Laila's Birthday: Interview with Palestinian Director Rashid Masharawi

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Rashid Masharawi is the writer/director of the Palestinian drama "Laila's Birthday," which was released by Kino International. 

 How did you come up with Abu Laila's character? He is very different from the protagonists in your previous films, like the people living in the Gaza streets or the refugee camp in CURFEW and HAIFA. He used to work as a judge and is an intellectual.

Abu Laila's character reflects a confrontation between a judge obsessed by law and order and the chaos from the confusion due to the Israeli occupation and its devastating effects vis-à-vis the internal Palestinian political and geographic division and the repercussions that led to chaos and the incapacity of dealing with the daily details of life.

The difference between this film and my previous films is in the level of clarity of the Palestinian national project which seemed more obvious in the past films as the quest for liberty. Now, after all these years, the occupation is still here. What we are dealing with now is more about elaborating a unified Palestinian national project.

Abu Laila refuses to drive to any check point at the border. It seems that the idea of border is significant in your other works. Has the idea of border evolved or changed for you throughout your filmmaking career? Has your treatment of it changed or evolved?

Checkpoints still exist and are increasing in numbers, but in this film I preferred to deal with the concept of “checkpoints” and what it meant to the ordinary citizen instead of filming the checkpoints themselves. I wanted to explore the influence of the existence of checkpoints on the daily lives of people living in the cities, surrounded by checkpoints, even if they don't see them everyday.

On the other hand, in this particular film, I didn't want to repeat the scenes of the checkpoints shown in other Palestinian films, or in my previous films. Hence LAILA'S BIRTHDAY becomes a unique case of portraying the reality, not in terms of what it is, but more in terms of its concept.

Can you talk about the themes of personal vs. political and family or individual vs. the state? For example, in the powerful speech that Abu Laila gives at the film's climax, can a Palestinian separates the personal from political?

I think that in the Palestinian case, we can't separate the individual from the political, because politics influences and guides our daily and personal lives. After sixty years of occupation, we have tried every means to regain our freedom, but things are moving to the worst. This has led to frustration and boredom not only from the occupation, but also from ourselves being always alert and having to cope with the occupation, resistance and leading our daily lives. I think the time has come for us to lead a normal life inside our cities and homes, to raise our kids, and to try to realize our simplest dreams.

LAILA'S BIRTHDAY is your fifth feature drama. For the last 20 years in your filmmaking career, you have focused more on documentaries. How does documentary filmmaking affect your work of directing drama?

For me, documentaries are very important because of our need as Palestinians to convey the facts, especially that the Other has his different version. At the same time, drama has given me a bigger chance to deal with my own vision and my personal opinion. In narrative filmmaking, we use symbols and suggestions to portray a feeling that emanates from reality. LAILA'S BIRTHDAY reflects the absurdity and chaos of our daily lives.

Can you talk about how you would position LAILA'S BIRTHDAY emotionally and technically in your body of work? Is there an overarching theme that you're trying to deal with from your first film CURFEW to LAILA'S BIRTHDAY?

In my own cinema, I try to deal with place, time, and subject. For example, CURFEW, is a story that
takes place in a specific night, a specific house, and a specific refugee camp. In HAIFA, the place
was the refugee camp and I dealt with the effects of Oslo agreements on the people. In LAILA's
BIRTHDAY, it was one day in a city in the West Bank and the topic was this Palestinian unique situation.
That is why I chose the meeting between a man with a high sense of integrity and law against the
absurdity of the daily life in Palestine.