Interview: Annemarie Jacir Discusses Palestine’s ‘Wajib’ and Women in Film

The term “wajib” refers to an obligatory practice in traditional Islamic culture. And with director Annemarie Jacir‘s latest film, audiences will be introduced to one of Palestine’s most fascinating examples. Screened at film festivals all over the world, “Wajib” follows an estranged father-son pair who are brought together to hand-deliver the wedding invitations for their daughter/sister. And as Palestine’s official Oscar entry, this gentle drama now awaits the decision of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award committee. In anticipation, Annemarie Jacir kindly spoke with me via phone from Nazareth, to discuss the film’s unique premise and her perspective as a female director from Palestine.

Shane Slater: How did you get the idea for this film?

Annemarie Jacir: The idea came when my husband received a phone call that his sister was getting married. And he said, “I have to go back and help my father deliver these wedding invitations.” This is a Palestinian tradition but it’s not practiced so much anymore, except in Nazareth. So I thought that was really interesting and I asked if I could come along. Tag along in the back seat and be like a fly on the wall, which they thought was strange because it’s such a mundane thing to do.

So I went with them and I started developing the idea. I went around with them for about 5 days as they were going all over the city to neighboring villages, house to house delivering these invitations.

SS: I found it interesting that the men were so involved in tasks such as choosing the wedding dress. Were you trying to show an unconventional image of men or is this relatively common?

AJ: I was interested in the masculine tradition of delivering wedding invitations, because it’s only men who do it. I was interested in the father-son relationship and a story that was based on my most dialogue-heavy script. But really what it’s about is the things that men in general don’t say to each other. They don’t have chances to speak to each other. So I was interested in exploring that.

With the bridal shop, no that’s not very traditional for the men to be there at all. But that scene for me, is this moment where can see that for Abu Shadi, everything about his family is important. Everything he’s done in his life is because of family. And he doesn’t have any family. His wife left him, his son lives abroad, his daughter’s getting married and she’s going to leave. And here we understand that he’s not just a father for his precious little girl. He’s also the mother. He’s been performing both roles for years because of the situation. And that’s something the son doesn’t see yet. The daughter’s very aware of that, but the son doesn’t get it yet.

SS: “Wajib” has the format of a road movie. Do you have any personal favorites that may have inspired you?

AJ: I do love the road movie genre. And I love all kinds of road movies, from “Thelma and Louise” to Iranian cinema. These are films that definitely inspire me. My first film was also a road movie in a way. With “Wajib”, I liked the idea of the two of them in a car because they have to talk to each other. There’s nowhere to go, they have to confront each other. It’s also about who they are when they’re alone in the car together, and when they’re in front of people, dropping off invitations. Especially Abu Shadi.

I thought it was a nice way to structure it. Although I never thought about it as a road movie because it all takes place in Nazareth. But of course it is.

SS: The lead actors are father and son in real life. Are their personalities and relationships similar to what we see in the film?

AJ: I’d say the son Saleh Bakri, an actor I often work with, is close to the role. But his father, who is a well known actor in his own right and who I’ve never worked with and they’ve never worked together before, is very different. He’s very far from the role of Abu Shadi.

I cast Shadi right away but with Abu Shadi I hesitated a bit. Even people who know him and watch the film don’t recognize him. He physically looks different, his movement is different. In real life, Mohammad Bakri is a really elegant man. He’s the kind of person that when he walks into the room, all eyes are on him. He’s like a lion in the way he moves. Not at all like Abu Shadi. He’s a broken man. So that’s something we worked on a lot and he worked on as an actor. It was really interesting for me to watch his physical transformation. Not just the way we had him dress and the mustache, but what he did physically with his body.

SS: Their relationship is quite relatable in terms of the father’s expectations for his son regarding marriage and his career. When you were developing the script about this specific custom, did you realize how universal it would be?

AJ: Well, I think that’s where the personal comes in. I had a similar experience with my own father and me. A friend of his is a lawyer and I realized one day that he was telling him that I was a lawyer. So I picked up stuff from the universe around me, from Nazareth and life in Palestine. But I do believe the more specific you are in cinema, the more universal it actually is. Some people from Nazareth have seen the film and said people aren’t going to get these things. But it’s not true. Sure, somebody from Nazareth will read something a different way or they’ll get a nuance. But I do believe in the universality of our lives.

SS: The Israel-Palestine tensions come into play with the wedding invitations. Do you think Palestinian filmmakers feel an obligation to comment on the political climate?

AJ: I can only speak for myself and I don’t think it’s an obligation at all. It’s also not that interesting to try to talk about it. It’s just a natural part of life. I wanted to have a very natural rhythm to the film. It is fiction but it’s based in reality. All those political and social issues are all around them. But at the same time, it’s really about their relationship. These two men trying to learn to respect each other. The father-son relationship is the main focus, but definitely all that is there. If it wasn’t there, then it would be strange. That wouldn’t be reality. That wouldn’t be Palestine as we know it.

SS: There is currently a lot of talk surrounding women in film. Are there many women directors in Palestine?

AJ: Yes, now there are. It’s like with independent cinema all over the world. I tend to find that women are more involved in places that don’t have an established industry, because we’re all sort of beginning together. We’re all coming at it on the same playing field. And in places like Hollywood where women have been traditionally left out, it’s harder for women to get in. But in places like Palestine, Syria or the Philippines where we don’t have a big film industry, I think you do see a lot of female directors and producers.

SS: How does it feel to represent Palestine for the third time at the Oscars? Is there any pressure with Hany Abu-Assad having been nominated twice?

AJ: Yeah, Hany’s our man. But I don’t feel pressure. I think whatever happens, happens. What I think is important is that we put a film forward every year. That’s only been going on in the last decade or so. Traditionally Palestine has not put a foreign language film forward. And in the last 10 years, we’ve been represented. I think that’s really the important thing.

“Wajib” is the Palestinian submission for the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.