There is a scene midway through the new film “Jacir,” from director Waheed AlQawasmi, that shows the film’s titular protagonist, Jacir, biking at night under fizzy-orange street lamps to the duplex he shares with a cantankerous neighbor and her cat.
“He’s so poor he doesn’t have a car; he doesn’t have any ways or means to achieve his dream,” says AlQawasmi.
Jacir has headphones on and is listening to a CD of a blues-inflected rap song, and for a brief moment, he seems happy — free from the relentless bigotry, hatred and stress he has encountered since arriving to the U.S. a month before.
AlQawasmi, who moved from Amman, Jordan, to Memphis at the age of 13, says the scene could have pulled straight from his childhood.
“When he is on that bicycle, I cried when I saw that,” he said. “I recreated that one part.”
A homecoming for the Tennessee-based director
“Jacir” is the first full-length feature film by AlQawasmi. The Arabic/English-language film made its world debut on Friday at the 53rd Nashville Film Festival to a packed crowd at the Tennessee Performing Art Center’s Johnson Theater.
“Jacir” tells the fictional story of a Syrian refugee who resettles in Memphis after most of his family is killed in his home country’s brutal civil war. He works at a local Middle Eastern joint owned by a gruff restaurateur — played by Lebanese actor Tony Mehanna — who wants Jacir to toughen up and keep to himself. Jacir quickly befriends the owner’s daughter and a line cook named Jerome.
But the majority of the film follows an unusual friendship that Jacir forms with his conservative, cable-news-consuming neighbor Meryl, a former jazz singer turned opioid addict played by Academy Award-nominated Lorraine Bracco (“Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos”).
Meryl treats Jacir with suspicion and bigotry in their first few encounters before Jacir intervenes in a burglary of her home, one of many times he steps in to protect the ungrateful Meryl.
Bracco plays Meryl with characteristic brassiness, humor and compassion. It would be easy to reduce Meryl to a Hollywood caricature of a washed-up bigot, but director AlQawasmi understands that she is also suffering — from loneliness, fear and an addiction to painkillers and alcohol.
“For me, I just wrote an authentic character … that is racist and the words she’s using are very hurtful,” he said.
But he never feels the need to redeem Meryl or her many flaws in order for her to be seen as a whole human — or treated better by Jacir than she treats him.
“We can’t just kick them out of society … you have to have dialogue,” he said. “And that’s my hope with this film is to have a dialogue with differing opinions, different politics, different backgrounds.”
The city of Memphis plays a starring role
Jacir is played by actor Malek Rahbani, a newcomer from Lebanon. He said he was thrilled when he got offered the part and was told they would be filming in Memphis.
“I said, ‘Graceland?’ And [Director Waheed AlQawasami] said, ‘Yeah, you wanna go?’ and I said, ‘Of course!’ ” he recounted.
After filming wrapped, Rahbani got a private tour of Elvis’s famous estate.
The settings and backdrops will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Memphis, including a cameo by veteran R&B artist Toni Green, who plays Meryl’s friend Darcy.
The Beale Street-feeling is further bolstered by a blues and rap soundtrack composed by Memphis rapper Al Kapone, who also attended the premiere.
In the film, Jacir is a fan of hip hop and bonds with his coworker and aspiring rapper, Jerome, played by Memphis native Darius “Tutweezy” Tutwiler.
A shared appreciation for music becomes the force that ties the film’s various characters together. The soundtrack features original songs by Al Kapone and produced by Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell.
The film is at turns gritty, uncomfortable, heartfelt and laugh-out-loud funny.
“Jacir” will next screen at film festivals in Bend, Ore., and L.A. as the title is marketed for wider distribution. AlQawasmi says he hopes anyone who’s lived the immigrant or refugee experience in the U.S. will see themselves in this film.
“It’s very, very cathartic,” said AlQawasmi at the premiere. “It’s very redeeming to be able to have an idea from when you’re 14-15-16, going to public school and going to film classes there, and go, ‘Oh, I want to be a film director.’ And years later, you’re doing it.”