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In praise of Mohammad Bakri: 10 movies that made the Palestinian an icon

Israel's ban of his 2002 documentary Jenin, Jenin threatened to make the Palestinian actor-director a pariah, but his decades-long career pays a rich homage to Palestinian life
Bakri's 2002 documentary, Jenin, Jenin, is still the subject of legal disputes in Israel (AFP)

In 2002, Mohammad Bakri, one of the most well-known and visible Palestinian actors in Israel, went to Jenin after hearing reports of a massacre. Bakri spent five days there, filming the aftermath of Israel’s assault and interviewing numerous survivors. 

The resulting 54-minute film, Jenin, Jenin, premiered later that year at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. According to Bakri, he naively dreamed that this film would be embraced by sympathetic Israelis and that it would win prizes and awards for its gritty, unapologetic presentation of Palestinian eyewitness accounts. Instead, it was greeted with rage. 

Bakri’s critics condemned his documentary as a "blood libel" and he was accused of peddling "Palestinazi" propaganda. 

Filmmakers denounce Israel ban on 'Jenin, Jenin'
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After just a few public screenings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the authorities intervened and banned the film. War crimes and massacres are fine; documenting them is apparently an unpardonable sin.

Bakri’s fall from grace was swift. For nearly two decades, he had been one of the most familiar Arab faces in Israeli cinema. The year before the release of the documentary, Bakri had been nominated for one of Israel’s most prestigious film awards for his role as a Hebrew-speaking Mizrahi Jew in Desperado Square. With the appearance of Jenin, Jenin, things changed. 

The "good Arab" turned out to be more Palestinian than his Israeli audiences had realised, and as a result, Bakri was soon being denounced as a traitor on the Knesset floor and branded a terrorist sympathiser in the Israeli press. 

After a nearly two-year legal battle over the film, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the ban. 

Mohammad Bakri AFP
Bakri has promised to continue fighting against Israel's decision to ban his film Jenin, Jenin (AFP)

One could finally purchase or screen Jenin, Jenin in Israel without committing a criminal act. However, the Kafkaesque legal challenges did not end there, and ever since, the film has been the subject of multiple libel suits.

Earlier this month, one of these cases was finally successful, and a court in Lod banned the film once again. Existing copies were ordered confiscated and destroyed, and Bakri was slapped with a fine of 175,000 shekels (around $55,000) - payable to one of the Israeli soldiers who briefly appears in the film. Bakri has promised to appeal the ruling.

The level of violent rhetoric surrounding this case should not be overlooked. In Israel, Bakri has become a lightning rod for anti-Palestinian vitriol, and he is regularly targeted with invectives, threats, and hate speech, some of which can be seen in his 2005 documentary Since You’ve Been Gone. As one of Bakri’s lawyers recently told Ha’aretz: “I’ve never had a case where the atmosphere was as poisonous and violent as in this one.” 

With Bakri still facing such severe punishment over his 18-year-old documentary, now is an ideal time to take stock of his long and ongoing film career.

Bakri has pursued acting during a period in which compelling roles for Arabs have been extremely scarce, and his accomplishments should not be underestimated. Over the years, Bakri has worked to find opportunities to pour himself onto the screen, and he has become one of Palestine’s most visible cinematic figures.

Unfortunately, many of Bakri’s contributions threaten to be forgotten, and even in our digital, on-demand age, in which entertainment is usually just a mouse-click away, many of Bakri’s films remain obscure and difficult to find. 

Here is a brief overview and appraisal of Bakri’s career, specifically pointing out ten of his films that you should not miss.

1. Hanna K. (dir. Costa-Gavras, 1983)

Bakri made his screen debut with a splash. At the age of thirty, he was selected to play the main Palestinian character in a major international production: Costa-Gavras’ 1983 film Hanna K

Based on a screenplay by the writer of The Battle of Algiers, Hanna K. is concerned with a lawyer, the titular Hanna, whose Palestinian defendant, Selim (Bakri), keeps getting arrested for crossing into Israel. 

Selim claims that he just wants to return to his house; the state accuses him of being a terrorist. Coming fresh on the heels of Costa-Gavras’ award-winning political thriller Missing, one would have expected Hanna K. to do better at the box office than it did. 

At the time of its release, pro-Israel groups sought to oppose it. B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League even distributed talking points to their members, instructing them on how to respond to the film’s claims.

