Maha Haj debuts in Un Certain Regard with Personal Affairs, a gently mocking comedy of familial and personal relationships set in modern day Palestine. In Nazareth, an old couple Nabeela (Sana Shawahdeh) and Saleh (Mahmoud Shawahdeh) potter through their days to the sound of her knitting needles and soap operas and his internet found titbits of fascinating knowledge. Saleh has grown increasingly worried by Nabeela’s self-isolation and wants to lure her on a holiday with the excuse of visiting their son Hisham (Ziad Bakri) in Sweden, hoping to break out of the impasse.
Meanwhile, their other theatre director son Tarek (Doraid Liddawi) lives in Ramallah and has a relationship with Maysa (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a student who he seems determined not to fall in love with. The final sibling is his heavily pregnant sister (Hanan Hillo) who must look after her diabetic and senile mother-in-law while also putting up with her well-meaning but childlike husband George by, and her blue-collar husband, played by Amer Hlehel. It’s a testament to the film’s restraint that the word ‘terrorist’ isn’t even mentioned until a rather unlikely subplot that involves George being cast in an American movie.
Haj eschews the Palestine of airstrikes and rock throwing and instead we get an almost unrecognisably neat and order world of clean domestic spaces, tightly ordered and pristine homes and concerns as ordinary and petty as in any middle class household. In fact, with a few name changes many scenes could play out as a gentle comedy of Jewish family life with parents and siblings, food and pressure. Ultimately, the world cannot be kept altogether out of the picture and we understand the confines of some lives, the limits to their freedom of movement when George’s audition is more important to him because it gives him the opportunity to see the sea for the first time in his life.
When Tarek and Maysa must visit Jerusalem their dirty laundry cannot be aired out under the eyes of an Israeli checkpoint without potentially fatal consequences. It takes all the director’s ingenuity to maintain the lightness and not have the film descend into inevitable tragedy. In fact, this determination to try and keep Personal Affairs free of the entanglement of the ongoing horror of the political situation, Haj’s wry, good-hearted humour begins to feel almost radical, a revolutionary statement, reminding us that the Palestinians are people as well as ‘a People’.
The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty