Masharawi Finds Palestinians In States of Suspended Animation

Robert Avila April 20, 2006

A casting call in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan produces a long, meandering line outside a dusty courtyard, where film director Ahmad (Mahmoud Massad), celebrity TV journalist Bissan (Areen Omari), and cameraman “Lumiere” (Youssef Baroud) are about to audition actors for the new National Palestinian Theater in Gaza. The director asks his first candidate, “What will you act?” The man (who seems decidedly unprofessional about the whole thing) responds, “Act? I have something to say!”

Sure enough, the man is no actor at all, but one of hundreds of ordinary refugees (generations worth reaching back to 1948) who’ve queued up in hopes of either getting a ticket back to Palestine or at least sending a message to loved ones across impermeable borders. “We have actors to audition,” says the unwitting director, impatiently guiding the man out again. “I can’t waste any time.”

The world of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi’s “Waiting,” the 2005 Palestinian/French production screening Sun/23 and Tues/25 at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, is filled with such scenes, where irony, humor, and pathos come intricately and ingeniously intertwined.

This is never more the case than when Ahmad — a gruff, disillusioned 40-ish filmmaker determined to emigrate out of Palestine, but who reluctantly accepts one last job as a favor to his friend Abu Jamil, the tirelessly upbeat director of the yet-to-be-completed National Palestinian Theater — bows to the inevitable crowds of desperate refugees waiting to “audition” by having them act out their essential condition, their sense of “waiting,” before the camera. Significantly, these auditions — at turns comical, surprising, and poignant— take place after he and his crew receive word of the project’s temporary suspension due to a budgetary emergency. In this multi-layered holding pattern, the story (scripted by Masharawi and Oscar Kronop) slyly elaborates its theme. The film’s title acutely recalls Beckett’s quintessential absurdist text, and there’s something Beckett-like, too, in the exchange between Ahmad and Abu Jamil at the construction site of the new theater when they remember Ahmad’s late father. “You know, two days before he died, he told me he couldn’t live far from Palestine,” says Abu Jamil, to which Ahmad responds, “One hour before he died, he said no one could live here.”

Meanwhile, the auditions they hold unearth strong and varied personalities united by dreams of homecoming, reunion, and universal human longings, would-be “actors” whose historical agency has been cruelly hobbled. In one audition, a young woman insists on singing a heart-rending song; in another a young man acts out his humiliation in starkly direct terms suggestive of life under martial law; in another a man lies on the floor and refuses to leave. In yet another, the camera slowly zooms in on the pendulous features of a middle-aged garage mechanic, his motionless stare eventually filling the camera’s viewfinder, which automatically sweeps out the time to fractions of a second in the upper right-hand corner.

In what amounts to a road movie (but one slowed and stymied by the inevitable borders and checkpoints hemming in Palestinian lives), Masharawi skillfully turns the conceit of locating professional actors among the camps of Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon into a strategy for opening his lens on a vast landscape of ordinary Palestinians in a varied, volatile, and deteriorating states of suspended animation.

In such a situation, hope and despair dance together in shifting moods and perspectives. In the opening segment, for instance, we see the cynical Ahmad stubbornly clinging to a piece of Palestine (in the form of a rock stuffed into his bag) even as he tries to say goodbye to his friend Abu Jamil at the site of the National Palestinian Theater (a project supposedly backed by EU funds but after eight years still nothing more than a construction zone). Led around the future structure by the eager visionary, Ahmad’s dour expression relates all you need to know about his faith in the project even before he voices his doubts. To Abu Jamil’s sensible, “How can we have a state without a national theater?” Ahmad can only quip, “How can we have a national theater without a state?”

“You’ve been waiting eight years,” Ahmad tells his friend. “Something will cancel it again. It won’t happen.” But Abu Jamil is defiant. “It will happen!” And this time his “will” carries the day: reminding Ahmad (who like the film’s real-life director was born in a refugee camp) that it was he who once dreamed of reuniting Palestinian refugee-actors in one all-inclusive troupe. Tellingly at this point, the way Mashawari’s actors gesture, and stand slightly turned out to the camera, seems subtly to support Abu Jamil’s position, since the action appears almost deliberately stagy-indeed, they’re standing on what should be the theater’s main stage. Whether or not the National Palestinian Theater (in reality a fictitious institution invented by Masharawi) will ever be completed, the film is determined to see its dream incarnated.

Still, that’s a dream necessarily incomplete and uncertain. In another audition scene, a young woman admits to having no acting experience beyond a part as an extra in a film about Palestinian liberation, although she can’t remember which one. “So many films about that.” Ahmad is suddenly curious. “How did it end?” She shrugs. “I don’t know.”