SLIFF 2009 Review: LAILA'S BIRTHDAY - We Are Movie Geeks

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Rashid Masharawi’s latest film, LAILA’S BIRTHDAY, is a film both daring and sweet, a story about a world turned upside down and a man who is simply trying to navigate his way through a day in it.

Mohammed Bakri plays Abu Laila, a judge who, due to lack of government funding, must drive a cab to make ends meet.  The film takes place on his daughter, Laila’s, seventh birthday, and we venture through the complex streets of Ramallah with Abu Laila as he attempts to make it through his seemingly endless day.

Masharawi’s film is a daily look at the lives of the people who inhabit this occupied city, but it is also a testament to those who are  attempting  to make due.  Abu Laila wants what is best for his family, and the confusion of the world they live in slowly begins chipping away at him.  Abu Laila is a forceful man, a man who, being once a judge, lives his life by a certain set of rules.  He has no issue in making these rules known to his various fares throughout the day.  He doesn’t stop at checkpoints, there is no smoking allowed in his car, and he does not transport people carrying arms.  The passengers have no issue throwing the “rules” of the world back in Abu Laila’s face, either.  One fare who wishes to smoke recalls the 11 years he has just spent in jail, all the while passing the time smoking.  A man with an AK-47 strapped across his chest makes the claim that half the people in the city are armed.  The other half can’t afford the fare.

The framing of each of these scenarios is done with masterful grace by Masharawi.  For the most part, it is just Bakri’s Abu Laila and his current fare in the car at any given moment, but there is so much to derive from even the littlest of nuances in each character’s face.  This is a world of confusion, a place where people cannot tell friend from foe simply by looking at them, and everyone is faced with the painstaking task of getting from point A to point B.  Leave it to a loving father who follows every rule in the book to be the one who transports them.

Speaking of which, Mohammed Bakri is amazing in this film.  He effortlessly captures every expression, every mindset Abu Laila goes through in the course of this day with keen precision.  At one point, after experiencing the aftermath of a bombing, Abu Laila, mind wandering as it must, accidentally hits a pedestrian standing in the middle of the street.  The look of concern at what he has just done splashed across Bakri’s face, the solicitude in Bakri’s pale, blue eyes, is undeniable and genuine.  This is just one of a thousand moments found in LAILA’S BIRTHDAY that serve as evidence of just how gifted an actor this man is.  At one point near the end, Abu Laila, nearly broken and frustrated at how little he has been able to do for his daughter that day, gets on a speaker phone and begins shouting at whoever will hear him.  It is a particularly powerful scene, anyway, but Bakri’s sincerity comes through in a wave of emphatic emotion.

Everything about LAILA’S BIRTHDAY, from the skilled way in which Masharawi shoots the city to the exquisite care given to the story’s upbeat and heartfelt ending, is picture perfect.  You honestly don’t even need to understand everything that is happening in that part of the world to realize just how masterfully crafted a story this is concerning a father, his views on the world, and his love for his family.  Masharawi crafts the confusion built up within the characters in such a way that the most basic of ideas comes screaming through.  The most important thing is family, and no amount of self-destruction or chaos going on around you should make you lose sight of that.  Masharawi understands that,  Abu Laila understands that, and LAILA’S BIRTHDAY is a validation to it.

LAILA’S BIRTHDAY will screen at the Plaza Frontenac on Friday, November 13th at 3:00pm and on Sunday, November 15th at 5:00pm during the 18th Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival.

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