is able to show strength in apparent weakness, and maintain sweetness and courage even when defeated.
“My father’s interpretation is a masterpiece,” says Saleh with cheerful devotion, not at all oppressed, it seems, by such an imposing parent.
“I learnt everything from him, as a child, as an actor, and as a father. He knows how to hug.” And he pauses for a long while, as if that verb to hug merited profound meditation.
“The night before filming the scene with the Israeli, without saying a word to me, he got drunk and drank a lot, A LOT. The next morning, he couldn’t drive and we had to wait for him to get over it.” Saleh laughs in amusement and his astonished public succeeds only in smiling, realizing the melancholy of that gesture.
“He understands me very good and I understand him very good.” He pauses. “He knows what I am saying when I don’t speak, and I understand his silences too. Nevertheless, when we were on set, we still succeeded in surprising each other. You can never be sure that you really know your father,” he concludes, with an imaginary finger pointed in the air and eyes sparkling with irony.
“But why has a young woman of such self-confidence used the viewpoint of two men to tell her story? And closed them up in a car, to boot?”
“Perhaps because I come from a family in which the women are strong, have power, and control everything. And I was curious to see what two men would say to each other when they are obliged to do so. For the son, the car is as much of a trap as the land that he has chosen to escape; for the father, it is instead a symbol of that which he has loved and lost. It was the family car, when his children were small and he still had a wife, who then abandoned him. It allowed me to show the two men as they are by themselves and how they change in the presence of others.”
The idea was born the day that her husband, a native of Nazareth, received a telephone call from his father asking him to accompany him to distribute the invitations for his sister. “I and my husband now live in Haifa and I wanted to come along with him. I said to myself: I’ll remain seated in the back like an ant and we’ll see what happens.”
So it was, slowly, accompanying father and son, that she developed the idea. The journey in the car, to Nazareth and the nearby villages, offered her the key.
“In reality, father and son seem to represent two parts of you…”
Annemarie Jacir nods and smiles. “I have only understood this recently: in all my films there are always two characters in opposition to each other: here father and son, in the previous film mother and son, and in the first one a man and a woman. ‘Who are you?’ they ask me, and I am both of them. Each of them has need of the other. Father and son love each other but do not know how to say it; the unsaid, the moments of silence between them are more important. I have tried to subtract as much as possible from their dialogues.”
Her replies are so sedate, in such contrast with the raw reality she has represented, that one is left astonished. Saleh and Annemarie speak with irony and levity, with a tinge of melancholy, but without angry outbursts. For them, art and cinema in Palestine must not be reduced to political messaging however great and constant the pressure. “While we were filming at Nazareth Elite” (Annemarie repeats this name often, as if to exorcise it) “they threw us out twice, without too many niceties, even though we had all the permits, only because one of the neighbours had heard someone talking in Arabic and called the police.”
“But what are your feelings when you think about your homeland? One can sense perhaps a certain nostalgia from the characters in the film.”
“Feelings…” they repeat in unison, either to buy time or take a breath.
“I don’t know in my case if it is exactly nostalgia,” Annemarie eventually says and then quickly adds, with that subdued and elegant strength: “I would say great anger… united with a little hope and the desire to resist.”
She hears the word rabbia (“anger,”) in the Italian translation, and during the course of the day she asks for it to be repeated and whether she is pronouncing it properly.
“Rabia,” she murmurs.
“It’s a double b.”
“Rabbia, rabbia,” she repeats, yet coming from her mouth it sounds like a sweet word, a honeyed word.
Saleh, with his voice like wind hollowing stone, slowly responds: “They say that as you grow older your anger fades, that age helps to diminish it… For me the exact opposite has been the case.” He stops and smiles. “As the years pass, little by little, the anger grows within me. It is a heavy burden to bear when you meet people, but… (a new silence ensues and the whole room inhales the emotional upheaval ) …but the anger is also healthy. Because not being angry in our situation would not be normal, and the anger encourages me to care for myself: I oblige myself to stay well and to keep in shape so I can make the art and cinema that will serve my people.”
After a long applause the day continues: questions tumble out one after the other, some repetitious, some opening up new perspectives, but it is the responses that make us all feel a little better, as though the humanity of this couple has also elevated our own.
Saleh disappears between one interview and another. The tobacco pouch is by now empty, and he needs another. When he returns and they ask him whether the director imposed her presence on the set, he answers, eyes widening:
“Nooo… Annemarie never gives instructions… instead she asks questions. She would never allow the dictator within her to come out…”
A little he plays, a little he laughs, at times his passion catches alight.
“In England and France it is not a crime to go away, but amongst us leaving means fleeing. We remain and we resist.”