Perhaps as a result of such pressure, Hanna K. seems to have been buried. Its box office run was remarkably limited, and to this day, it remains one of Costa-Gavras’ only films to have not been given a North American DVD release. 

In Hanna K., Bakri’s character remains rather enigmatic. We never know with certainty whether or not Selim is secretly involved with violence. However, he is consistently presented as a far more dignified figure than the film’s other male characters. Selim is even shown caring for Hanna’s infant boy more than his actual father does. 

While others in the film shout and judge and are quick to anger, Selim remains kind and calm in the face of abuse, and he is resolutely focused on his goal: to simply return home.

Towards the beginning of the film, Bakri delivers one of the film’s most memorable lines. When Hanna asks him why he has not chosen to defend himself, Bakri’s character responds, “Because they would not listen to me. On the contrary, they would not hear me.” That is, Palestinians might be seen and heard, but they are not understood or comprehended. It is a significant insight that is still remarkably relevant today- That when a Palestinian demands equality, Israel’s defenders hear nothing but the sounds of violence and terrorism. 

Despite initial praise from the likes of Edward Said, Hanna K. is not as radical as one might have imagined it to be. However, we should keep in mind the context in which it appeared. 

Hanna K. was released during the pre-Intifada era, a time when positive depictions of Palestinians, or the Palestinian cause, were almost completely absent in the West. Indeed, Hanna K. appeared in cinemas less than a year before Joan Peters’ notorious From Time Immemorial - a book disputing the Palestinians’ very existence - became a bestseller.

Hanna K. thus represents a landmark film. For many audiences in the West, Bakri’s visage was most likely the first Palestinian face that they had ever seen portrayed in a positive light. 

2. Beyond the Walls (dir. Uri Barbash, 1984)

The 80s and 90s were not a great time to be an Arab actor - neither in Israel nor internationally. The few roles that did exist were often limited to gross, stock characters: the Arab as terrorist or suicide bomber. With a few exceptions, Bakri managed to avoid taking on these roles, and in some cases, he was even able to suggest ways to improve his characters.

For instance, in Beyond the Walls - Israel’s 1984 Academy Award-nominated prison drama - Bakri plays Issam, an incarcerated Fatah leader who ends up working with a gang of Jewish criminals to organise a strike against corrupt prison guards.

Beyond the Walls was originally meant to end with Issam breaking the strike in order to be permitted to see his wife and young son. As Ella Shohat notes in her book Israeli Cinema, Bakri disagreed with this approach and argued that such an ending would “kill the utopia”. 

After filming the scene both ways, the director was convinced of Bakri’s position. In the final cut, Issam refuses to break the strike. Solidarity is maintained. It is an important cinematic moment of resistance, a moment of personal sacrifice for the collective cause.

During this stage of his career, Bakri took roles in a number of Israeli films. Often, he played Arab militants, but sometimes he took on Jewish roles and even played roles in Hebrew - an interesting reversal of the usual practice of casting Mizrahi Jewish actors to play evil Arab terrorists. 

3. Cup Final (dir. Eran Riklis, 1991)

The most interesting film from this period is Eran Riklis’ 1991 film Cup Final. Set in 1982, this film follows a group of Palestinian fighters in southern Lebanon who manage to capture two Israeli soldiers. The film follows their journey back to Beirut, and although they never exactly become friends, the relationship between the Palestinians and their Israeli prisoners develops a great deal of empathy and even mutual understanding. 

Cup Final is an Israeli film in every sense; it was directed by an Israeli, written by an Israeli, and financed by Israelis. However, what really shines through in this film is the squad of Palestinians. Bakri takes on the role of their leader, Ziad, and the rest of the group is played by a who’s who of Palestinian actors with Israeli citizenship from the period, such as Salim Dau, Yussuf Abu-Warda, and Suhel Haddad. 

Cup Final (1991)

The camaraderie that develops between them is deeply engaging - at times humorous, at times frightening, at times tearful and sad. It is surprising to see Palestinian militants treated with such a degree of complexity. 

As Ziad, Bakri provides the film’s stand-out performance. At first appearance, he looks like an Arab Rambo - gun in one hand, cigarette in the other. Rather than remaining wed to macho notions of masculine bravado and heroism, however, Bakri portrays Ziad with nuance and depth, even providing several tender, delicate moments. 

