In Anton Chekhov’s The Bet, a young lawyer bets he can survive fifteen years of imprisonment. A banker says he can’t, and bets two million rubles. In fifteen years of solitary confinement, the lawyer reads many books and gets enlightened. He walks out of his room just five minutes before the stipulated time, and hence sacrifices two million rubles.
The story ends there, but what happens to the lawyer afterwards? Jailed, a person’s life enters a stage of dormancy. Hence, when a prisoner is freed, we tend to assume that he or she will be reborn – that the rays of the sun or the shimmering stars will heal their wounds and open up a new world for them. Palestinian director Bassam Jarbawi’s first feature film Screwdriver shows in actuality how prisoners are alienated from others. Time holds no value for the them, and progress holds no meaning.
Jarbawi’s story focuses on the aftermath of the heroic release of a political prisoner. The story of the protagonist Ziad (Ziad Bakri) is portrayed in three timelines. The audience first interacts with the child Ziad, a cheerful and vivacious kid born in West Bank, the Palestinian region bordering Israel and Jordan. He is hit with a screwdriver by his best friend Ramzi (Adham Abu Aqel) but takes immense pride in announcing that he didn’t shed a drop of tear.
That is how Ziad has always been – fearless, brave and courageous. He would happily use these adjectives to describe his personality, but not heroic. That tag gets associated with him as a teenager. Ramzi is shot by an Israeli sniper. Octopus (Munther Bannourah), a friend of Ziad and Ramzi, cannot see beyond one word – revenge.
He shoots a man in the road but gets chased by the army. Octopus flees, but Ziad is not as lucky. ‘Whoever gets caught takes the fall’ was the pledge everyone took, and Ziad is a man of his word. He became a hero, an epitome of resilience for something which he neither committed nor supported.
When he is being released after fifteen years, it calls for a celebration. Octopus and others try their best to help Ziad adjust to his surroundings, but he can’t. For a prisoner, meeting the world after a long sentence is like traveling through time. The automated digital systems at the bank, the smartphones which no longer have buttons, the posh cafeteria that does not serve the good old-fashioned coffee anymore – everything is like a mystery to Ziad.
For the majority of the film, Ziad stays blank, expressionless. He builds a wall around himself, not only for the characters in the film but the audience as well. The only times that wall is broken down is when he interacts with a filmmaker (Yasmine Qaddumi), who is making a documentary on Palestine personalities.
The battle against time is the most gruesome battle of them all. In 2017, Ziad still dreams of teen Ramzi, perhaps the only person he trusts besides his mother, running down the streets which no longer are packed with confined, cramped buildings but high rises.
All the characters – his mother, sister, the filmmaker, Octopus and a potential love interest – revolve around Ziad’s story. Neither of these plots is well constructed, creating an unavoidable void in the story. Something goes missing as the plot often gets derailed and messed up. Perhaps the director wanted just that, because Ziad’s life can be best explained by those two terms.
The story picks up pace in the climax when Ziad finally agrees to meet with the filmmaker. But the image of a running Ramzi takes him to a different direction. The movie has an open ending and forces the audience to form their own theories. Yet it’s not really important because Ziad’s troubled life comes full circle in the last scene. Jarbawi’s chosen ending is on the lines of Jane Hersey’s famous quote “We are all the product of our past and have to live with our memories and personality. They cannot be erased.”
The original locations used in the film, along with the brilliance of cinematographer David McFarland (The Ballad of Lefty Brown), add a very natural touch. Ziad Bakri’s portrayal of a seemingly unhinged, perplexed political prisoner is as bona fide and unadulterated as it could have been. But it also does not help viewers. The audience feels too alienated from the protagonist and loses track of his incomprehensible emotional turmoil. This is as the improperly stitched subplots fail to stabilize everything that is happening around and inside the lead character.
Jarbawi’s film is about friendship, but also about fidelity. It is about association, but also about absolution. It is about a battle at the macrocosm, but also thousands of battles at the microcosm. While all these themes are laid very skillfully, they do not necessarily come together as one. For the majority, the drama beats around the bush, jumping from one to the other. Screwdriver is filled with good direction and acting, and even better cinematography. Though the amalgamation of all the spices doesn’t result in a delicacy. Instead, it leaves the connoisseurs waiting for the chef’s next preparation.