Inspired by Palestinian tradition, Annemarie Jacir’s latest feature is a subtle yet absorbing journey across the ancient city of Nazareth. Wajib, which loosely translates to ‘social duty’, follows father and son, Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) and Shadi (Saleh Bakri), as they hand-deliver wedding invitations for Amal (Maria Zreik), their daughter/sister. Trapped on narrow streets in an ageing car, during the build-up to Christmas, the obligatory and time-consuming process forces the pair together; bringing disagreements to the fore and exposing their incompatible survival techniques as Arabs in Israel. Played by real-life father and son, their prickly exchanges and uncomfortable silences recall so many strained parent/child relationships, but Wajib sympathetically explores both of their perspectives, creating genuine insight and empathy for these disparate souls.
Shadi has returned from Italy to help with the wedding. With his long hair pulled back in a casual bun, his red trousers and floral shirt jar with his father’s neutral and well-worn outfit, that seems to blend with the dusty surroundings. Shadi’s constant nagging for his father to stop smoking falls on deaf ears – alike his mentions of his girlfriend back home – and the pair disagree vehemently about life under Israeli control. Shadi can’t believe all the rubbish in the street, but Abu Shadi is just glad they have a municipality at all. All Abu Shadi wants is for his son to meet someone at the wedding and move back to Nazareth. He also wants Shadi to be a doctor, a career move, he tells anyone who will listen, his son is pursuing, despite Shadi’s success in architecture. Amal has pushed them together, but it’s going to take more for them to see eye-to-eye.
In its exploration of the city, Wajib depicts a rich and varied portrait of a community grappling with tradition and modernity. Father and son embody the disparity of an older generation constrained by expectations and duty, and their children, who have often left to make their lives elsewhere. But, skilfully, the film also demonstrates this pervasive phenomena through the cityscape itself. As the duo visit friends and family’s homes, the striking contrast in architecture and decoration repeatedly marks the gradations of western influence, with a knowing nod to the lingering shadow of heritage. The sumptuous, deep reds of a lavishly-patterned, claustrophobic apartment appear to have little in common with the open spaces, bright whites and pale wooden furniture of a modern family home. Throughout, the opposing styles bristle against one another like the families within.
Yet, despite the conflicting surfaces, they still share the same foundations. The customs are always the same – food, drink and local gossip. Everyone knows everyone. By complicating the situation and refusing to allow anyone, or any sections of society, to occupy a solely binary position, Wajib successfully disrupts an outsider’s preconceptions of the city. Whether an Aunt’s ostentatious and garish Christmas display, including a life-size Virgin Mary statue alongside twinkly lights and monochrome baubles, or Abu Shadi’s Jingle Bells ringtone, Jacir’s meticulous ‘real life’ observations, in an almost mythical place, keep the film grounded in the complexities of twenty-first century Nazareth.
But this reality is rife with irony. Although Abu Shadi is the first to accuse his son of romanticising and nostalgically craving a Palestine that no longer exists, he cannot help himself when describing his view of the motherland to his son’s potential father-in-law. On the phone, he sentimentally describes a bucolic view of orange trees, vineyards and rolling green hills, as they pull up in front of a make-shift stand selling lurid teddy bears next to piles of uncollected rubbish. His consistent half-truths, or outright lies, are one of his only comforts in a world changing so rapidly around him. That we can appreciate and consider every layer and nuance, and still empathise with the characters, in this quietly commanding feature, is an indication of Jacir’s powerful and impressive direction.
Wajib is released in cinemas on 14th September