One of the film’s most notable scenes takes place when the group of commandos takes shelter in a basement arcade. Ziad challenges his Israeli prisoner to a game of pool, and the Palestinians spontaneously begin giving each of the billiard balls the names of Palestinian towns and cities: Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, and even Jerusalem. Suddenly, the friendly game of billiards becomes much more than a simple game, and the tension rises with each ball that the Israeli soldier manages to sink into the pocket.  

4. The Milky Way (dir. Ali Nassar, 1997)

As groundbreaking as Bakri’s contributions to films like Beyond the Walls and Cup Final were, his roles were still quite limited. It seemed that he was destined to only play prisoners and militants.

 This gradually began to shift with the rise of independent Palestinian cinema in the late 1980s and 1990s. As Palestinian productions started to take off, Bakri appeared in films by several up-and-coming Palestinian directors, including Hanna Elias, Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, and Najwa Najjar. In these films, Palestinians could finally take on roles with much more variety and even humanity.

The Milky Way by Ali Nassar (1997)

One of Bakri’s most memorable roles from this time is a little-known, neglected gem from 1997, Ali Nassar’s The Milky Way. Set in a Palestinian village in the Galilee during the years of Israeli military rule, The Milky Way’s cast is made up exclusively of Palestinian actors. Even the Israeli soldiers that appear in the film are played by Palestinians. 

In addition to serving as film’s executive producer, Bakri also played one of the most compelling characters: Mahmud the blacksmith. The first time we see Mahmud, he is in his workshop, squatting next to a fire where he is forging a sickle. If this symbolism was not enough for us to guess his political tendencies, we soon learn that Mahmud’s favorite colour is red.

While the socialist imagery might be a bit heavy-handed, Mahmud is a memorable protagonist, and he faces off against a different kind of enemy. Whereas the Israelis are still a background menace in the film, the most immediate antagonists emanate from Palestinian society itself: corrupt officials and hierarchical traditions. 

5. Haifa (dir. Rashid Masharawi, 1996), and 6. Laila’s Birthday (dir. Rashid Masharawi, 2008)

One of Bakri’s most notable collaborations has been with the Gaza-born filmmaker Rashid Masharawi. Bakri has appeared in several of his films, including Haifa (1996) and Laila’s Birthday (2008). In the former, Bakri plays a madman - the archetypical village idiot- who runs around his Gaza refugee camp excitedly yelling out the names of conquered towns: “Jaffa, Haifa, Acre!” 

Haifa is a film of crushed dreams. In its short 75-minute runtime, every fragment of hope seems to be destroyed, especially those of Bakri’s simple character. The film seems to be a critical indictment of the Oslo Accords - too little, too late.

Filmed over a decade later, Laila’s Birthday develops some of these same themes. If Haifa had lamented the beginning of the Oslo period, Laila’s Birthday is a response to its institutionalisation and utter failure. 

Taking place over the course of a single day in the life of Abu Laila (Bakri), a judge-turned-taxi driver in Ramallah, the film is an exercise in growing frustration. Every direction that Abu Laila turns, he encounters obstacles: traffic, corrupt officials, bureaucratic hurdles, inconsiderate customers, Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence.

Eventually, Abu Laila has had enough, and the film culminates in a spectacular scene at a gas station, where the character grabs the microphone from a police car, and begins shouting orders to the chaotic, corrupt world all around him. 

The madness of the occupied West Bank has driven the area’s sanest man to the brink of madness. Despite the rising tensions of the film, Abu Laila retains a real tenderness and affectionate warmth towards his young daughter Laila, and Bakri expertly navigates this mix of love and madness, serenity and insanity.

7. 1948 (dir. Mohammad Bakri, 1998)

While Jenin, Jenin is the film that gave Bakri his notoriety, it was neither the first nor the last documentary for him to direct. Timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Nakba, his directorial debut, 1948, brought memories to the screen that had otherwise been absent from cinema. 

1948 by Mohammad Bakri (1998)

While the Nakba exists in the shadows of most Palestinian films, it has rarely been depicted so directly. The heart of 1948 is its interviews with survivors of the Nakba, including people who escaped the massacres of Deir Yassin and al-Dawayima and refugees from destroyed villages like Saffuriya.

The film’s first interview is of an elderly woman, a survivor from Deir Yassin. Facing the camera, she sings a lament as an Israeli flag ironically waves behind her. 

