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The Last Friday Film Review: DC Premiere at DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival

Photo still from the film Photo still from the film "The Last Friday" featuring Youssef (Ali Suleiman) and his son Imad (Fadi Arida).

Youssef leans over his salmon-colored cement balcony overlooking Amman’s poorer neighborhoods. The houses in the distance are stacked one over the other like a bland-colored Lego city covered in smog. He sips his coffee alone, listening to the sound of the call to prayer. The scene is so grand and the solitary man is so central that the call to prayer fades into the background, ricocheting off the buildings in the distance. It seems little more than an echo in his ears. Some movement below captures Youssef’s eye and his attention shifts from the city before him to his son Imad as he attempts unsuccessfully to talk to the girl next door. In the next scene Youssef tries to engage Imad in a conversation about his girlfriend; but a withholding Imad does not respond to his father’s friendly inquiries.

This awkward father-son relationship is at the heart of Yahya Alabdallah’s film The Last Friday (2011). Youssef (Ali Suleiman) is a struggling taxi driver who tries to raise his son Imad (Fadi Arida) in Amman after returning from the Gulf where a business relationship went sour. He maintains tenuous contact with his ex-wife Dalal (Yasmine Al Masri), who left him after he gambled away the family savings. A proud man, Youssef insists on being the sole provider for his troubled son, even as he struggles financially. In addition, those closest to Youssef take advantage of him. His son robs him, his boss cheats him, and his friends will not pay back their debts to him. Yet Youssef, an utterly pathetic character, never defends himself in the face of blatant dishonesty.

His sole purpose for improving his life lies in raising Imad. This is a result of tremendous feelings of guilt for neglecting him in the past: Youssef and Dalal have fared so badly as parents that Imad does not even know how to read. In a desperate act of redemption, Youssef makes a series of unwise decisions and martyrs himself to try to become a better father. However his efforts are in vain. The tragedy is that in spite of his father’s persistent sacrifices, the troubled Imad remains unforgiving; the broken relationship cannot as easily be fixed and Imad’s future is uncertain. Yet in spite of the heaviness of this father-son story, the film maintains an absurdist, comedic tone.

Youssef’s attempt to watch an erotic video in one scene is curtailed by the call to prayer that wafts through his window. In another scene Youssef tries to light a cigarette in a medical exam room as the doctor reads his x-rays. When his lighter does not work the doctor reaches into his white coat and offers his personal lighter. However this humor never extends into the scenes between father and son. By building an unapologetically dismal relationship into an otherwise comical film, Alabdallah highlights the seriousness of Youssef’s failure as a father.

Like other writers in the absurdist genre (including the likes of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus), Alabdallah explores the discord between the expectations that individuals have for their lives and the actual meaninglessness of life. Absurdist fiction typically unfolds slowly, constrained by a breakdown in communication among the characters that is awkwardly reconciled with silence. In Arab cinema Elia Suleiman is the most prominent absurdist filmmaker. Employing pervasive silences, communication breakdowns, and vignettes that lack plot lines, Suleiman’s work explores the peculiarities of Palestine-Israel. Similarly, Yahya Alabdallah utilizes absurdism in The Last Friday to highlight the futility of striving for an honest buck under corrupt authoritarian systems. Silence is the critical tool he uses to achieve this objective.

Alabdallah couples persistent, strategic silence and a slow progression of events with an inundating presence of background noise. A news broadcast, Quranic recitation, or a call to prayer inject the film with such lofty subjects as religion, gender, and politics. While Alabdallah relegates these sound bites to background noise, the audience can hear them clearly. Therefore they are substantial enough to matter, even as the characters never engage with or actively listen to them.

One news byte features the speech given by deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a day before his resignation. This indicates that the film is set during the Arab uprisings of early 2011, which partly broke out due to mass frustration with governments that left their people disenfranchised. By intentionally placing this news byte into the film, Alabdallah challenges his audience to connect the uprisings with the story that is unfolding on the screen. As the uprisings were a partial reaction to economic hardships, so the film addresses the strain that poverty has on societies and on individuals.

