Award-winning Palestinian film looks at family ties

The film features a broken Christian family composed of a single father who has been left to raise his son and daughter alone.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A scene from the award-winning film “Wajib.”                                                    (Alma Samkari)
Real-life story. A scene from the award-winning film “Wajib.” (Alma Samkari)

LONDON - The award-winning film “Wajib” tells the real-life story of a son and his father as they prepare for a wedding in Nazareth.

“Wajib” — Arabic for “social duty” — is a Palestinian tradition in which men in the bride’s family personally deliver wedding invitations. This tradition is also found in India and Mediterranean countries.

The film features a broken Christian family composed of a single father who has been left to raise his son and daughter alone. The son, Shadi, was sent away from the Palestinian territories for his safety but recently returned to help his father prepare for his sister’s wedding, a task that is all the more difficult with the absence of his mother.

Annemarie Jacir, the film’s director, said a few weeks ago that the father had an even tougher upbringing than his son. His opinions were always suppressed but Shadi was able to voice his strong political views. This led to Shadi being viewed as dangerous to the Israeli state. “His father learnt that, in order to survive, you have to be quiet and he saw that his son wasn’t that so he sent him away,” Jacir said.

The film begins with a radio announcement of names of those recently died, some of whom the father knows. Later, Shadi and his father see the carrying of a body and pay their respects from their car while in traffic, despite having trouble recognising the dead person. This shows a community where everyone knows each other.

The relationship between the father and son seems weak and tenuous and tension builds as the two take a days-long car trip together. Confined and forced to interact, it almost seems as though they are trapped together. “They have a lot of love for each other but, at the same time, they can’t stand each other,” said Jacir.

The car is symbolic as it was once the family car and holds different memories for each of them. For the father, it is a reminder of everything he has given up and compromised for his family, which is no longer around him. For Shadi, it reminds him of a past he is trying to escape.

The film’s characters frequently move from public to private spaces and they act and speak differently in each context. The father, for example, tells white lies — not embellishes, he lies and says his son is a doctor but he is an architect — about Shadi’s job and relationships to please others.

The film explores how politics affect relationships. Shadi’s girlfriend in Italy is a Palestinian who is the daughter of a refugee, meaning she is unable to visit the Palestinian territories. This makes it difficult for Shadi’s father to accept their relationship because he fears Shadi may not return if they marry. A dispute erupts when the father says he wants to invite an Israeli settler to the wedding, which angers Shadi, who believes he is a spy.

The film explores the effects of parental abandonment. During an argument with his father, Shadi sides with his mother’s choice in leaving the family. The father bursts out: “I could have done that, too, but I didn’t.”

Social disparities between men and women are explored throughout the film. Shadi’s cousin Fadjah, who previously lived with her ex-boyfriend, faces intense social stigma and has a difficult time finding a man who will accept her. Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, easily found an accepting woman to marry. “That exists in Palestinian society a little bit and I wanted to critique that. If Fadjah was living somewhere else, she would be happier,” said Jacir.

While the film is not a comedy, there are comic moments interspersed throughout. “Nazareth is a violent, tense city. At the same time, you have this great humour,” said Jacir. “In a way, that’s how people survive.”

She said she wanted to present real Palestinian life, including Nazareth’s dirty streets and hectic traffic, rather than zoning in on touristic areas. “I didn’t want to see Nazareth so much but I wanted to feel it,” Jacir said.

“Wajib” highlights the deep importance tradition holds for individuals and families across generations. Shadi travelled from Italy after years away to take part in his “wajib,” while the father was sure to hire the same singer who has been performing for their family for 40 years.

In the last scene of the film, Shadi and his father are viewed drinking coffee and smoking together while watching the sunset. Here we see a subtle shift in their relationship: After all their challenges and tension, they remain father and son.

“Everything they did was physically the same and that’s what being, I think, actual father and son and knowing each other so well came out of that and it was a beautiful magical moment,” Jacir said.