Along with the Nakba survivors, 1948 also presents archival photos, interviews with well-known Palestinian authors (poet Taha Muhammad Ali and novelist Liana Badr), and scenes from Bakri’s one-man play, The Pessoptimist (based on Emile Habiby’s novel). 

The film also includes conversations with several Israelis: a soldier-turned-peace activist who participated in Israel’s so-called War of Independence and two Iraqi Jews who now live in a village that had previously been inhabited by Palestinians. 

Bakri also gives the film some historical context by including interviews with an Israeli journalist, and one wonders if this inclusion might be one of the reasons why 1948 did not generate the same vitriol as Jenin, Jenin. Both documentaries are extremely critical of Israel, but whereas 1948 included authoritative, Israeli voices, the latter is composed only of bereaved Palestinians. 

8. Private (dir. Saverio Costanzo, 2004)

With the release of Jenin, Jenin in 2002, Bakri became persona non grata in Israeli circles. One of his most important sources for work thus became unavailable to him, and as a result, he increasingly turned to international productions.

Private by Saverio Costanzo (2004)

Notably, some of these films have been about the struggles of other communities, including Armenians and Kurds. As he once put it in an interview: “I love to make movies for the oppressed about the oppressed”. 

For instance, in The Lark Farm, Bakri plays a poor Turkish peasant who comes to regret his decision to betray his Armenian employers during the genocide. Another international feature in which Bakri appeared, Flowers of Kirkuk, deals with the massacre of Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s. 

Notably, some of Bakri’s international productions have been concerned with Palestine. The most significant examples of this category are the 2004 Italian film Private and the 2018 animated Norwegian feature The Tower

Private represents the directorial debut of Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo. Bakri plays a man whose family inhabits a large house in a rural area of the West Bank. One night, they are rudely awakened by the invasion of their home by Israeli soldiers. Rather than simply kicking the Palestinian family out, the Israelis impose a three-part division of the house - an obvious metaphor for the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C. 

9. The Tower (dir. Mats Grorud, 2018)

The Tower is an animated film using stop-motion puppets, and it follows three generations of a family that fled Palestine and is now living in Lebanon’s Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp. Bakri served as one of the voice actors.

Mats Grorud, the film’s Norwegian director, has a personal connection to the story. In the 1980s, his mother had volunteered as a nurse in some of the camps, and he later worked there as an English instructor himself. 

As an animated feature, The Tower was released in multiple languages, and Bakri voiced the grandfather character in the English version. It is rather strange to hear the Palestinian characters speak in a language other than Arabic. However, as an international, animated film, The Tower can potentially reach global audiences that other movies never would, and it is thus another important contribution to Palestinian cinema.

10. Wajib (dir. Annemarie Jacir, 2017)

With Bakri’s screen career approaching the end of its fourth decade, it shows little signs of slowing down. Moreover, his contribution to Palestinian cinema goes beyond his own work, and three of his children -Saleh, Ziad, and Adam- have become actors in their own right. 

These days, it almost seems like every new Palestinian film has at least one of the Bakris attached to it. While Bakri has occasionally worked on films with his sons - Saleh briefly appears in Laila’s Birthday, for instance, and Ziad directed a 2011 short starring his father, The Salt Fisherman - it was not until Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib that Bakri shared top billing with one of them. 

Starring Bakri along with his son Saleh, Wajib represents one of the absolute highlights of Bakri’s distinguished career. The film takes place in Nazareth, and it follows a father as he drives around with his son distributing invitations to his daughter’s wedding. The father, Abu Shadi, is a schoolteacher who has gradually accommodated himself to the realities of living in modern-day Israel. 

His son Shadi, on the other hand, is a radical who has relocated to Italy. It is worth comparing the elder Bakri’s role here with some of his earlier screen performances. At one point in the film, Bakri’s son puts him on the phone with his girlfriend’s father in Italy, an ageing PLO member.

For a brief moment, it is almost as if he is speaking to one of his former characters - the radicals and militants from films like Beyond the Walls or Cup Final. When the PLO member, thirsty for images of the homeland, asks him what he is currently looking at, Abu Shadi lies and tells him that he sees a beautiful grove of orange trees when in fact he is looking at a flea market selling cheap Christmas paraphernalia. 

This humorous scene encapsulates one of the film’s most important themes: the contradiction between our romanticised images of Palestine and the mundane reality of day-to-day existence. Palestine is beautiful, but Palestine is also normal. Throughout his career, Bakri has given life to all sides of that contradiction.