The Boston Palestine Film Festival 2009: "Laila's Birthday"

The harried hero (Mohammed Bakri) of Rashid Masharawi's "Laila's Birthday" has a few simple rules when it comes to people using his cab. First, put on the seatbelt if you're in the front seat. Second, no smoking. Third, no checkpoints. And finally, absolutely no automatic weapons. "You're robbing yourself!" says one would-be customer toting an AK-47. "Half the people in Ramallah carry guns. The other half can't afford taxis!"

So goes another day in the life of a cab driver in Palestine. Unlike most, perhaps, this driver is also a judge. Invited by the Palestinians to relocate from his successful post in a neighboring Arab country to serve in their Ministry of Justice ("We have a Ministry of Justice?" asks one fare), he's been enduring a Kafka-esque ordeal waiting for months for his appointment to be confirmed because the government keeps changing. In the meantime he makes a living by driving his brother-in-law's cab. He's frustrated and stressed out, so no wonder his wife must remind him that it's his 7-year-old daughter Laila's birthday and he must return home from work in time to celebrate, bringing a present and a cake.

That's the premise: the cabbie must survive the absurd trials of a day on the meter in Ramallah and make it back home to sing "Happy Birthday" by 8 p.m. As such the film serves as a window into life under the Israeli occupation - but without a single Israeli in sight, only the off-screen roar of hovering helicopters and passing jets. Instead, Masharawi focuses on the Palestinians themselves, how they might ameliorate the situation, contrasting their ineffectual demands for freedom with their unwillingness in some cases to obey simple traffic regulations.  In a climactic rant through a police bullhorn, the cabbie does give a shout out to the occupiers, but mostly the film demands that the Palestinians themselves seize their own destiny.

Though barely over an hour long, "Laila's Birthday" makes a powerful impression, partly through Masharawi's shrewd and concise cinema verité style, employing tracking shots and mise-en-scene reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami (and also of Hany Abu-Assad's extraordinary 2003 documentary "Ford Transit"). Not to mention Bakri's intense, eloquent performance,  conveying through sheer body language hardship, dignity, and rage.

 It seems almost too much to bear. Somehow, though, you suspect that Mashawari's simple decency and rueful whimsy will prevail.

It screens this Sunday, November 1 at  5 pm at the Museum of Fine Arts to conclude this year's Boston Palestine Film Festival. A panel discussion on the film and on Palestinian filmmaking in general follows.

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