"How would you like it if someone threw you out of your home, saying God had promised it to them 2,000 years ago?"
- Palestinian cab-driver Bashar to an American woman who has condemned the suicide bomb attacks on Israel
The last couple of days at Cinefan have been surprisingly good. On Wednesday I saw two films that were as different in tone as you can imagine, but each very satisfying in its own way. The better of these was the taut Israeli feature My Father, My Lord, a film about religious faith, shot with an almost ritualistic intensity. Will write about it in a separate post. But for now, quick notes on Nicole Ballivian’s Driving to Zigzigland, a low-budget US-made movie about a Palestinian named Bashar who works in Los Angeles as a cab-driver while simultaneously pursuing his dream of becoming a Hollywood star. (At the point where we join him, he’s so far succeeded in making a two-second appearance as a “supporting Aztec warrior” on a Discovery channel documentary, but he’s nothing if not persistent.)
I’ve learnt over the years to be wary of the Cross-Cultural Encounters section, in which this film was screened. While most of the films included under this head are quite breezy (and usually your best bet for standard narrative-driven movies in case you’re uncertain about what to see at Cinefan), many of them are also banal - full of superficial, self-congratulatory accounts of characters discovering things about other cultures, over-simplified interactions between people from different backgrounds etc. One exception was the Toni Collette-starrer Japanese Story a few years ago, a powerful personal story about an encounter between an Australian woman and a Japanese man, which didn’t belabour any points for the viewer.
There were little pockets of triteness in Driving in Zigzigland too, especially in some of the crowd-pleasing vignettes of Bashar’s conversations with different sets of customers in his cab - such as an Israeli couple who, believing him to be Israeli, go on about what a wonderful job Ariel Sharon has been doing clearing the Palestinians out, while Bashar seethes quietly. But despite the occasional glib moments, this film has a grounded, honest quality that raises it above many of the other “cross-cultural” dramas I’ve seen.
Even among the scenes that most lend themselves to stereotyping, there are moments that work: when Bashar indulges the Israeli couple by suggesting that perhaps Sharon should have all the Palestinians killed, their reaction (taken aback at first, but gradually accepting that this might just be a good idea) says a lot about the potential for extremism that lies just beneath the surface of many moderate, politically correct attitudes.** The running joke that gives the film its title is effective too: Bashar prefers not to mention his Palestinian origins, so he tells most people he’s from Zigzigland, a small country near South America, and that his native tongue is Japanese “because we were colonised by them - but that’s okay, we got over it”. Unsurprisingly, many of his geographically disadvantaged customers take him at face value (the only one who knows better, an Irishman, snaps, “I’m Irish, I’m not stupid”, which is a nice little jab at national stereotypes).
There are other good bits such as when a couple are travelling in Bashar’s cab and the woman asks him to turn off a Cat Stevens song because “he’s joined the Al-Qaeda”. The husband says to leave the song on, which Bashar does, saying faux-chauvinistically, “Sorry ma’am, in my country the man is the boss, and when you’re in my cab you’re in my country.” And I liked the little touches, such as the revelation that the film Bashar’s family back home are raptly watching is A Nightmare on Elm Street.
A big factor in Driving to Zigzigland’s success is the charismatic lead performance by Basher Da’as, a likable actor whose facial expressions and general hangdog quality reminded me of the young tennis star Marcos Baghdatis. He plays the light scenes very well but is equally believable in the second half, as troubles pile up in Bashar’s world and he becomes morose and downcast. Bashar is never really in danger of turning into a Travis Bickle - pushed to psychosis by big-city alienation - and the film retains its lightheartedness till the end, but as the story progresses we sense that he isn’t too far from a meltdown. Ultimately, there is only one decision left for him to make, and by the end we’ve seen enough to know that it’s the right decision.
One gripe: the sound quality was jarring in some of the early scenes, with the background music drowning the narration. But I learn from this post by Toe Knee that the problem was with the print, and that the director was annoyed about it too.
P.S. Driving to Zigzigland was part of a double-bill, preceded by a nice 12-minute short, Where To?, about an Egyptian taxi-driver in New York struggling with similar questions about how long he should stay in his adopted country. (Ostensibly, the “Where to?” of the title is the question every cab-driver must ask his customers, but soon the deeper meaning takes over.)
** The scene with the Israeli couple reminded me of a bit of mischief a friend and I played on an English acquaintance at a party once. He had been trying to say all the right things about the American and British intervention in Iraq being uncalled for, but when we privately suggested to him that maybe some of the criticism against Bush and Blair was excessive, he promptly changed colour to reveal a rabidly right-wing side: “Yes, yes, of course, it’s most ghastly the way these protestors have been going on. It’s all for the good in the long run” Immense fun and, I like to think, nicely anarchic on our part.