Laila’s Birthday tells the story of a day in the life of Abu Laila (directly translated as “father of Laila”, and his misadventures as a cab driver. But this day is not like any other: it’s his daughter’s seventh birthday and the uptight, middle-aged Abu Laila has been asked by his wife to come home from work early, and to bring a cake for his daughter.
At only 71 minutes, this movie is a dark comedy, made all the funnier by Abu Laila’s stoic and silent attitude. The entire film comes together in literally the last two minutes, bringing all the aspects of the day into the one perfect moment that is Laila’s birthday.
The first thing we learn is that Abu Laila’s family is the jewel of his crown. He adores his daughter, and she too dotes on him. It is in moments with her that the audience becomes aware that he even has the ability to smile wide goofy smiles.
As the day goes on we learn that Abu Laila is a stickler for rules, which is highly unusual in a city that seems to be on the brink of falling apart. Even driving away after a car bomb explodes, he insists that drivers buckle up and refrain from smoking, as this is the law. This is the second time we see him smile his wide, goofy smile: when he his explaining his love for justice to an elderly passenger riding in his car.
And why shouldn’t be invest so much time into following the rules? We learn that Abu Laila used to be a judge in a friendly country, and was asked by the Palestinian Authority to return to his homeland to resume judicial work. However, as soon as he arrived, the bureaucrats in the PA changed, and there were no longer enough funds to keep him. He was forced to begin driving his brother in-law’s taxi. He returns to the Ministry of Justice every day, to demand, with dignity and grace, that he be given the job he was promised. And every day, he is told by ever-changing faces, to “come back tomorrow.”
The scene at the Ministry of Justice is particularly memorable, for its absurd hilarity. (“Can you move your taxi, sir? We have a truck driver delivering new curtains for the office.” “Oh, him again? Tell him it’s Abu Laila. He knows me; we met last month when he came to replace the curtains for the last guy who had your job.” )
All of this stress takes place under the watchful eye of the Israelis, who float above in the airspace and wait in the distance, at the checkpoints.
For me, it is of particular importance that Abu Laila chose to return to his homeland. It signifies that he was not forced to stay, and has someplace else to go. But it is love for his home that keeps him where he is. There are no actors playing Israeli characters in the film; the Israeli is meant to be something that is heard but not seen, to symbolize how the Palestinians live in a bubble.
He meets a recently released inmate from an Israeli prison and he also drives home someone who has lost her husband in a bombing. But this contrasts nicely with the other face of Palestine, the “normal” one: young lovers, normal shoppers and a wedding procession. What the rest of the world sees as a disaster scenario has become normalized and internalized by those who live in it.
On a harrowing quest to return a lost cell phone and get home to his daughter in time, Abu Laila’s story, like the story of Fadi and Muna in Amreeka, is both moving and hilarious.