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Spearheading Arab Cinema in Palestine: An Interview with Annemarie Jacir on Wajib

Wajib (2017)

Wajib (2017)

By Ali Moosavi.

In recent years, Palestinian cinema has come to the forefront of the Arab cinema and the prominent Palestinian film makers have established a global reputation for themselves. They have all tackled the Palestine issues in their own cinematic way. Elia Suleiman takes a surrealistic, absurdist view of the situation in films such as Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time That Remains (2009) whilst Hany Abu-Assad confronts the issue head on in overtly political films like Paradise Now (2005) – nominated for an Oscar – and Omar (2013). Annemarie Jacir infuses the political and social issues related to Palestine into personal relationships in her films such as Salt of the Earth (2008) and When I Saw You (2012). She was at the Dubai International Film Festival with her latest film Wajib (2017). In this film the Palestinian issues are discussed between a father living in Nazareth and his son who has emigrated to Italy and has briefly returned to Palestine for his sister’s wedding. The conversations between these two takes place mostly in a car while they are driving around town delivering wedding invitations to family and friends. The father had sent his son abroad because he was a hot head and non-conformist and could get into trouble with the authorities. He would ideally want his son to return, marry a Palestinian girl, and lead a normal life. The son, however, berates his father for having accepted the situation and given up the fight. The roles of the father and son are played by real father and son actors: Mohamed Bakri and Saleh Bakri. They were jointly awarded the Best Actor prize at the festival while Wajib took the Best Film award.

Film International talked to Annemarie Jacir at the festival before the awards were announced.

In my view, Palestinian cinema is the most interesting in the Arab world. Despite not having the same facilities as the richer Arab countries, film makers like you, Elia Sulaiman, Hany Abu Asad and Rashid Mashrawi turn out really good movies. Why do you think you have such a strong cinema?

Wajib-3Thank you. I think that is the case with many countries. Iran is a good example. Where there are restrictions; whether they are financial or political, I think filmmakers have to think harder about what they are doing and how they are going to do it. Because everybody and everything is against them. So I guess this helps creatively because you have to figure out solutions and ways to deal with things. And you also have to be convinced by what you are doing because you could be doing much easier things, if you wanted to!

Beaing Palestinian, and making a film in Palestine, it is very difficult to separate politics from cinema. However, one thing that I love about your films is the way politics is depicted subtly and weaved into the story. You hear politically related items on the radio or in family conversations and it is different from overtly political films like those of Hany Abu-Assad’s.

I guess that I am interested in personal relationships. And the politics is there. It’s always there. We live in a very political world. There are no films that are not political. I think that what I’m interested in exploring in cinema is not the obvious black & white things. That’s why, for example, I was interested in making Wajib (2017). We know what the military occupation in Nazareth is. That is very clear. I’m interested in the place. I came to Nazareth because the occupation is very much present and very much there. But not in the obvious way. I don’t know if you’ve seen my short film Like Twenty Impossibles (2003). It’s the mundane daily life occupation that I like to explore, not the clear stuff. Because we already know the answers to that. I mean you know that this is wrong and violence is wrong. And I’m interested in the mundane violence which leaves more of a question.

How easy or difficult is it to raise budgets to make films in Palestine?

It is very difficult and it’s getting more difficult. Salt of the Earth (2008) was a low budget film. When I Saw You (2012) was even lower budget and Wajib was even lower. In your career, may be you’re supposed to be going up but for me it’s the opposite! That’s the difficulty of the market now which is not good for independent cinema.

You are also a teacher, what do you teach?

Wajib-2I teach cinema, screen writing, directing, film history. I also mentor a lot of film makers. It’s something that is important to me because I didn’t have any mentors when I started and I do believe strongly that we need to build up together as film makers.

Hany Abu-Assad has now made a Hollywood film (The Mountain Between Us, 2017). Is that a final aim for directors like you to eventually go there or you’re happy continuing what you are doing now?

For Hany, yes. That’s where he always wanted to go. For me, no. I’m not interested in that kind of cinema. I did work in LA before making films, when I was trying to become a film maker. And I hated it. I hated the system of film making, and I hated the kinds of films that were coming out. They weren’t films that affected me or I was moved by them. So I left and I have no intention of ever going back.

What are your views on Iranian cinema?

I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema. Iranian Cinema had a big influence on me when I started to study cinema. And even Wajib in many ways is a nod to Iranian cinema. Focusing on two actors riding and talking in a car is definitely Iranian cinema’s big influence on me.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine(Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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