AMMAN: At 38, Jordanian filmmaker Amjad Al-Rasheed has already made history. This month, his debut feature, “Inshallah A Boy,” became the first Jordanian film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival — the most prestigious event in world cinema.
As well as feeling “very proud and excited,” Al-Rasheed has also felt the stress of “a huge responsibility” to be representing his country and the wider Arab world at Cannes he told Arab News two days after the film’s screening at the French festival.
“Inshallah A Boy” — a co-production between Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — might be Al-Rasheed’s first feature as director, but it’s been a long time in the making, going back to his childhood.
“When I was 12, I was watching a black-and-white movie (starring) Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama. My mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a director. She was smiling — I didn’t understand what a director was, but I knew it was someone who was a storyteller,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell stories since I was a kid.”
The story Al-Rasheed is telling in “Inshallah A Boy” (which he co-wrote with Rula Nasser and Delphine Agut and filmed using an all-Jordanian crew, apart from the Japanese director of photography) is a striking, though not particularly happy, one. At its heart is the recently widowed Nawal (Mouna Hawa), a nurse living in a low-income East Amman neighborhood whose husband Adnan died suddenly in his sleep. The only property that he leaves behind is a pickup, which Adnan’s brother Rifqi (Haitam Omari) insists on selling so that he can reclaim some of the money that Adnan owed him.
Over the course of the film, Rifqi becomes more and more impatient, even taking Nawal to court to resolve his financial claims. Feeling cornered, and with no real support from her own brother, Nawal stalls Rifqi by claiming to be pregnant. If she were to bear a son, then Rifqi would have no claim on Adnan’s estate, including the apartment in which Nawal lives with her daughter, Nora. She is assisted by Lauren (Yumna Marwan), the daughter of Nawal’s bossy Christian employer Souad (Salwa Nakkara). Lauren is constantly complaining about her unfaithful husband, and decides she wants to terminate her pregnancy. Nawal agrees to accompany Lauren to a clinic in East Amman where they will perform abortions, and in return receives documents from Lauren that state Nawal is pregnant — thus keeping Rifqi at bay for at least nine months.
Aside from dealing with thorny social issues such as abortion, the poverty gap between East Amman and affluent West Amman, inequality in inheritance rights, and the ‘expected’ behavior of single women, the film also tackles dysfunctional family dynamics: Nawal discovers that Adnan had resigned from his job without telling her four months before his death, after a fight with his employer. She also begins to suspect that Adnan was unfaithful to her, possibly with a Muslim woman working at his former office — a woman who shows obvious discomfort when Nawal goes in to talk to Adnan’s ex-boss.
“She is fighting for her dignity, for what she owns, and for her rights,” Al-Rasheed said of Nawal. He stressed that he wanted the film to be an “authentic and accurate” portrayal of certain aspects of Jordanian society, but that it is not a commentary on all of that society.
“I’m not generalizing, I’m talking about this specific incident,” he said. “Throughout my research, I tried to capture some real dialogue and real events that happened to people and that reflect a lot about our society. It’s definitely a male-dominated society.
“I didn’t want to say that only Muslim women or Christian women are suffering, but all women. Many times I heard that women are the ‘weakest link’ in our society,” he continued. “If half of our society is crippled because of oppression and inequality, then how can this society develop?”
Despite its socially sensitive topics, Al-Rasheed is hopeful that the film will be shown in movie theaters in his homeland and on local television. That, after all, is one of the places where the topics he raises in the film most need to be discussed.
“We need to understand each other in order to evolve as a society,” he said. “I don’t believe that cinema — or art in general — has a responsibility to change the world around us, so I’m not trying to change anything with my movie. I’m trying to open conversations.”