Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Laila’s Birthday: A Celebration of Absurdity?

Laila’s Birthday is a 2008 film set in Palestine that follows one day in the life of Abu Laila, a former judge who now drives a taxi cab for a living. This particular day is no ordinary day though – it is the seventh birthday of his only child, his daughter Laila. All Abu Laila wants to do is put in a day’s work, pick up a present and cake for his daughter, and arrive back home by 8 pm. But fate is not on Abu Laila’s side. After starting his day off with his usual Kafka-esque exercise in absurdity by visiting the Ministry of Justice in a feeble attempt to bring his judicial nomination up sooner, Abu Laila’s day gets worse when a customer leaves behind his cell phone in the taxi cab’s backseat. In a classic turn of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Abu Laila finds himself getting into all kinds of situations, as he puts it, in his attempt to return the cell phone to its rightful owner. Will he be able to make it back home in one piece in time for Laila’s birthday?

I’m not sure now how it is that I heard about Laila’s Birthday, but somehow its existence came into my knowledge in the past few weeks. I immediately watched the trailer for the movie and decided I had to watch the whole movie. The trailer seemed to promise a film filled with absurdly comic scenarios – just the kind of situational comedy that I find particularly funny. While this is certainly true at many points, the movie is also profoundly sad at times. Consider Abu Laila’s words when he snaps at one point and yells out in helpless frustration at the helicopters overhead: “And you…! Leave us alone!!! Leave us in peace!!! Leave us our breath!!! Leave us our rest!!! We know you have planes, tanks and very smart missiles.  You are the toughest occupiers in the world!!! But we, we want to live. We want to raise our children. We want to sleep. … We just want to live. Simply that. Just that.” But the beat marches on, and wars and occupiers continue to exist the world over, ad infinitum.

As the quote above suggests, the movie is of course laden with political overtones scattered throughout. No doubt it is difficult to write and produce a film set in present-day Palestine without doing so. As Abu Laila’s drives his taxi throughout the city, we hear political news on the radio and see protestors out in the streets. Some of these political situations are particularly poignant. For instance, one couple nearly jumps out of Abu Laila’s taxi when they see a line forming because, they reason, a line must mean someone is giving away some food or other necessary items. Later, a missile drops across the street from where Abu Laila is, and the aftermath is chaotic.

On the other hand, one moment that had me chuckle aloud was when a group of men in the café, eager to condemn what a mess the occupation is making off their country, argue over whether the military officers they are watching on a newsreel are Israeli or Palestinian before someone shouts out: “It’s Iraq. And the army is American.”

Abu Laila’s politics also shine through as the movie progresses, and he refuses to bring passengers to checkpoints or take riders who are armed. He is persnickety in other ways also and, as a former judge, is a stickler for the law. He argues with one passenger about wearing a seat belt and asks another not to smoke, citing legal foundations for both requests.

As a slice of life kind of movie, we unfortunately don’t get a lot of Abu Laila’s back story, although we get enough to understand his frustration and sense of both righteous indignation and helplessness as he tries to navigate this new life he has. Another serious pitfall, in my opinion, is that the roles of Abu Laila’s wife and daughter are sidelined. Their appearances bookend the movie, but they have few lines or compelling characterizations. Instead, they function as the Victorian model of females as “the light of the home” – a home where men go to escape the hustle and bustle of the manly world of business and instead relax in the innocence of this womanly world of domesticity. This is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic in this particular situation as we are at least informed that Laila goes to school and his wife goes to work, although no further details are given about either’s daily routines.

What we do get to see a lot of, however, are city scenes as Abu Laila is out and about driving his taxi. The various landscapes show us a beautiful country (occupied territory) that has been battered by numerous problems, including military occupation and economic hardship, and is worse for the wear.

Still, despite all the chaos, the movie manages to end on a somewhat hopeful note, although its final line can also be interpreted as defeatist. I suppose how you take it all depends on whether you are glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of person (or what kind of day you’ve had). For better or worse, the feeling you leave with is that people are people everywhere, all of us with hopes and concerns that face us each day.

Laila’s Birthday was not a big blockbuster hit like all the summer movies recently out or on the horizon, but it’s certainly not a film to be missed. It is an absorbing movie, and you will be enriched by seeing it.

1 comment:

  1. If I haven't convinced you yet to see this movie, check out this review also: http://electronicintifada.net/content/film-review-absurd-humor-succeeds-lailas-birthday/3543