It’s for the very first time in this blog, the definition of “day” is fully realized. Day 11 of this 2017 Women’s Cinema project heads us to two specific cultures – a Palestinian feature father-son road trip Wajib directed by Annemarie Jacir, and a mesmerizing The Seen and Unseen by Kamila Andini. Both films expand from the specific custom and mythology of the region. Both films are the products from directors who delve deeper into their roots. One sticks out for their dialogues, the other is famous for its lyrical images. One roots deep into realism, the other blends reality with its dreamy aesthetic. Both receive the same rating score from me. Day 11 – it’s a day for cultural appreciation.
Annemarie Jacir: is a Palestinian filmmaker and poet. All three features she has made so far were selected as Palestine’s entries for the Foreign Language Academy Award. ‘Salt of the Sea’ was also the first feature directed by a Palestinian woman.
“The initial seed was the tradition of hand-delivering wedding invitations. It’s supposed to be the tradition, but very few Palestinians still practice it anymore. . 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.”
Wajib, the only Middle-East selection of this 2017 Women’s Cinema Festival, is a road trip movie at heart played by real-life father and son Mohammad Bakri and Jacir’s regular Saleh Bakri. The title means as the “duty” where the male members of the family go to friend houses to deliver wedding invitation. Such a simple premise evolves into a playful and heartwarming tale of father-son chemistry, the generation gap of Palestine community in this the Israeli city of Nazareth. In particular, white lies occur regularly in Abu and Shadi’s conversations. These lies and contradictions usually start off in a comedic manner before we eventually learn some truth behind them. Sometimes the father would lie to go in tune with the community, sometimes the son would hide some certain facts, especially when it comes to his mother, Abu ex-wife who left him to live in America.
Although slight in content (it’s only about 93 minutes) and not the film with great ambition, what makes Wajib a winner is a light touch but grounded observation of familial relationship that exploring the different perspective from different generation and from the Palentinese who live in the country versus those who live oversea. Shadi’s working in Italy as a result of someone ratting out on him years ago and sometimes you can see his frustration with the hometown in the present: full of trash on the street (but isn’t Rome the same), people’s gossip, lame wedding music… It doesn’t help that his father still holds some of the values that he considers as outdated. As for Abu, he’s the one who stays home to deal with all the issues, so he understands the way things work. The dynamic between them constantly switch between deep respect for each other, their mutual love, their own ego and the difference in mindset. They don’t get along quite often, they argue a lot (at one point they lost their heads) but their chemistry is always strong enough to carry the movie forward.
Episodic in nature, Wajib tells a 2-day story where they visit around town and meet different people. Some eccentric, some archetypal, but they all add up to frame the big picture of the current life in Israel. There’s a political unrest happening in the background. You can see fragments of it on some of the street where the duo passes, or on the radio where it details some political movement. It only serve as a spice, however, for this father-and-son road trip. Wajib does have its dramatic climax, as on the inside the growing conflict between the father and the son (which revolves around inviting that person who ratted him out) and on the outside their own worry if Shadi’s mom can make it to her daughter’s wedding. These conflicts escalate into the satisfying climax that carry the weight of the narrative. And the resolve (in which there’s no resolve) is quiet but equally fitting. Wajib might feel like a small film that could slip under the radar, but it benefits from its minimal premise to tell a simple but cozy road trip that both details the life of the current-day Nazareth, and the playful but observable familial dynamic that feel almost too real.
Kamila Andini: Born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1986, she studied sociology and media arts at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Her films focus on socio-cultural topics, gender equality and environmental issues. Her two short films Following Diana and Memoria both explore women’s issues in Jakarta and East Timor.
“After my first feature, I wanted to find out more about myself — what kind of film I should make and what kind of story I should tell. I wanted to go back to the roots; I wanted to portray what Asian humans, particularly Indonesian, are really constructed of. In this case, Bali is a place where holism is still strongly felt in daily life. “The Seen and Unseen” is the philosophy they believe in life; life is in harmony with all the seen things, and the unseen as well.”
I’m so glad I included this film in the Selection. The Seen and Unseen is amongst the least accessible film out of the line-up, not only because it comes from Indonesia with non-professional cast, but also because its visual language is so different and distinctive, it’s far-removed from the conventional storytelling. The main plot, or what it appears to be anyways, details a young girl Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) who copes with the illness of her twin brother Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena). At first we see him taken to the hospital. As his health gets worse, Tantri drifts away from reality with her meeting the healthy Tantra at night, and their flashback at the time when Tantra was normal. This is where the plot basically ends in place for part-mythological, part-psychological tone that blurs the line between… well… the seen and unseen, the death and the living.
Andini asserts that her inspiration comes from the titular Balinese mythology, in which – like how Yin and Yang work – the opposite components live together to create a balance harmony. In that sense, the cast in the film considers Tantra and Tantri as a blessing, as they complete each other. The film relies heavily on the motif of egg: the yolk and the white part, as the kids represent one part that make the egg whole. As a result, when one of them becomes ill, the balance is thrown off so that Tantri sees the underworld, where children ghosts rolling and walking nearby, where their hands reach toward as if they invite her to that world, where her twin brother is there to play with her. Perceiving The Seen and Unseen through that mythological light, it deepens the narrative. Appropriately, the film happens mostly during the night, whose attention is paid closely to the natural eerily sound, and the image of children ghosts walking and dancing in the bright moonlight.
We can also view The Seen and Unseen in its psychological aspect, as well. As Tantra becomes more and more out of the reality, the images that she sees, all the theatrical dances that she does, all in the service for Tantra to make sense of the loss of her twin brother. It’s a film that doesn’t take child’s point of view lightly, instead it honors child’s imaginative ways to cope with such serious issues that they themselves can’t express clearly. Most of the dances she plays, for example, take direct inspiration from the conversations she heard in real life. Many extended dances, which I can argue would be much at home in children’s play, never feel out of place. What the film succeeds so wonderfully is that it portrays the grieving process and the haunting sad tone with zero heavy-handed approach. While the film compensates much of its plot for its moody tone (yes, it’s really incoherent), it’s to Andini’s credit who creates a film with vision unlike any other, a film that is strange yet grounded. Lyrical, magical, sad, it shines bright when it’s surrounded by the darkness of the night, even at the cost of its more accessible reach.
With the end of Day 11, it’s only one more day in the Main Competition. The final two slots take us to the countryside of South Dakota for The Rider by Chloe Zhao, a docudrama film about the titular character who is in his crisis and then to the past with Zama by the great Lucrecia Martel about Zama’s life, colonialism and the state of Argentina itself. Just a final note before closing of the day, I’ve decided to make a full day of sidebar titles (that makes it Day 13): films directed by women but aren’t quite fit to the Main Competition (now I understand completely the existence of Un Certain Regard, Panorama and the likes). I’ll announce the three films I’m going to review at the end of Day 12. The last day (Day 14) will be the closing film, follow up by the awards announcement. See ya within days, readers.