‘Every role is living inside you': Ziad Bakri on acting in the Palestinian film Screwdriver

Hani Mustafa , Monday 15 Oct 2018

Bassam Jarbawi’s narrative debut Screwdriver (Mafak) took part in the second El Gouna Film Festival competition


With occupation and illegal settlements negatively impacting the life of every single Palestinian living in Palestine since 1967, if not since the Nakba in 1948, Palestinian cinema has often focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bassam Jarbawi’s narrative debut Screwdriver (Mafak) is no exception.

Depicting the life of Ziad (Ziad Bakri), a young Palestinian who spent most of his youth in Israeli prisons, it premiered in the Venice Days competition and took part in the second El Gouna Film Festival competition, though Bakri declined the festival’s invitation in solidarity with Palestinian actor Ali Suleiman, who was refused entry on arrival at Hurghada Airport.

Born in the Arab village of Bi’ina in Galilee in 1980, Bakri is the son of award-winning Palestinian actor-director Mohamed Bakri (well known for his roles in Costa-Gavras’ 1983 Hanna K, Saverio Costanzo’s 2004 Private and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s 2007 The Lark Farm). His brothers Saleh and Adam are also actors who have worked with such filmmakers as Elia Suleiman and Hani Abu Assad.

A director as well as an actor, Bakri studied filmmaking and made one short film, Sayyad Elmilh (The Salt Fisherman, 2011), which was screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. He has acted in Julian Schnabel’s Miral (2010) and Joyce A Nashawati’s Blind Sun (2015).

Screwdriver examines the trauma that results from 15 years in prison. Set in a refugee camp in Ramallah, it opens with the character Ziad’s release being celebrated by family, friends and neighbours. It goes back in time to show Ziad and his friend Ramzi as little boys fencing with a knife and screwdriver. They hurt each other. While suturing the wound, the doctor tries to find out how Ziad was hurt but the boy refuses to tell on his friend.

The filmmaker sought to draw a complete picture of Ziad as a young man with a talent for basketball. Ziad, Ramzi and other friends hang out in a remote place near the village, which happens to be within sniping range of a Jewish settlement. The plot explodes when Ramzi receives a shot. The rest of the group are furious. One of them, nicknamed Octopus, kills a supposed settler later, then the chase begins. Ziad shields his friends from the Israeli police car, allowing them to escape.

While being interrogated, Ziad discovers the man the Octopus killed was actually a Palestinian. He refuses to disclose his friends’ identity. The action moves forward to 2017, 15 years after these events, and Ziad’s instability and boredom show how much he has changed. Then the price of his loyalty to his friends becomes apparent.

Ziad was a difficult role, according to Ziad Bakri, whom I spoke to online: “I loved the script. I had a few questions about the plot, but Jarbawi reassured me, reaffirming my confidence that I wanted to be part of the film. I believe every role is living inside you, it’s a kind of magic, and this magic is very difficult to describe in words but it works once it’s time.

“The role is exactly like being Palestinian: you live in a place that is yours but you are not free, like being in prison. It’s like Russian Matryoshka dolls: once you leave one prison, you realise it’s in another, and another, and so on. That’s being Palestinian for you.”

The filmmaker had little interest in how Ziad survived interrogation and life behind bars, since the film is about what becomes of a Palestinian’s psyche after losing 15 years of his life.

“My friend Ibrahim and my cousin Yassin have been in prison for nine years, they’re in the smallest Matroyshka. Every month I secretly send them video recordings about the latest news and hoe people, the town, the streets they long for are getting on. That’s my relationship with them.

“And so I know the psychological state of a prisoner leaving his cell, entering a new world, a world that’s been on hold since he was taken inside. In his mind he needs to create what he’s missed.

“Ziad paid a high price because he refused to take revenge, he is a non-violent person, he didn’t want to shoot. It was the same with Yassin. Ibrahim planned for a resistance operation and Yassin didn’t want to join but he couldn’t refuse because of his loyalty to Ibrahim. That is the case with Ziad, it’s his devotion to his friends that leads to him making this sacrifice.”

Ziad moreover is torn between his psychological experience and society’s view of him as a hero.

“Living under occupation involves daily displacement and killing. Most of our films are filled with clichés of walls and Israeli soldiers but sadly they forget the most important element, the human being.

“We want to see the Palestinian as an invincible hero. We focus on portraying the brutality of the occupation and on emotional slogans, forgetting that cinema is a completely different issue. Screwdriver tries to focus on the psychological state of Ziad as a human being, which is something I think we have kept out of our stories for too long.

“The Palestinian hero in most films is a superman, undefeated, invincible. This makes for ordinary and very boring films. There are a few exceptions like Wajib by Annemarie Jacir, which tells the story of a father and son under occupation in a light, untraditional and intelligent way, never once mentioning the occupation. It reminds you that any story you tell, even the most romantic and apolitical, will reflect your political status.”

This is true of even the coincidence that forces Ziad into violence and tragedy: “Under such stubborn occupation you are a hostage to fate. Every city in Palestine has a settlement on top of it, its streets shared with people who hate you and want you outside their Promised Land.

“During filming I travelled from Galilee to Ramallah. On Helmish Road there was always an endless traffic jam in the direction of Helmish. Israeli vehicles with yellow plates passed smoothly in the opposite direction, while the line of Palestinian cars with green plates was 2km long.

“And the cause of the traffic jam was five young settlers running and laughing along the road with two armoured vehicles protecting them while the Palestinians had to crawl behind this Zionist marathon. I have yellow plates, but I stood in solidarity with the green plates’ queue. That is why I say Palestinians are in general hostages to fate. Because sometimes you cannot stand the humiliation.

“For me, the [Israeli] passport means nothing. It’s a temporary document issued by a temporary occupier. Kingdoms of fear have often reigned, but anyone can see their ruins and understand that nothing is eternal and everything has an end.

“If Egyptians visited their Palestinian brothers [in Israel], does that make them agents of occupation? In Palestine — Gaza, Ramallah, Galilee — we need to communicate with the world and the Arab world. This contact will finish their [Zionist] project, believe me.

“My nationality and passport is a thorn in their chests because if I gave it up today I would end up a refugee on a plane. It’s funny how the Arab countries treat us and our passports. It saddens me to see Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian artists in Egyptian works while artists like Saleh Bakri, Mohamed Bakri, Makram Khoury, Salim Dau and Youssef Abu Warda — who work in international films and get awards — are boycotted in the Arab world.” 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A turn of the screw

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