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.