A story about love and life in Amman unfolds on an outdoor screen on an unusually hot summer evening. Behind that very screen, the lights from thousands of windows glimmer. It is there, on those hills, where the story plays out.
But the hills of of Amman where not the only backdrop of the story of Monaliza, the sad office girl with an usual name and Hamdi, the cheerful egyptian “coffee boy”, who also fixes computers. As the curtains of this cinematic experience lifted, the emotional and mental backdrop of a city, a country, welled up in my heart and mind as I sat among the small audience that gathered at the Royal Film Commission’s outdoor cinema yesterday to watch the advance screening of “When Monaliza Smiled“.
Ammani films are a rare and precious thing. I tend to have my hand on my heart every time one comes out. It is just too easy to screw them up, given the way we, Ammanis, Jordanian tend to see ourselves and our society. But what writer/director Fadi Haddad has accomplished with his first feature film is nothing short of a stroke of genius.
“Monaliza” is full of little details and vignettes of Ammani life. In that sense, it resembles the work of Jordan’s most successful cartoonist, Imad Hajjaj. And in the same way Hajjaj makes us laugh while confronting us with our very real and very serious issues, Haddad makes us laugh and cry about ourselves and our city as he tells us a boy-meets-girl story in the context of Amman’s crumbling stairs, chaotic government offices, abandoned buildings, guest worker cafes and through intimate wounded conversations behind closed doors.
Going for a “romantic comedy” is, in itself, a brilliant decision, given the undertones of political, economic and social tensions that have been gripping us for the past couple of years. The last thing we need right now is more grimness. For that we just need to read the news websites and their reader comments.
The tears of laughter and sadness were shed yesterday over a reality that has been pushing many of us in this city to the edge, sometimes beyond. Monaliza is about the peaceful equilibrium of Amman that masks our wounded stories, behind our neutral faces. It is a story of everyday coexistence, constantly fragile, always under threat from a bigoted outburst. It is about the divisions in a country that has settled for a semblance of normalcy, but is stubbornly refusing to take the next step toward gentleness.
Monaliza’s Executive producer Nadine Toukan, Amman’s unrelenting good fairy of storytelling, believes films can change the world. We certainly need a film that can change Amman, that can change Jordan.
Maybe the boy from the Nile valley and the rose from one of Amman’s “Jabals” can tell us something about ourselves and maybe remind us to take off that stern mask and allow ourselves a moment of gentleness.