Bakri, Mohamed (1953–)

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Bakri, Mohamed

Mohamed (Muhammad, Mohammad) Bakri, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, is one of the most prominent actors and directors in both Palestinian and Israeli cinema and theater. He has been associated with the Palestinian-Israeli civil rights movement and has been the target of an Israeli campaign to discredit and marginalize him.


Bakri was born in the Galilee village of al-Bi'na, Israel, in 1953, one of twelve siblings. His father was an early supporter of the Israeli Communist Party, one of the few major Israeli political organizations to serve Palestinian Arab as well as Jewish citizens of Israel. After studying theater at university, he began professional work in the late 1970s, then began acting in cinema. He attracted attention in two prominent roles in the 1980s, in Constantine Costa-Gavras's Hanna K. (1983) and in the Jewish Israeli director Uri Barbash's Beyond the Walls (1984). More recently he appeared in the Italian production, Private (2004, directed by Saverio Costanzo), for which he won the Best Actor award at the 2004 Locarno International Film Festival. Bakri has disavowed his performance in the Hollywood film The Body (2001), as the editing made his character "flat and fanatical, as in all propaganda films" (Assadi, 2004, p. 43).


In his youth, Bakri was close to the Palestinian-Israeli author and member of the Knesset emile habibi, eventually taking as his signature role the protagonist Saeed in the 1986 theatrical adaptation of Habibi's groundbreaking 1974 novel Saeed the Pessoptimist. Despite this intimate association with a prominent political and cultural figure, Bakri has rarely made partisan political stands, even as his insistence on his Palestinian identity has been viewed by Jewish Israeli society as highly political.

Bakri was an early participant in the independent Palestinian cinema movement that arose in the late 1980s. He has starred in many productions by Palestinian directors, including Michel Khleifi's Hikayat al-Jawahiri al-Thalath (The tale of three jewels, 1994), Rashid Masharawi's Haifa (1996), Ali Nassar's Darb al-Tabanat (The Milky Way, 1997), and Hanna Elias's Mawsam al-Zaytun (The olive harvest, 2001). Bakri cites Haifa for one of his best roles, a deranged Palestinian refugee in Gaza, a former driver who wanders through his camp calling out "Yaffa, Haifa, Akka!"—the route he had driven before the 1948 War—even as the news of the Oslo Accords (which made no provision for the refugees) is beginning to spread among the residents.

After the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, controversies over Bakri changed Israeli perceptions of him, while bringing him greater international attention. After gaining success as an actor, Bakri had turned to directing documentary films. His first work, 1948 (1998), focused on the Palestinian experience of the nakba (Arabic: "disaster," referring to the events of 1948–1949) through first-person recollections of the war. After the major Israeli incursions into the Palestinian territories in 2002, he took his camera to the West Bank to record the testimonies of those who witnessed the destruction and killings by Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp. (During production of this film, its producer Iyad Samoudi was shot dead by Israeli forces while trying to escape his West Bank village during a military incursion.)

Jenin Jenin (2002) raised a storm of controversy for its inclusion of refugee camp interviews describing an Israeli massacre. It was banned in Israel, and Bakri was the target of vitriolic attacks in the Israeli media and in the Knesset. Although he eventually succeeded in overturning the ban through a long court fight, his delicate position in Israeli society was further threatened by the conviction of two of his nephews for assisting a suicide bombing. "Virtually blacklisted" by many of the Jewish Israeli cultural figures who had previously worked with him, Bakri struggled to remain active (Assadi, 2004, p. 41). In 2005, he released Min Yawm Ma Ruht (Since the day you left), a reflection upon these and other personal experiences framed as a letter to Habibi. Addressing his mentor in the grave, Bakri attempts to make sense of the direction of his life after Jenin Jenin.


Bakri has enjoyed international recognition rare for an Arab artist. Beyond the recognition for his work in Israeli and Palestinian productions, he has been sought out for roles in European and American films.


Bakri's legacy lies primarily in his large body of work as an actor and director in the theater and cinema. The controversies over Jenin Jenin and his commitment to the civil rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel will no doubt continue to color the way he is regarded by both supporters and detractors.


Name: Mohamed Bakri (Muhammad, Mohammad)

Birth: 1953, al-Bi'na, Israel

Family: Married; five children

Nationality: Israeli (Palestinian citizen)

Education: B.A., Tel Aviv University, 1976


  • 1973–1976: Studies theater and Arabic literature, Tel Aviv University
  • 1977–1981: Acts in Israeli theater productions
  • 1981: Begins career as film actor
  • 1998: Directs first film, 1948
  • 2002: Jenin Jenin banned in Israel
  • 2004: Wins Best Actor award, Locarno Film Festival, for role in Private


Assadi, Ginger. "Upholding the Palestinian Image in Israeli Cinema: An Interview with Mohammad Bakri." Cineaste 29, no. 4 (2004): 41-43.

Bishara, Amahl. "Uncomfortable Subjects." American Anthropologist 106, no. 1 (March 2004): 155.

Haim Bresheeth. "Telling the Stories of Heim and Heimat, Home and Exile: Recent Palestinian Films and the Iconic Parable of the Invisible Palestine." New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 1, no. 1 (April 2002): 24-39.

Mohammad Bakri's official Web site. Available from

                                                  Kamran Rastegar