How do you keep your soul alive in an occupied country where chaos reigns and everyday activities become an overwhelming challenge to your equanimity and peace of mind? Writer and director Rashid Masharawi, who was born in 1962 and raised in the Gaza Strip's Shati refugee camp, certainly is the right person to have come up with a film as thought-provoking as this one. In a statement about Laila's Birthday, he says:
"I tried to describe the confusion that shapes Palestinian life at this moment. After more than a half century of Israeli occupation, resisting for freedom, negotiating for peace, and hoping for progress, we only moved backwards. And the result is more frustration, carelessness, and an overall inability to deal with the small details of our precious lives.
"Throughout the film, I tried to create a sense of hope by shedding a little light on positive and promising elements that hint to a better future. I also would like to give the audience the opportunity to touch this very unique period in our lives, where the Palestinians are divided both ideologically and geographically by the burden of the occupation."
Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri) begins the day on edge, awakened by a loud noise. He doesn't regain his balance and leaves his house in a bad mood. He bids farewell to his wife (Areen Omari) who reminds him to pick up a present and a cake for his seven-year-old daughter's (Nour Zoubi) birthday celebration. Then he gets in the cab he drives for his brother-in-law's company and heads off down the streets of Ramallah. Abu stops off at the Ministry of Justice and asks about his request to be reinstated as a judge. But the new head of the office tries to give him the usual runaround "Come back tomorrow."
In order to personally do his bit to stem the tide of chaos in the city caused by Israel's occupation, Abu has many rules and regulations for his taxi: no smoking or weapons, no rides to checkpoints, and passengers must use seatbelts. This, of course, irritates many customers who already have enough complications in their lives. During his encounters with a young man who has been in prison, a protest march, a woman who leaps out of the taxi to get in a line for aid, a car bombing, a frightened donkey, some men in a café who can't discern who the combatants are in a television clip, a woman who can't decide whether to go to the hospital or to the cemetery, and a person he hits with his cab who declares he doesn't want to live, Abu Laila gets more and more exasperated. A final complication comes from a persistent fellow who has left his mobile phone in the cab and wants to get it back.
The spiritual practice of equanimity would serve as a soothing balm for this frustrated and stressed-out taxi driver who allows all these inconveniences and troubles to spur him on to an angry public outburst. In the same spirit, he would have been wise to take the advice of another Muslim cab driver who counsels him about his worries: "It will pass by. God will help you." And in the end, that man is right as the delightful finale winningly shows.
Laila's Birthday is a Palestinian film that works on many levels and speaks of the difficulties of keeping your soul alive in an occupied country where inconvenience, frustrations, and dangers are ever present.