It's only the start of Abu Laila's long, long day in Laila's Birthday (Eid milad Laila), and already, he's impatient.
"I do not do checkpoints," says taxi driver Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri). His potential, still standing outside the car, looks at him incredulously. "Are you afraid?" asks the man. "Why?" Abu Laila sighs. "I'm afraid for myself.," he answers, "And for the taxi." The man looks exasperated. Abu Laila can't help himself, lobbing one more self-defending insult as the rejected customer begins to walk away. "Satisfied, Mr. Hero?"
It's only the start of Abu Laila's long, long day in Laila's Birthday (Eid milad Laila), and already, he's impatient. At home this morning, he was sweet and paternal, ensuring that his seven-year-old daughter Laila (Nour Zoubi) is slumbering quietly before he begins his own ablutions. When she is awake and preparing for school, he attends to Laila and his wife (Areen Omari) tenderly, promising that he'll be home that evening in time to celebrate the birthday of the film's title. This even though, as his wife guesses, he will be distracted by work, by "interior problems, exterior problems, problems because of the occupation." (That would be the Israeli occupation, as they live in Ramallah, the West Bank hometown of filmmaker Rashid Masharawi.) Oh no, Abu Laila insists, he will be home on time.
These anticipated "problems" emerge almost immediately. Obviously, Abu Laila has self-imposed restrictions on where he'll drive the cab -- which is, he explains to everyone who will listen, actually his brother-in-law's, and he's only driving it until he can be re-employed as a judge. The first thing he does after dropping Laila at school -- where he watches her disappear into a sea of similarly small bodies, all toting pink and lavender backpacks -- is to stop by the Ministry of Justice. Here, standing between two framed photos on the wall, smiling portraits of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, he queries the new chief as to his status, The suit looks flustered and officious, complains he hasn't had time to consider new papers. That is, until he learns that Abu Laila has parked his taxi outside: suddenly, the applicant looks less "serious," and he's dismissed out of hand.
Exasperated, Abu Laila heads back out the door, as prepared as he can be to endure his daily routine of insults small and large. His fares and near-fares run something of a gamut, many marking Abu Laila's self-ordained limits on acceptable behavior. Aside from not taking the man whose destination is a checkpoint, he won't take a couple who want to use the back seat to engage in the sort of romance they cannot practice elsewhere, he won't take a man with a large automatic weapon (" I don't take customers with arms," Abu Laila explains, pointing to the sign in the vehicle ("NO AK47's"), which makes the burly fellow smirk. "You are robbing yourself, man. Half of the country wears arms, the other half cant afford to take a taxi"). And he bears up, discernibly weary, as a woman ponders where to go first, the cemetery ("My husband left with a heart attack") or the hospital ("I have problems... of pressure").
Other fares embody other occupation "problems." A newly released ex-con resents that he can't smoke in the taxi (a "public place"), after he spent his 11 years in prison, as he puts it, "smoking." A couple en route to the Office of Assistance to Families has him drop them off when they see a queue on the sidewalk. It looks like someone is handing out relief supplies, the woman gasps. Though Abu Laila suggests she learn whether it's Fatah or Hamas in charge (as each gives "only to their own people"), she rushes forward to get on line. "Why are you on queue?" her husband asks the person standing before them. "Because there is a queue."
Masharawi's camera observes closely, each fare's face a map of resilience and disappointment. Even when he's not working, Abu Laila contends with absurdities. Taking a few moments to shop for his daughter's present, he can't get a straight answer from a young clerk, who can't stop playing a first-person shooter video game to help him make a purchase. In a café, he overhears an argument over who's performing what abuse on the TV news. "The Israeli army has no fear of God, complains one pontificator. "They are destroying the people and the country." Wait, says another man at another table, pointing at the men's uniforms. "I think those are not Israelis, they are Palestinians." Oh no, says a third, "It's Iraq: that guy is American."
The confusion is the point: the offenses incarnated by armed forces are always the same. Both occupied and occupier feel frustrations. Overhead, helicopters serve as moment to moment reminders of the chaos that shapes existence on the West Bank, as do the occasional punctuating explosions. When Abu Laila at last takes a woman rider near a checkpoint, dropping her off just before, he watches her walk away, the camera approximating his point of view. Surrounded by men with guns and armored vehicles, she looks both vulnerable and resolute, making her way one step at a time, determined to live her life despite all.