Later on, finally at the dining table and far from the microphones, the questions still assault him in the corner in which he has decided to nestle.
“Do friendships happen between Israelis and Palestinians, in everyday life?”
There are courses to order, people come and go, and he laughs and distracts himself, possibly to evade the question. But later on he returns to the point: “Yes, I have some Israeli friends, but the thing, that thing is always there. There are Israeli women that marry Palestinian men and Palestinian men that marry Israeli women, but that thing remains… It is possible to co-resist with some Israelis, but co-exist, no… They have a terror of amalgamation, they are obsessed by the idea of protecting themselves, and they are obsessed by the Holocaust. What kind of culture can one create like this?”
Later on, as though the question had left a residue within him and he felt it necessary to explain himself better, he resumed: “The Israelis put themselves between me and you, they search for your weak spots: ‘if you don’t collaborate I’ll show this photo to your mother, your wife, your kids – I’ll ruin you.’”
These are things that we already knew, but now, looking at his face and the expression in his eyes, the same things take on an entirely different complexion. Those of us that read Israeli literature avidly, watch Israeli cinema eagerly, and love it all, now feel dislocated and perturbed. It is as though someone had made us look through different glasses, at a different reality that only very slowly comes into sharp focus.
“But, are there cinemas in Palestine?” we ask.
“There are no cinemas?” someone repeats.
“So this film will be seen by… other people?“
“We will organize screenings in cultural halls that are not exactly cinemas, but places where people meet up.”
There is something in his gaze, which one might call pain, something so intense that for a moment it forces us to lower our own.
Pretty invasive questions they are. Could we not let him eat in peace for one moment? And maybe even smoke, instead of keeping him nailed to the table, and making those blue eyes darken?
“The Israeli government does not want Palestinian culture.”
Silence again. Again we study our plates in embarassment. We try to change the subject, and we make a serious stab at it, but failure is immediate.
“So, where did you study acting?”
The artichokes, which are the speciality of the house, are now being passed round the table.
“I went to an Israeli academy.”
And another opportunity to let him eat in peace vanishes.
“Was it hard?”
“…hard?” He smiles ironically and the artichoke remains on the plate. “At acting school they ask you to talk about your life and the students, who were all Israelis, talked about military service and the crimes they had committed as kids against us, although they obviously didn’t use the word ‘crimes’ and didn’t realise that it was against my people, and so the academy helped me not only to learn acting but also to come face to face with this thing.”
“And you acted in Hebrew?”
“Of course. I learnt Hebrew, but not because I wanted to…” A dim light flickered behind his eyes. “I had no choice.”
Now there is no need to ask further questions, because the questions seem to have opened a crack from which the words will spill. (Are we satisfied now?)
“At acting school we also had to read out the Torah and the instructor really liked the way that I used to read it,” he says with melancholy pride. “I read it better because in Hebrew I maintain the inflections of my native land, whereas the others had the distant cadence of Poland and other countries. In that narrow corner, in the closed space of that school, they could still appreciate the accent that they had oppressed.”
Then, to dispel the weight of that memory, he smiles and eagerly tucks into the freshly served pasta.
“Now, however, we have an acting school in Arabic, which in my day there was not, and I teach there. There is so much movement, so much culture. There are many young Palestinians in the cinema and theatre.”
He talks about the play Fireworks by the Palestinian writer Dalia Taha that he took to London, a work that is as beautiful as it is sad and, luckily for him, the discourse slides far away, onto other notes and into other worlds. At the head of the table the little girl joyously digs her hands into the pasta and devours it with gusto, her little face smeared with tomato while her eyes dart around full of curiosity and potential.
When the evening arrives, and with it the moment to bid each other fairwell, we do so on the pavement. Their faces are a little more tired but still smiling. The little girl, by now in the hotel, requires the attentions of her mother. During the daily shooting, she stayed with her grandmother, but when her mother and producer-father did make it home in the evening, then she would refuse to sleep until the wee hours just to stay with them. “We were always tired,” says Annemarie shaking her head, “but all my admiration goes to grandma: staying alone with a child for twelve hours on end requires real courage.”
We are sorry to leave them. It seems that if we turn the corner their bodies will dissolve into thin air. Where will they go? How could we find them again?
But their smiles reassure us: dignity and elegance survive even in rocky ravines, if they can trickle out from the well-spring in the depths of the heart. Their smiles have left in us traces of goodness.
“Wajib could not have had a better finale,” Saleh had said a moment earlier. “The circle has been closed, or so we believe, even if nothing ever really closes. When a film finishes, then you go home and begin to think about many things: about yourself, about your life, and about your relationship with your father. This is the role of art: to leave something of good in other people. “
“Leave a good trace in humans, a good trace inside others,” his voice re-echoes within us.