Annemarie Jacir talks Palestine, tradition and identity ahead of the Middle East premiere of her new film, Wajib.
The director Annemarie Jacir is talking weddings. Not her own, as she’s already married, but the concept of them. Or at least, the masculine tradition of hand-delivering wedding invitations in Palestine.
“Although people have become more lax about it, for the Palestinians in the north it’s still taken very seriously,” she says. “There is no way to mail, or even have someone else deliver an invite. The men in the family are supposed to hand deliver every single wedding invitation and I found this very interesting – the need to hold onto this tradition, especially in historic Palestine, that is somehow a way to insist on their identity as Palestinians.”
It is late October and the two of us are discussing Jacir’s new film, Wajib, which is to have its Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in December. Centred on the peculiarities of this Palestinian tradition, it is limited almost entirely to the confines of a car.
It is also Jacir’s most dialogue-heavy film to date and stars real-life father and son, Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, as their troubled father-son relationship unfolds through the course of a single day.
“I wanted to tell a story about the relationship between father and son, about two men who have lost their family and are somehow trying to find each other again,” says Jacir, who is also a published poet. “Two men who have made different decisions in their life and just need a bit of respect from the other. At the end of the film, I don’t want to say who is right and who is wrong – I just want to be honest about their pain, and their reality. This film is about them finally saying to the other all the things they have needed to say for a long time.”
Jacir, a graduate of the Columbia film school in New York, is at the forefront of Palestinian cinema. With two feature films already to her name, she is busy touring with Wajib (which means ‘duty’ in English) when we chat.
In Dubai she needs little introduction. Her debut feature, Salt of this Sea, screened here back in 2008, while Wajib, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Muhr Feature competition, received US$25,000 (Dhs91,823) from the Dubai Film Connection, DIFF’s co-production market, in 2015. Wajib also arrives relatively fresh from its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August and screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
“I was interested in telling a story about the minority of Palestinians who live in Nazareth, those Palestinians who did not become refugees and who live as third-class citizens today,” she adds. “Nazareth as a city fascinated me – with all of its tension and violence – it really is a ghetto. And there is a great spirit there, a people who have a fantastic sense of humour and who, more than anything, are survivors. I love that about them.”
Jacir identifies wholeheartedly as a Palestinian. She lives and works in Haifa and shot Wajib in Nazareth – the largest all-Palestinian city in historic Palestine – and works almost exclusively with issues of displacement, identity and loss. Like 2008’s Salt of this Sea and 2012’s When I Saw You, Wajib has also become her country’s official entry to the Academy Awards.
“The audience I always have in mind is the Palestinian audience – I know very well that many of the jokes and the nuances of the film will only be fully understood by them,” says Jacir, who was raised in Saudi Arabia, and moved to the United States at the age of 16. “But as an artist I hope that the film is never limited to a specific audience. I do think that when a filmmaker is honest and specific, the work naturally becomes more universal.”
The last time Jacir and I met was in July, a few weeks before Wajib’s world premiere. We had met briefly before, at the Festival Ciné-Palestine in Paris (for which she is a patron), and on both occasions she was warm and welcoming.
That warmth, however, hides an earnestness and determination. How else do you make films as a Palestinian woman?
“Women have to work much, much harder than men do and luckily I inherited ‘work’ genes,” she says. “I started working when I was 15. I don’t know how to take a vacation, but I’m trying to learn.”
“Making films is a battle,” she adds. “Each one has been difficult, and mostly that’s because of funding. Finding the funds is probably our greatest challenge as independent filmmakers.”
It took five years to bring Wajib to fruition, largely because Jacir also wrote the screenplay (as she does with all her films), but also because she has taught and collaborated on other projects since the release of When I Saw You.
For those familiar with her work, one particular constant will stand out in Wajib – Saleh Bakri. Perhaps best known for his performance in Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, he has appeared in all of Jacir’s films, although Wajib represents the very first time he has appeared on screen opposite his father.
“When I cast Saleh in Salt of this Sea, he had not been on screen yet,” says Jacir. “I found in him an insanely talented actor, a great human and also an artistic collaborator. It is why I continue to work with him.
“When I wrote Wajib, I had him in mind for Shadi [the son]. It was Mohammad that I had to think a lot about. I knew he would give so much to the character – and that he and Saleh working together would give even more – because of course a lot of the issues and tensions in the film are very personal. But also it would be very difficult for them as actors to work so closely together. They could have had blocks up, they could have been unable to push each other like that publicly – it’s extremely difficult to work with your own family.
“We spoke about these challenges very openly together and shared our fears and concerns. I remember Mohammad saying this would be the greatest challenge and in fact the project of his life. For those that know Mohammed, you also know how far away he is from being Abu Shadi – in terms of thought, in terms of looks, and energy.
“Mohammad worked very hard for months on this. In the end, I could not be more happy with our work together and with the two of them.”
Images: Courtesy of Annemarie Jacir
Words: Iain Akerman