Sunday, February 7, 2010

DVD Pick: Rashid Masharawi's LAILA'S BIRTHDAY -- a sweet/comic/sad day with some Palestinians

A fine, small film that's likely to have slipped by you completely is LAILA'S BIRTHDAY from Palestinian writer/director Rashid Masharawi (shown below). Running but 70 minutes including credits, it's a short one but packed with telling moments that range from flat-out funny to moving, surprising and plain fascinating.

First of all, it's a surprise to see what looks very much like middle-class Palestinians on screen. We're so used to seeing the terrorist variety, or the poor and near-homeless, that it's a bit of a shock to realize that -- evidently -- some Palestinians in Israel live decently, despite their second-class-citizen status, and manage to make a "go" of things. Compared to most of the homes shown in Israeli films, the one belonging to this family looks quite lovely, furnished with taste and imagination.

The family in question consists of a cab driver husband (above, right) who used to be a judge in another country but has come back, upon request, with his family to serve Palestine (this fact is greeted all sorts of ways by the people, from passengers to those in government offices, that the cabbie encounters during his day's shift). The tone here is quietly comic and ironic, even when the events turn dark.

In one swell scene in a small cafe, customers rant against the Israeli military on the screen of the establishment's TV. Except... There's another doozey involving a donkey that will have you wondering if we've suddenly gone into the realm of fantasy. But no, it's all quite real. Which is Mr. Mashawari's point, I expect: Living under the rule of the "other" is seldom easy and makes for everything from small and large cruelties to the sublimely ridiculous.

Laila's Birthday never resorts to Israel-bashing. Instead it simply tells its little story about a father's desire to get his daughter a nice birthday present, and what happens when complications ensue. The father is played by awarding-winning actor Mohammed Bakri (above), his lovely wife by Areen Omari (below) and little Laila by Nour Zoubi (shown at bottom) in her film debut.  They're all fine but it's Mr. Bakri's movie -- his, and the many people of all types/classes
/levels of decency that he encounters throughout his day.

What the movie accomplishes, by never pushing its message but by simply showing us, is how like Israelis these people are. And how like so many of us westerners, too: in what we want and need and will do to get it.  At once exotic and exotic (you're not likely to find a donkey-and-cart on your local street), tender and tough, the film is among the most quietly eye-opening I have viewed in some time. I am grateful to have seen it, and I suspect you will be, too.

Laila's Birthday, distributed by Kino International, is available for purchase (Kino, Amazon, etc.) or rental (Netflix, Blockbuster and other video sources who offer international film).

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