Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Taxi to the not-so-dark side

Laila’s Birthday plays today at 6:10pm at River East.

Is it possible to make an apolitical film in Palestine? More appropriately, is it possible to be an apolitical Palestinian? Rashid Masharawi’s comedy Laila’s Birthday proceeds from this question, yielding a rather entertaining comedy of errors before arriving at moments of (sadly familiar) pathos. Its protagonist is a former judge—an emblem of nonpartisanship—reduced to driving a cab while he waits for the Abbas government to reestablish him in court. The film follows him through a day that goes from bad to worse; the running joke is that the tumult of occupied Palestine won’t even allow our decent judge to buy his daughter a birthday present.

Laila’s Birthday marks a great step forward for Masharawi, whose last film, the mostly-pleasant Waiting (2005), was undone by clumsy moments of didacticism. Here, the politics are less forced and less simple. Most of the people Judge Abu meets are friendly, law-abiding citizens like himself who regard the occupation as well Palestinian politics as really big inconveniences. In one of the film’s best scenes, an old woman waiting in line for food rations complains that Fatah and Hamas are equally corrupt because they only give out food to their own members. “So which party do you belong to?” someone asks her. “Whichever one is giving out the food.”

The film’s humor bears passing resemblances to the Jewish comedy that was most popular in the U.S. during the Great Depression. Likewise, at 71 minutes, Laila’s Birthday has the tautness of a Depression-era programmer. Masharawi moves the film deftly from episode to episode and from comedy to drama while presenting a believable portrait of contemporary Ramallah. To the casual Western observer, this may be the most valuable aspect of Laila’s Birthday, as it depicts a modern Palestinian city with all the (secular) bustle of American one. Even when Masharawi’s visual style appears indifferent, his locations remain expressive.