Mohammad Bakri: The Pess-optimist in Kafka’s Court

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When the film premiered, right-wing Israelis demonstrated against it, and the Israeli censor banned it. Bakri became the target of an organized media campaign accusing him of terrorism.

By: Imad Khashan

Published Wednesday, October 5, 2011

If one letter had to represent Muhammad Bakri’s life, it would be the letter ‘k.’ The letter appears in his surname, Bakri, and in the name of Karmiel, the city Ben Gurion built on land belonging to Bakri’s village of al-Bi’ina. The letter also appears in Hanna K (1983), the film by Greek director Costantin Costa-Gavras, which launched Bakri’s international acting career. Finally, there is a ‘k’ in Josef K., the hero of Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial.

The novel tells the story of a man put on trial for an unspecified crime. The narration draws immediate parallels to Bakri’s experiences in the Israeli courts. Kafka’s novel hints that Josef K’s crime was being Jewish in Europe, while Bakri’s crime is living as a Palestinian Arab under Zionist apartheid.

I met Bakri at a chess club in New York City, sitting at a table with a chessboard in front of him. He appeared tall even sitting down. Looking at him, I recalled something of the elegant sorrow of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. We start a game of chess: the actor/director plays a pawn followed by the king. No one plays their king in this suicidal manner unless they are a professional or an absolute beginner. It turn out that he is the former. He wins in five or six moves.

In life, as in chess, Bakri goes off the script, challenging his opponents with unpredictable moves. This is clear in his film Jenin, Jenin (2002). “I took part in a demonstration during the Israeli army invasion of the Jenin refugee camp. They shot at us and the actor, Valentina Abu ‘Aksa, was shot in the arm. She was standing next to me.” That day Bakri snuck into the camp with a cameraman and sound technician. They stayed there for four days, filming the unfolding massacre.

When the film premiered, right-wing Israelis demonstrated against it, and the Israeli censor banned it. Bakri became the target of an organized media campaign accusing him of terrorism. In 2005, five soldiers sued him because “the film had upset their sensitivities and affronted their dignity.” The soldiers claimed the film “damaged their reputation and caused them psychological pain,” he says, adding “as if they are angels, not doing the things I captured on film.” Six years later, the court finally ruled to drop the case against Bakri. Unusually, the decision was announced on the Internet, not in a court session, so that Bakri would not publicly relish his victory in front of the media.

Bakri was born in 1953, in the village of al-Bi’ina in the Upper Galilee, an hour and a half away from Beirut by car. During the 1950s, Arab villages under Israeli occupation did not have electricity. “The chicken in the settlement next door had an electric bulb and we had gas lights,” Bakri tells me. Fortunately for the village of al-Bi’ina, an electrical engineer called Abu Abdullah Yusuf Boulos lived there. He was a big fan of cinema, so he built a theater and installed an electricity generator he had assembled himself. The cinema used to show classic Hollywood movies along with Indian, Arabic, and Bruce Lee films. This is where Bakri was first exposed to film. His love affair with the art form ensued thereafter.

He became passionate about theater because he was keen on the Arabic language. “Composition class was my favorite and the teacher would ask me to read my stories out loud. This is where my desire to perform in front of an audience was born.” His passion for his language, also meant a closer attachment to his Palestinian identity, which the occupation desperately tried to erase. “In the 1960s, when we spoke Arabic in public places, we used to lower our voices. Now we speak freely, because the barrier of fear has been broken. It is not like the days of my childhood and youth,” he says, “when any teacher who spoke about politics, joined the Communist Party, or read the Ittihad newspaper was fired by the Shin Bet (Israeli state security service).”

In 1976, Bakri received a degree in Theater and Arabic Literature from Tel Aviv University. His first play, A View from the Bridge(2002), was performed in Haifa Theater. He showed the play again in New York City a few years ago, and in Haifa’s Midan Theater, where he also directed A Day of Our Time(1995) by Saadallah Wannous. He worked in the al-Kasaba Theater between Jerusalem and Ramallah, directing many plays. The most important of these were The Night and the Mountain (1995) by Abdel Ghaffar Makkawi, The Clown (1974) by Muhammad al-Maghut, The Immigrant (1999) by George Shehadeh, and Death and The Maiden (1990) by Ariel Dorfman.

The turning point in Bakri’s work in the theater came in 1986, when together with Palestinian director Mazen al-Ghattas, he adapted Emile Habibi’s classic novel The Secret Life of Said the Pessoptimist, under the title The Pessoptimist. The play toured the world for more than two thousand performances.

When Costa-Gavras chose him to play a leading role in Hanna K, Bakri was 28 years old. He played the role of Salim Bakri, a Palestinian refugee who fights to retrieve his occupied house. “In that film, I represented the whole Palestinian cause, and I felt it was a sacred mission.” The film was attacked viciously by the media, destroying its prospects for commercial success and thus undermining the young actor’s career in international cinema.

After Hanna K, Bakri played the role of Palestinian freedom fighter, Ihsan, in an Israeli film called Beyond the Walls (1984), directed by Uri Barbash. It was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. “On the night of the Oscars, I was hauling cement on a construction site,” he says. Bakri worked in construction because of his marriage at the age of 22. Life circumstance required that he provide for his family.

Consequently, Bakri made his mark on cinema in films such as Haifa (1996) and Laila’s Birthday (2008) by Rashid Masharawi. His latest role is as ‘M’ in the film Zindeeq (2009) by Michel Khleifi. He had worked with Khleifi before on The Story of the Three Jewels (1993). In Zindeeq, “M is not just a character, he represents every artist exiled from his homeland, physically or spiritually.”

Bakri is the director of four films: 1948 (debuting in 1998, about the 50th anniversary of the Nakba), Jenin, Jenin (2002), Since You Left (2005), and Zahra (2010). After the anxiety surrounding Jenin, Jenin’s litigation was lifted, Bakri began travelling more. He also presents a program called Face to Face on Palestine TV. He insists that he has no desire to portray any Palestinian politician either on stage or screen: “I have no respect for politicians. My interests are in individuals, my people, and the human condition. I am more interested in ordinary people and creative people like Naji al-Ali. I would like to play him, or maybe Ghassan Kanafani or Mahmoud Darwish. But I don’t see myself in action or sci-fi movies.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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