Transit Cities @ Montreal World Film Festival

A film can be made for $20,000 and in seven days.  Not only can a film can be made for $20,000 and in seven days, but it can be good.  They say that where there is a will there is a way.  Well, Mohammed Al Hushki, a computer technician in his 9-to-5 job, must have plenty of will.

Feeling displaced or a stranger in your own country/city is a feeling that many Arabs feel.  Due to civil war or feeling the pull of the Western world, many Arabs leave their countries of birth to live elsewhere in the world.  Once their situation changes or that of their homeland, if they decide to go home they often comment about how different things are and how they have a hard time adjusting.  Nostalgia for the past is not a feeling unique to Arabs as most cultures speak of that wanting to go back to a time that they have idealized in their minds.

After getting married and living in the United States with her husband Walid for 14 years, Laila (Saba Moubarak), without so much as a warning or an invite, returns to her native town of Amman, Jordan.  She has been gone so long that she is not even really sure where her parents live.  After some hesitation and asking information from another tenant in their building, Laila enters the flat of her parents.  Everyone seems surprised to see her and her father (Mohammad Al-Qabbani) seems less than thrilled to see her.  He basically ignores her preferring to sit in front of the television watching the news.  Something more than meets the eye is going on here.

One of the things going on is that Laila has a secret she is keeping.  While her believes that Walid will soon be joining her in Amman, the truth is that they are in the process of getting a divorce.  She is taking care of the legal issues to do with that on the sly.  Despite being an educated, independent and free thinking women of 36, Laila is still afraid of what her family will think about her divorce.

Laila dresses like a Westerner, while her mother and sister both wear veils.  This must be a new development because Laila questions her sister about it.  While they have changed, so has her home city of Amman.  Laila does not seem to like the changes at all.  She has a hard time fitting in whether it is making jokes while they are clothes shopping that her sister finds to be inappropriate or being asked by a loan officer at a bank to cover her legs while she is in the room with him, Laila is a fish out of water in her own country.

The role of Laila is played wonderfully by known actress Saba Moubarak.  She really ably shows the complexities of what this woman is feeling.  Her Laila talks tough, but internally is having a hard time adjusting.  We realize pretty much at the same time she does that she will never be able to adjust to the changes in her home country and probably has to leave it again for her own survival.  It is a complex character and Moubarak is more than up to the task.

Though at its roots this is a film about a woman trying to find her place in the world and family, the themes of fundamentalism and globalisation are also important parts of Transit Cities.  In less than two decades Jordan is shown to be a country that has moved towards the right and fundamentalism.  Islamic fundamentalism.  An intellectual like Laila’s father is a victim of that move.  He was formerly a well-respected professor who has now been pushed, unemployable to the fringes of society.  The film questions whether this return to its Islamic roots or the past is really good for the people.  An important question to be asking especially in today’s world.

Film has the power to show us parts and people of the world we do not often get to see.  As beautiful a country as Jordan is, it is not a place that films are made in.  Al Hushki’s film gives a window into modern Jordan the bustling metropolis of Amman.  Despite the low budget and hurried nature of the filming, he has managed to shoot it beautifully.  Scenes of the city are sometimes noisy and crowded, but for the most part are quiet and picturesque in its own way.  There is a certain beauty to his minimalist style.

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