I didn’t even cry.
You hate to think of the United States as a warzone and yet that’s exactly what it is in many respects. Whether a for-profit prison system leaving a largely Black population disenfranchised, unemployable, and haunted or caged children who crossed the Southern border for asylum only to be scarred by the psychological torture of being indefinitely ripped from their parents, minorities across our country are being held as prisoners of war without any concrete conflict on the books. Multiply this tragedy by a thousand and you might approach the situation between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East: two people vying for control of land they each call home. There it’s occupier versus occupied, placed versus displaced. Instead of thug and illegal, the epithet of choice is terrorist.
One side’s enemy is another’s savior and yet to what end do those labels hope to achieve? Innocents shot by soldiers without recourse besides more violent eye for an eye justice are hailed as martyrs. Prisoners kidnapped for crimes of resistance (political or otherwise) are declared heroes. But while some strive to earn those labels by knowingly putting themselves on the frontlines, others are collateral damage in the wrong place at the wrong time. Does a teenager minding his business with friends seek the bullet that takes his life? No. Maybe he’ll become a symbol with which to rally around or perhaps a catalyst to continue a never-ending cycle that increases its body count of random bystanders. Objectively speaking, however, that appropriation doesn’t negate the fact he’s dead.
There’s honesty to this nihilistic outlook that we don’t often see—especially not from a place as volatile as that housing the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. So writer/director Bassam Jarbawi‘s decision to wield it for his debut feature Mafak [Screwdriver] proves an important vantage point onto a fight generally marked by an emotionless machismo of hardened citizens who literally grow up knowing the chances of being killed or incarcerated are greater than reaching retirement age. Kids on both sides inherit this hatred at birth, forever seeing each other as an untrustworthy foe that lacks the humanity to understand their own plight. They’re driven by fear to make or endure the pain from the sort of mistakes that don’t wash away. And it takes a huge toll.
Just look at Ziad (Ziad Bakri). Here’s a young boy who steeled himself to the reality of violence in a way that forced his reaction towards physical duress to be one of warped bravery. He will not cry. He will not name his assailant. He will not show his adversary weakness. So when he reaches high school and holds his best friend Ramzi’s lifeless body in his arms after a stray bullet pierces the car’s windshield, Ziad retains a stoic façade as his emotions pool inside with nowhere to escape. Unlike the one who pulled the trigger (assumedly an Israeli soldier who volunteered or was conscripted to hate his/her Arab brethren), though, he’s not a soldier by trade. But he is raised as one by necessity.
The act that Ziad is complicit to (and ultimately takes the fall for) alongside two friends who talk him into joining their crusade for vengeance is therefore rendered in their minds as an act of war. If the other side can commit murder under that label, so too should they. But they aren’t in control. They don’t get that benefit of the doubt. So instead of a medal, Ziad receives fifteen years of torture and imprisonment under Israeli supervision only to be released into an unfamiliar world. Is that freedom like everyone says? Is it a cause for celebration to assuage the guilt of those who didn’t lose everything? Since the Ramallah refugee camp where he lives doesn’t have “real” success stories, returned prisoners become its only celebrities.
Just because some embrace that distinction, however, doesn’t mean it makes up for what they endured. Ziad was a teenager when he went away and everyone whose life carried on with a semblance of normalcy can’t comprehend how their adulation is akin to throwing him into a wolf’s den without the tools necessary to survive. His mother (Areen Omari) wants him to be happy. His sister Nawal (Mariam Basha) wants him to seek solace in her friend with a crush (Maya Omaia Keesh). And his old buddies Octopus (Jameel Khoury) and Mo-mo (Ahmad Guabeh) want him to pick up his life and be just like them without any of their education or training. They refuse to see his floundering as the fault of their unattainable expectations.
Jarbawi therefore asks a simple yet complex question: Who is Ziad? Is he a hero? Victim? Criminal? Broken man? If he’s actually all of the above, who is willing to see him as such if he won’t himself? This is the true tragedy at the heart of Screwdriver. Ziad is experiencing insomnia-fueled hallucinations triggering his PTSD to the extent that his body is physically manifesting symptoms beyond his psychological suffering. And the only person that’s not blindly telling him to “buck up” is an outsider in Palestinian-American filmmaker Mina (Yasmine Qaddumi). It’s no coincidence his sole ally is someone who wasn’t raised under the conservative traditionalism of these occupied territories. She wants Ziad’s story specifically because it breaks from that narrative to expose the cost of sacrificial devotion.
What will her portrayal of him win, though? Israel won’t lay down its guns. Palestine won’t forget its persecution. At best foreigners thousands of miles away will feel sadder than they already do about a conflict they otherwise ignore like those in their backyards. Whether Ziad is a martyr, hero, or terrorist—Jarbawi reveals how nothing has changed. Bakri excels at showcasing this futility in the spaces between panic-attacks and fits of temper once he realizes the noise of freedom is too much for his brain to process. Eventually the fearlessness of boys play-fighting turns into the fearfulness of men willing to kill someone who looks just like their brother simply because he speaks a different language. Self-defense becomes aggression in a world where empathy equates to treason.
courtesy of TIFF