For anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, society exchanges three fundamental things: words, women, and goods. Writer-director Annemarie Jacir explores those very objects of exchange in the most delicate of ways throughout Wajib. Although Amal (Maria Zreik) is getting married, neither her wedding nor the film itself is really about her. Both are about the men—her father, Shadi (Saleh Bakri), and her brother, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri)—in charge of making the delivery of the goods: that is, the woman, her gown, and the invitations for the ceremony. Abu Shadi has returned home to Nazareth from Italy specially for the occasion, and the expatriate’s homecoming serves as an opportunity for all sorts of words to be exchanged between father and son—namely those that have been bottled up for so long, or at least since Shadi and Amal’s mother left them to pursue a love story in America.
Wajib is akin to a road movie confined to Nazareth. Father and son drive around, stopping at the homes of those invited to Amal’s wedding to have some coffee, exchange niceties, or deflect annoying demands before dropping off the wedding invitation. The trip allows them to reconnect, reassert their ties with the community, and revisit the least resolved aspects of their past. To exist in the kinds of dysfunctional families we’ve come to build for ourselves, the film seems to say, one has to make and remake a commitment to never speaking the truth even about the most mundane of things.
Jacir establishes from the start, and somewhat repetitively, that Shadi is seen as a snob, if not a traitor like his mother, for having left the homeland. He styles his hair in something like a manbun, wears a pink shirt, and refuses to partake in gossip. While the first part of Wajib is intent on painting Shadi’s predicament—expatriate and homeland are bound to misrecognize each other—this is ultimately a film about the return of the repressed, and all those things that structure a family precisely because they’ve remained unsaid. This return is ultimately a kind of blessing, a family’s only hope to stop falling apart—or for the family to at least realize how apart it’s always been.
The film’s dramatic denouement is a tour de force of a scene where Abu Shadi and Shadi pull over to the side of a road and get out of their car to finally be direct and truthful to each other. While the entirety of their zigzaging road trip amounts to a settling of accounts via occasional jokes and little comments, here the father and son confront each other and the ghosts that have haunted their family history. For this brief moment, Jacir’s camera, which up until this point in the film mostly stares (and refreshingly so), is allowed to somatize the characters’ sense of urgency. Circling around them, the camera seems to breathe along with them, and appears to even root for them. No longer set on the hood of their car observing their conversations like characters inside a tableau, the camera becomes a kind of helpful family ghost pushing father and son toward some kind of reparation.
Wajib suggests that Palestinian survival depends on acts of self-erasure and self-betrayal. In the world of Jacir’s film, the occupied are perennial pallbearers of their kin while the occupiers might have to mourn their little poodles after they’re run over by cars. While political conflicts may be beyond repair, the film seems to say that fissures between parent and child can be mended through the word, and through the word alone.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 4—15.