I was just a young teen in Hebrew school when the 6-Day-War erupted on June 5, 1967 in the Middle East. I was relatively unaware of the political issues, but I do recall that a classmate questioned our teacher about Israel’s perspective and wondered if there wasn’t some merit to the Palestinian position. In short order, the young man was directed to the principal’s office and his parents were called in to review the matter with our rabbi. Seriously.
At the time, my perception of the Middle East was largely informed by family, Passover seders and the1960 blockbuster EXODUS, starring Paul Newman. That film’s positive portrayal of Israel generated an unprecedented flow of donations and caused the Israeli government to create a film division to fund positive-message films. So goes the power of movies.
Needless to say, a lot has happened since 1960 including a more complex cinematic consideration of Israel and Palestine. In just the past two years, several terrific films about the Middle East have been released including WALTZ WITH BASHIR, AJAMI, and the subject of this blog, LAILA’S BIRTHDAY. Directed by Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Mashawari, LAILA vividly defines the social and societal consequences of living in the non-stop chaos that is Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank (and Mashawari’s hometown).
The movie chronicles a day in the life of Abu Leila (Mohammed Bakri), a former judge who, due to a lack of funding for justices, is forced to drive his brother-in-law’s taxi. The movie begins at dawn when Abu is awakened with the loud crash of shattering glass. He immediately checks in on his 7-year-old daughter, Laila. She’s fine, but the crash foreshadows a rough day ahead. As he leaves for work, Abu’s wife has just one request: be home by 8pm to celebrate their daughter’s birthday.
The clever conceit of the film is that we learn about Abu’s life in Ramallah from the passengers he picks up as well as those he declines. One passenger wants to go to an Israeli checkpoint, a request that a wary Abu refuses. Another hops out mid-journey when she spots a long line of people—she’s desperately hoping that the queue is for food and other supplies. And yet another sits in the passenger seat next to Abu and asks, as if he were an old friend, whether she should go to the hospital (she has high blood pressure) or the cemetery (her husband has recently passed); Abu takes her to the
While noisy helicopters patrol above and gunshots crackle on every corner, Abu struggles to maintain some sense of order and control. But it is not long before we begin to see a fissure in his professorial reserve. When Abu stops for gas, he observes drivers casually chatting with one another while traffic has stalled in both directions. The drivers seem oblivious to the cacophony of honking cars around them. This is when Abu finally loses control, grabs a police megaphone and vents. It’s the Palestinian equivalent of Peter Finch’s breakdown in NETWORK.
There’s no question that social interactions in Ramallah have beenprofoundly affected by the absence of order and the constant threat ofviolence. And LAILA’S BIRTHDAY is remarkably successful at defining the extraordinary anxiety of an ordinary life in Palestine.