Youssef lives in a ruthless world. His passive resignation renders him an easy target for exploitation and leaves him in a perpetual financial crunch. Thus he watches helplessly as his fledgling relationship with his son run its course to destruction. Such social breakdowns as a result of financial degradation and corruption were a significant factor in the events that transpired across the Arab world in 2011. All of Alabdallah’s characters are motivated by money in some way. However, with limited opportunities for economic prosperity, those around Youssef can only achieve personal growth at the expense of others.

This constant struggle for survival breaks people and leads them to dishonest means of achieving their ends; it can damage the quotidian lives of people who are otherwise disconnected from grand socio-political processes. No one can escape the consequences of corruption. The social, political, and economic instability of the life of a nation-state trickles down to affect individual lives, and there lies the theme of aimlessness at the heart of absurdism. Youssef, in particular, toils in order to grant his life meaning. In the end he barely progresses, if he progresses at all. Regardless of how hard Youssef tries to move, he remains in the same place. External factors overpower his efforts and impede them. The film opens and closes in the same location – with Youssef alone in an empty, desolate graveyard. Alabdallah leaves the audience with the sense that life in a contemporary Arab city is in itself an absurd comedy.

The Last Friday (2011) is premiering in Washington, DC as the opening film of the 2nd Annual DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival (DC-PFAF) on Monday September 24, 7pm at E Street Cinema. DC-PFAF showcases the work of Palestinian filmmakers and more generally, promotes the richness of Palestinian Arab culture through cinema, music, and other forms of visual arts. For more information about the festival and to see the complete program please visit www.dcpfaf.org.

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Monday, September 24Th - Opening Night

The Last Friday (2011, DC Premier!)

Where: Landmark E Street Cinema
555 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
When: 7:00 pm

 

Man Without A Cellphone (2010)

Where: Johnson Center Cinema, George Mason University
4400 University Drive, Fairfax VA 22030
When: 6:00 pm

 

Tuesday, September 25Th

Man Without A Cellphone (2010)

Where: Goethe Institute
812 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
When: 6:30 pm
* Join us after the film for a panel discussion with the director.

 

Wednesday, September 26Th

Short Documentaries

Nukayba (2010), Gaza: Tunnels To Nowhere (2012), And Unrwa Shorts

Where: Goethe Institute
812 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
When: 7:00 pm

* Join us after the film for a panel discussion with the director.

 

Thursday, September 27Th

Uncle Nashaat (2011)

Where: Landmark E Street Cinema
555 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
When: 7:00 pm

 

Friday, September 28Th

Palestinian Innovators

Featuring "Love Under Apartheid" founder Tanya Keilani, actor/photographer/filmmaker Mousa Kraish (TBC) and a performance by Huda Asfour and band

Where: Busboys and Poets
2021 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
When: 7:30 pm

 

Saturday, September 29Th

Fouseytube Featuring Yousef Erakat

Where: Goethe Institute
812 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
When: 6:30pm

 

Syrian Population Regression

Population: ~ 22.5 Million

2011:  5,800+ (killed)

2012:  60,000+ (killed) and 500,000+ (external refugees)

2013:  100,000+ (killed), 2,000,000+ (external refugees), and 8 million+ displaced

 

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Syria Map and Stats

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Population: 22,517,750
GDP: $107.4 billion 
Unemployment: 8.3%; Youth Employment (ages 15-24): 19.1%
Internet Users: 4.469 million 
Exchange Rate: ~ 98.00 Syrian pounds per US dollar
GDP Growth Rate: 3.2% 
Military Expenditures: 5.9% of GDP (World Rank: 10)
Health Expenditures: 2.9% of GDP (World Rank: 180)
Population Growth Rate: 0.913% 
Age Structure: 0-14 years: 35.2%; 15-64 years: 61%; 65 years and over: 3.8%
Literacy: 79.6%
Religious Demographics: Sunni Muslim 74%; other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%; Christian (various denominations) 10%
Ethnic Demographics: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%