Zeitgeist Comedy in the Middle East

in 22nd Toronto International Film Festival

by Andrew Kendall

The Trenchant Delights of A Gaza Weekend: Zeitgeist Comedy in the Middle East

In awarding the 2022 FIPRESCI Prize at TIFF to Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend, the jury agreed that the film’s excellence springs from “its empathy and intelligence in capturing the zeitgeist.” That summation, in a way, could be enough in considering Khalil’s exuberant and sharp feature debut. But the film’s complexities, its swerves and its pleasures, feel too great to warrant only a brief assessment. A Gaza Weekend, with a veneer of lightness and litheness that initially misdirects from its anger and tenacity, is juggling many things. Things that oftentimes fell more mature directors. It is a satire. It is a political film. It is a comedy of errors. It is a film of culture clash. The initial breeziness is only a misdirection to what lies beneath the surface.

In a world very like ours, but also not, a mutant virus named ARS breaks out in Israel (the real-world parallels a mere accident, as the film was conceptualised years before COVID), trapping Englishman Michael (Stephen Mangan) and his girlfriend Keren (Mouna Hawa) in that country. Their only way out, and back to England, is through a virus-free Gaza, suddenly the safest place in the world. Sneaking their way into Gaza leads to a series of clumsy misadventures, orchestrated by two gregarious hustlers, Waleed (Adam Bakri) and Emad (Adeeb Safadi). A lesser film would use Michael and Keren as the center of an amusing but toothless romp through Palestine. A Gaza Weekend, luckily, is not that lesser film.

A Gaza Weekend gains intricacy in its commitment to fleshing out the minor characters that orbit what seems, at first, to be the main quartet. The more A Gaza Weekend continues, the more it seems to have a reach wide enough to consider each new Palestinian character we meet. By the first third of the film, the initial romantic pairing, of Michael and Keren, hands the baton over to another pair – Waleed and his wife Nuhad (Maria Zreik). At first the hijinks are presented as purely comedic. Emad and Waleed need money, their glorious hustling dreams continuously foiled by police. But that initial lightness shifts incrementally as Khalil emphasizes the reality of the state of Gaza for the characters who live there. In an early moment of rupture, after an argument with his wife, Waleed is the recipient of some unwanted advice from Michael. His well-meaning condescension is a manifestation of his blinkered perception of MENA men as toxic and their women as oppressed. Waleed confronts that condescension in a moment that jarringly (and brilliantly) interrupts the joviality. Even amidst the escalating absurdity of their plight, Khalil confronts that there are real people behind the stories here.

It’s a dichotomous dance – jovial and delightful, but also sobering and provocative – that the screenplay (cowritten with Daniel Ka Chun Chan) expertly navigates. It’s a mark of astonishing precision that A Gaza Weekend feels natural and organic in its sprawling absurdities even as it feels incredibly thought-out. The very premise of the film feels steeped in biting satire. Now, suddenly, Palestine is a place of possibility and not revulsion. And yet, the film’s title teases its arbitrary nature. That the film is called A Gaza Weekend, opting for the indefinite article rather than a more definitive The Gaza Weekend, situates it not with the visiting English-Israeli couple but with our charismatic hustlers in Gaza. The indefinite article suggests an awareness that for the actual Gaza citizens, this could be any other weekend. And it could. Perhaps without the hijinks. For the pair travelling through Gaza to escape to somewhere better, the complications left in Gaza are things of the past. But our Palestinians characters have unceasing days of uncertainty ahead. Even when they snatch moments of hilarity in their everyday lives, the reality of their disenfranchisement is laid bare.

And the performers meet the film’s felicities and complications with aplomb. Best-in-show is Adam Bakri as Waleed, giving a charming performance that cements his foolish insouciance as well as his irresistible tenacity. Loai Noufi shoulders the strongest comedic arcs, capturing Emad’s sadness amidst his ridiculousness. Mangan and Hawa play their stowaway couple like something out of a screwball comedy – precariously on the verge of dissolving their union, but delighted in their own bickering. And Zreik understands exactly the sleight-of-hand Khalil aims for – disrupting the initially perceptions of Nuhad, and becoming a lynchpin in the film’s escalating final act. And it’s here, in the jagged-edged and bitterly humorous asides, that A Gaza Weekend finds its complexities multiplying exponentially. Nuhad’s important character arc in that final act feels central to Khalil’s own interest in juxtaposing initial appearances with the tougher reality. Like the film itself. It offers you complexities beneath the surface if you dare to perceive it. Editors Shahnaz Duleimy and Victoria Boydell gain great mileage from this. That they manage to keep the comedic beats of this so precise (a welcome comedy with a visual awareness that informs its stories) while ensuring the dramatic centre is not negated, is its own feat.

And it is those trenchant and riveting possibilities, swerves and ambiguities that make A Gaza Weekend feel so essential. The Discovery category at TIFF remains an essential part of the festival’s commitment to encouraging new voices, even as audiences still flock to the expected big name premieres. And yet, the vitalness of the Discovery and the discovery of work like Khalil’s feels essential to the best of TIFF. It’s a theme that has run through the best of the section even in films that may be less adept that Khalil’s. The preoccupations of Khalil feel urgent without being cloying or deferential. A Gaza Weekend speaks well for the future of films by and about MENA people.

Andrew Kendall
Edited by Robert Horton