Muhammad Bakri

A Palestinian's Career in Film

The Palestinian actor and director Muhammad Bakri is well-known internationally. This year he received a Silver Leopard for best actor at the film festival in Locarno for his role in Saverio Costanzo's film "Private." A portrait by Amin Farzanefar

photo: Martina Sabra
Muhammad Bakri, critically acclaimed Palestinian actor

​​In Saverio Costanzo's film "Private," based on a true story, Bakri plays a Palestinian father who watches as his house is occupied by Israeli troops. From within the small space of their besieged home, the family develops a form of passive resistance.

At the same time, their notion of who the enemy is undergoes a shift by the end of the film.

Bakri himself is a Palestinian Israeli. He is also a charismatic actor who looks like a spaghetti western hero in his long coat. Bakri was born in 1953 in the village of Al Bana in Galilee and studied acting and theater at the University of Tel Aviv.

His international breakthrough came in the 1980s with a role in Costa Gavros' film "Hanna K."

In 1991 Bakri received attention for his role as a Palestinian captain in the film "Cup Final." The film is set in the year 1982. A PLO troop takes an Israeli soldier named Cohen prisoner in Lebanon. Cohen was on the way to the soccer world championship in Spain.

The Palestinian captain Ziad feels torn when he discovers that he and his enemy share a passion for the Italian soccer team.

A versatile actor

Bakri has worked for both Israeli and Palestinian productions. "Cup Final" by Eran Riklis is an Israeli production, as is Ali Nasser's "The Milky Way." The latter is a historical film depicting the difficult situation of Israeli Arabs in the 1950s.

In 1994 Bakri worked with Michel Khleify, the founder of new Palestinian cinema, in "The Jewel of the Seven Stars." In Rashid Mashrawi's "Haifa" (1997), he played the titular role of a mad man who wanders through the refugee camps calling out "Jaffa! Haifa! Akka!" (the names of cities the Palestinians lost in 1948).

Haifa is on the one hand a symbol for the ambiguous collective memory of Palestine, and on the other Haifa is the name of a clairvoyant fool who perceives in a very unmediated way the conflicts within Palestinian civil society.

A closer look reveals Bakri's name in the credits of many Hollywood films as well, for example in the terrorist drama "Death before Dishemore" (1987, Terry Leonard), or in the mummy flick "The Mummy Lives" (1993, Gerry O'Hara) at the side of an older looking yet undead Tony Curtis.

"The Body" (2001) is set in the Holy Land and tells the story of the international crisis unleashed by the discovery of Jesus' corpse.

Bakri's success as a director

Those who might accuse Bakri of taking on roles that are too easy will think otherwise when they see the film "Jenin, Jenin" (2002), one of his most popular films to date. This documentary was made just after the refugee camp Jenin was isolated, evacuated and then largely destroyed by the Israeli army.

Even though rumors about a massacre at Jenin and a subsequent cover-up have been debunked, the brutal actions of the Israeli troops as they bulldozed their way through the camp with tanks is still seen in a very negative light.

The exact course of events is still unknown, and there are countless conflicting versions of what happened in Jenin.

Bakri's documentary eagerly takes up a position on how the events unfolded and then backs it up with the statements of witnesses and with film material. The film is told entirely from the perspective of the Palestinians.

The way Bakri put the film material together is so suggestive that "Jenin, Jenin" was banned in Israel because it was considered manipulative and one-sided – which ultimately contributed to its cult status.

A conflicted identity

He made the film, however, not for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis, says Bakri. As the stronger party in the conflict, they are responsible for changing the situation. His battle is not against the Israeli people, he emphasizes, but against the Israeli right extremists.

Trained at an Israeli university – in Hebrew – and having worked with both Israeli and Palestinian colleagues, Bakri constantly struggles with a conflicted identity. As an Arab in a Jewish state he experiences discrimination everywhere. "You simply don't belong," he said once in an interview.

Bakri's versatile filmography is ultimately not so atypical for a Palestinian. Despite all the turbulence, his focus in life remains very clearly defined. This is also confirmed by the role that won him the award for best actor in Locarno.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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